Environmental non-government organizations in the Philippines are calling on local authorities in the country’s coastal areas as well as national officials to give priority to ecological protection as a way to protect marine resources and people’s livelihoods.
Among the NGOs is the international advocacy group Oceana, which is calling attention to the weakening resilience of marine habitats and communities because of dump-and-fill projects and climate change. Oceana has put together a Citizen Scorecard and urged fishing and coastal communities to use it as a guidance tool to monitor projects and activities of private companies and entities.
The scorecard is also a tool to ensure that local government units strictly adhere to the Philippine Environmental Impact Assessment Statement System (PEISS) – one of the laws that say that proposed projects such as dump-and-fill have to be thoroughly assessed in their environmental, climate, cultural, social and health impacts. Violators of the various laws face administrative, civil, or criminal liability.
Oceana Vice President Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos, in an online dialogue with members of various fishing communities, said that local governments have a shared responsibility with national agencies in the maintenance of ecological balance.
“They should take the overall responsibility in their jurisdiction and propose that projects do not harm coastal and marine resources and the livelihoods of their constituents including those who live along the coasts,” she pointed out.
Ramos said that categorizing ecologically disastrous projects such as dump-and-fill as land reclamation is inconsistent with that mandate.
“These projects should never be allowed to continue. They violate the right of the people to a healthful and balanced ecology. Our local authorities should prioritize ecological protection. Projects should be in accord with the local development plans, coastal resource management plan, land use plan, climate change action plan, among others, which local governments are tasked to perform,” she said.
The environmental advocate said that residents in communities should use the scorecard to assess if projects in their areas comply with existing environmental, fisheries, and other related laws in processing applications and approval of reclamation projects.
“Citizens have the most to lose if destructive dump-and-fill projects and other unwarranted development of coastlines are implemented. The proponents of these projects, including local governments, must not be allowed to circumvent relevant rules and regulations,” she said.
Environmental and science groups continue to expose anti-environment projects that rendered communities more vulnerable to the continuing loss and damage to Philippine coasts and oceans. In the face of the declining state of fisheries, biodiversity degradation, and climate vulnerability, the groups said that higher vigilance is needed.
For instance, dump-and-fill activities all over the country are causing massive and irreversible impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems. Ramos said that these resources should be protected.
“We derive food, livelihood, nutritional security, and climate resiliency from our coastal areas, from the ocean,” she said. “We urge Filipinos to use the scorecard as an empowering tool for participatory and accountable governance. We must work to prevent further environmental impacts of these projects.”
Ecologically disastrous coastal development projects
A group of scientists has also sounded the alarm over destructive coastal development projects such as reclamation projects and dredging activities of the Philippine government. It also slammed various corporations that threatened mangrove forests and mudflats along the coasts of Manila Bay.
The secretary-general of AGHAM, Feny Cosico, said that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) started its Manila Bay rehabilitation program three years ago.
“Yet no appropriate action has been done against massive and destructive reclamation projects in Bulacan, Metro Manila, and Cavite. Worse, DENR greenlighted these reclamation projects by issuing environmental compliance certificates (ECCs) despite broad opposition from networks of fisherfolk, coastal residents, scientists, and environmentalists,” she said.
Cosico said that some of these reclamation projects, especially the New Manila International Airport, also known as Bulacan Aerotropolis, by San Miguel Corporation, have started groundwork in their proposed site.
Cosico added that reclamation projects like the Bulacan Aerotropolis promise to bring economic development, but at the expense of Filipinos.
“Hundreds, probably thousands, of mangrove trees have been cut down since 2018. Fisherfolk not only in the affected community in Taliptip but also from nearby communities in Malolos, Obando, Paombong, and Hagonoy experienced a decrease in fish catch after the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), through the Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU), barred fisherfolk from entering and fishing in their traditional fishing grounds,” she pointed out.
Fisherfolk in Malolos also reported that the color of the sea has changed in their areas. This, they claimed, has already caused the death of a huge amount fish back in July 2021, and it lasted for six days.
“They did not catch any fish for the next three weeks when the seawaters first changed color. The fish vendors and processors also reported a loss of livelihood and income due to lowered fish catch,” Cosico said.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has recently made the declaration that wetlands are an important natural asset but it also continues to issue ECCs to big reclamation projects in wetlands in Bulacan and Cavite, north and south of Manila.
Cosico said that the DENR should make good its mandate to protect the environment and scrap all these ECCs. She said the agency should investigate and comprehensively assess all reclamation projects along Manila Bay.
“The wetlands provide habitats and nursery grounds for fish and other aquatic species that we eat. They’re also very important in stopping the worsening impacts of the climate crisis through carbon sequestration, and they protect coastal communities against storm surges. If we want to save ourselves and ensure food security, we should prioritize the conservation of wetlands,” Cosico said.
Breaking the law, wasting resources
One of the biggest alliances of fisherfolk in the Philippines also called out local government units for their failure to implement the law.
Fernando Hicap, national chairperson of the Pamalakaya group (National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations), said: “We have the fifth-longest coastline in the world and some 60 percent of our cities and municipalities are established within or near coastal areas. Millions of families rely on the sea for their survival and livelihood.
“These are more than enough reasons for the government to address the worsening conditions of our seas. The diminishing fish supply is worsening the poverty of fisherfolk. Even if they spend more hours at sea and cast their nets further from the shore, they’re not catching enough fish.”
According to reports, the Philippines ranks second in the world among countries with the highest population percentage highly dependent on a healthy marine ecosystem, next to Indonesia.
“This makes it even more surprising and frustrating that local authorities do not hesitate to condone dump-and-fill projects of the private sector,” Hicap said.
Pamalakaya continues to oppose DENR’s “beach nourishment” project through dump-filling of dolomite “white sand” along Manila’s Roxas Boulevard area. The group is apprehensive that the dump-filling is a prelude to a full-scale reclamation project.
“We’re already worried about the issue of environmental disruption raised by experts. This project might also be in preparation for full-scale commercialization and privatization of Manila Bay to complement several reclamation projects. It will lead to massive displacement of coastal communities and widespread environmental destruction,” Hicap said.
Hicap added that the project was more of a beautification measure than an effort to rehabilitate and restore Manila Bay. He also cited statements of scientist group AGHAM stating that creating the dolomite beach poses a handful of geological hazards: rapid subsidence, storm surges, and seismically induced liquefaction. The materials themselves being non-endemic to Manila Bay are disrupting its ecosystem.
Related to this issue, University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea Director Atty. Jay Batongbacal raised the public health hazard of dolomite. He said that based on reports from companies in the United States, inhaling dust from dolomite can lead to respiratory issues. Also, dolomite itself is a potential carcinogen.
A safety report in 2012 by a US cement company Lehigh Hanson warned that inhaling dolomite dust may cause discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath, and coughing. Prolonged inhalation, meanwhile, may cause chronic health effects. The report also noted that dolomite contains crystalline silica and prolonged or repeated inhalation of such can cause silicosis and may cause cancer too.
An official of the Philippines Department of Health also admitted that dolomite is hazardous to health. Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that, based on medical studies, when dolomite enters the eye, it can irritate, while if ingested causes discomfort in the gastrointestinal system, pain, and diarrhea.
The Duterte government allotted P389 million (US$7 million) to fund the 500-meter artificial beach or P778,000 per meter. The amount, Pamalakaya said, could have been used to restore 13,000 hectares of mangrove forest, based on a study by Primever and Estaban in 2008. Some US$607 or around P28,880 is needed to recover per hectare of mangroves.