Philippine: Fisheries under threat from airport development 

Food security risk from Manila Bay project.

The livelihood of the urban poor and fishing communities in Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog provinces of the Philippines are threatened by a massive airport development project at Manila Bay being built by one of the biggest corporations in the country. Manila Bay is one of the Philippines’ most important fishing grounds and contributes up to 3.24 percent to the total local fisheries output of small pelagic fishes.

The most common types of fish that thrive in the bay include tamban (sardine), alumahan (mackerel), sapsap (slipmouth) and dilis (anchovies). With the exception of Metro Manila, provinces surrounding Manila Bay (Bataan, Pampanga, Bulacan and Cavite) recorded a total fisheries output reaching 30,804.55 metric tons and 6,736.42 metric tons in the marine municipal and commercial fisheries sectors, respectively all in 2020.

Given this, it is clear Manila Bay contributes significantly to the country’s food security, but the government and private sector players do not see the importance, or choose to ignore it. Manila Bay faces many threats such as pollution caused by urbanization and mangrove decline because of mangrove conversion into fishponds. Exacerbating all this is so-called coastal development in the form of reclamation projects.

Currently, there are 23 proposed reclamation projects along the coast of Manila Bay. Some of these have already been granted the necessary permits, such as Environmental Compliance Certificates (ECCs) from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) from the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA).

It is estimated that around 25,000 hectares will be reclaimed from the coasts of Bataan (in Central Luzon, north of Manila) all the way to Cavite (south of Manila). Project proponents all promised economic development, but marine and plant scientists pointed out that these reclamation projects threaten marine biodiversity, migratory bird populations and coastal communities. 

A house among mangroves at Taliptip in Bulakan.

Controversy surrounding San Miguel Aerotropolis 

One of the most controversial projects in northern Manila Bay is the New Manila International Airport (NMIA), commonly known as Bulacan Aerotropolis, by San Miguel Corporation (SMC). This airport project seeks to decongest the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), and is also envisioned to provide jobs for Filipinos.

While the project promises to significantly improve the country’s air transportation system, the threats it poses against the environment and the livelihood of poor Filipinos in the province are even more serious.

For the last four years, residents of Bulacan and its various rural and urban poor communities led by the Akap Ka Manila Bay are doing all within their collective power to oppose the P735.6 billion (US$14.1 billion) airport which is on the fast track of construction work even during the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to briefing papers on the project, the SMC airport will have six parallel runways and can accommodate three times more passengers than the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.  The project is under a build-operate-transfer scheme, with SMC to operate the airport under a 50-year concession. An 8.4-kilometer toll road expressway that will link the airport to the North Luzon Expressway in Marilao, Bulacan is also included.   

This new airport is part of the much larger development project that will be built across the entire northern coastline of Manila Bay, from Navotas to Bataan.  Known as the Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense and Expressway Project, it is one of the projects under the Build, Build, Build Program of the Duterte regime.

Protests against the planned airport have already begun to grow as various grassroots organizations and environmental groups have weighed in on the destruction to the environment. The fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kluang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA-Pilipinas) have lodged complaints against the project, and called on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources “to stand against one of the biggest environmental disasters to hit Manila Bay.”

Old residents of fishing villages protested against airport development.

Pamalakaya argued that the airport threatens not only the livelihood of some 700 fishing families in the towns of Bulakan and Obando in Bulacan province, but also to the food security of the country. This is because the project will have a severe impact on the marine biodiversity of Manila Bay should it be realized.

In April 2019, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) approved the project which will be built over an area of 2,500-hectares – directly over the Manila Bay, destroying mangroves, and cutting through hundreds of coastal and fishing communities. 

It is not only the livelihood of 700 fishing families in seven coastal sitios (villages) of Brgy. Taliptip in Bulakan that is threatened, but their very houses, as well as their communities, stand to be demolished too.

The negative impact on the environment is significant.  Bulakan is known as one of the key biodiversity areas in the country and is home to 22 types of mangroves including Piapi, a firm type of mangrove that serves as a natural wave barrier and shelter for fish. 

Already last August, some 657 mangrove trees in Brgy. Taliptip, where the proposed airport will most likely be built, were cut down. Organizers of the Akap Ka Manila Bay said that the operations were not backed by proper environmental clearances.

Based on the Coastal Resource Management Project conducted by scientist group AGHAM -Advocates of Science and Technology, 670 kilos of fish catch will be lost for every hectare of damaged mangrove. Some 24 hectares of fishing reservation areas will also be reclaimed, leading to the loss of a number of traditional fish species, and the decimation of the already dwindling catch of local fisherfolk.

As the airport will also be built on fishing grounds and timberlands, the country’s fish output will also be affected.  The province of Bulacan accounts for at least 41 million metric tons of fishery and marine products every year, primarily bangus (milkfish) and prawn.

Fishing community at Taliptip in Bulakan.
A villager mends fishing net.

Residents are always the last to know

As is usual in the case of hundreds, even thousands of so-called “development projects”, whether built by the government or the private sector, the last ones to find out about SMC’s airport were the residents who are directly impacted by the construction.  

“None of us were consulted on this project,” said Shirley Bacon, 35, a resident leader of the former Sitio Kinse in Brgy. Taliptip. The sitio community has now disappeared when residents were told to leave. It was one of the many rural poor communities hidden within the mangroves of Bulakan.

“In the beginning, we just heard rumors and stories, then finally reports that an airport was going to be built and that it would go through areas where we lived. Local government officials who supported the project said that we would be relocated – some of us were, but many more just left because they were fisherfolk and it became impossible to fish when the project made the sea off-limits,” she said.

Other residents shared that bits and pieces of reports about the planned airport have been circulating in their communities since 2008. Everything became clearer when representatives of a company, Silvertines Incorporated, began to buy fishponds in the area in 2018. By October that year, the area covered by all the bought-off fishponds had surpassed 3,000 hectares.

“We make a living from selling the fish we catch and from making or mending fishing nets. We don’t earn much, but our lives however humble are good here. We built our families here, and we don’t want to leave. We also want development, but not when it comes at the expense of our families and our very survival,” Bacon said.

Even the promise of one million jobs for the residents of Bulacan was not enough to allay worries and protests against the project. It was not a cut-and-dried issue for them.

Life at Taliptip.

Shirley’s parents, Antonio 79, and his wife Teresita, 62, have lived most of their lives in Taliptip, Tatay. Antonio is able to finish only the first grade, while Nanay Tere the fifth. They live in a sturdy, albeit with a patchwork feel to it, bahay kubo (cottage) made of hardwood they gathered after storms and typhoons, and bamboo poles they bought from the public market. 

Both of them make a living selling alimango and alimasag (crabs) that get trapped in the nets they set up near and around the many fish pens at Manila Bay on the side of Bulakan.

The crabs sell for P180 to P200 per kilo. The elderly couple earn, on a good month, P3,000 to P4,000, but they have to give 50 percent of their earnings to the owner of the fish pens.

“It’s a simple life, sometimes things get tough, but nothing we haven’t been able to survive,” said Nanay Tere. Her face is browned by the sun, and when she showed her hands, they were rough with calluses.  

“This comes from repairing the nets – when the crabs get entangled in the nets, the nets end up getting damaged. We repair them as much as we can, but they have to be replaced after two months,” she said.

For added income, Nanay Tere repairs nets for P20 per net. “I can repair at least three nets a day,” she said proudly. This translates to an added P60 a day.

The over 300 families who are still living among the mangroves of Taliptip use motorized boats to get to the mainland. Most do not own boats and have to pay P50 per person per ride one way.  This is why their children who attend grade and high school stay with relatives or family friends on the mainland and come home only once a week.

If they make the daily boat commute, their parents will not be able to pay for the fare. Therefore, it is the dream of most residents to get their own boats; that and to ensure their children get an education.

The residential areas of Brgy. Taliptip – Sitio Kinse among them – will have to be demolished to pave the way for the project. Most of the residents make a direct living from fishing, and their options as they currently stand are limited.

Antonio 79, and his wife Teresita, 62, have lived most of their lives in Taliptip.
Village life in Taliptip.

Environmental concerns

For the environmental groups, the promise of jobs is commendable, however, the problem of floods must also be taken into account. The Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (KPNE) said the project will not resolve the perennial flood problems of communities in Bulacan province and will in fact exacerbate them. 

It said that major infrastructure construction on waterway bottlenecks going into Manila Bay can and will create floods that will affect millions.

“This reclamation’s threat of clearing of mangroves, infrastructure construction, and land subsidence provide for a complex flooding problem that will aggravate the already flood-prone situation of Bulacan’s coastal towns,” said Leon Dulce, Kalikasan National Coordinator.

Taliptip fisherfolk said that reclaiming the sea for the construction of the proposed airport will block the flow of water from surrounding mountains. The town of Bulakan and neighboring municipalities will be at risk of flooding.

Meth Magbanua, a fisherman in Brgy. Taliptip, is worried about the destroyed mangroves. 

“The mangroves are very important – they’re a natural barrier against strong waves and protect our communities from flooding. Now the mangroves are being destroyed, the trees that formed them are being chopped down. 

“We’ve been enduring the hard life in our communities without the government’s support.  We rely on our own resources, and we depend on the protection of the mangroves. Now there’s this project, and we fear about losing our livelihood and our very houses.”

Mangroves are important to the marine ecosystem.

Based on the Mines and Geosciences Bureau flood susceptibility maps, Bulacan’s flood-prone cities and towns include Paombong, Hagonoy, Malolos, Bulakan, Bocaue, Marilao, Meycauayan, Balagtas, Guiguinto, and Obando, which have a total population of around 1.24 million.

Kalikasan also disputed the claim that San Miguel’s promise to construct a US$1 billion spillway for excess water from Bulacan’s upstream river sources to drain directly to the Manila Bay will resolve the flooding problem of the province.

“The waterways coursing from Bulacan’s ridges down to its reefs are complex systems that cannot be simply resolved by just a spillway. If we take the recent torrential monsoon rains as a concrete example, floods come not only from the headwaters in Sierra Madre but also from extreme rainfall directly falling on Bulacan’s river basin and from coastal floods,” Dulce explained.

The environmental group also noted how the continuing land subsidence aggravated by groundwater extraction further worsens Bulacan’s vulnerability to flooding, which will be compounded by construction works.  

“Engineering solutions and simplistic development promises are always impressive until you start looking into the devil in the details. The alarming railroading of the airport should be stopped. There are alternative means of developing Manila Bay without sacrificing the people and the environment,” Dulce emphasized.

Dulce explained that the airport and expressway dike reclamation projects will block floodwater that usually drains from the various river systems of Bulacan and Pampanga into Manila Bay. Additionally, a hydrological study on proposed reclamation projects in the Las Pinas-Paranaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area demonstrated how the said land use was affected by subsidence by as much as 5.12 meters.

Villagers catching crabs.
A villager sorting talaba (clams).
Villagers depend on the sea for their livelihood.

A balance between development and sustainability

At the end of the day, development projects must be assessed using parameters that put a premium on the well-being of people and the possible effects on the environment, both in the short and run term. As they stand, the arguments defending the project – the development of an alternative airport hub – are short-sighted, insubstantial, and even artificial.   

What has to be emphasized is that the massive mess that is the country’s transport systems, be it land, water, or air, is not caused only by population density but also by the utter lack of city planning and intelligent urban and rural development. 

It has been proven again and again that the lack of urban planning in both city centers and urban regions makes areas vulnerable to environmental disasters, which open the floodgates to disaster capitalism and opportunism.

Critics of the SMC airport are very wary over the lack of comprehensive planning behind it, that the welfare of entire communities has been ignored, and that environment experts were not consulted.

The problems of congestion require comprehensive solutions, and these should never leave out the effects on the poor. Development that narrowly focuses on urban centers but neglects rural communities and endangers the environment is not development.

In assessing whether development is genuine, two basic questions must be answered. Development for what? Development for whom? The answers are inevitably what will determine if the SMC airport project will benefit Filipinos or if it is yet another case of development for development’s sake.

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Alleco R. Silverio

Ina Silverio, our Philippine correspondent, is an award-winning investigative reporter. She is also the author of two books.

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