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At Large
Tragedy in Biak na Bato

By Rina Jimenez-David
First Posted 02:02:00 07/22/2006

Filed Under: Environmental Issues, Environmental Politics, Mining

Published on Page A13 of the July 22, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

IN September 2004, eight people, seven of them children and teenagers, drowned in the Biak na Bato River in San Miguel town in Bulacan province, after flash floods swept them away while they were picnicking in the area.

The revelers had just attended a baptismal party and proceeded to Biak na Bato Park, a popular destination for local tourists because of its natural beauty and historical significance. When a sudden downpour sent water rushing down a denuded hill, onlookers said they warned the young people to get out of the river but were ignored. The swimmers were swept away by the swollen waters, with some of the children found as far as 14 km from where they were swimming.

"It took us three days to recover the bodies," recalls Bulacan Gov. Josie de la Cruz. "The tragedy really affected me because, as a mother, I deeply felt the loss of these children."

It also served as an "eye-opener" for the governor regarding the environmental crisis that had beset the national park. An Associated Press report, quoting local police, said "illegal logging" had denuded the surrounding hills, "allowing rainwater to suddenly swell the river" in the park.

"I'm a latecomer on this issue," acknowledges De la Cruz, who is on her third and last term as governor. But the issue of the environmental degradation of Biak na Bato has been a "hot-button" issue in Bulacan for about a decade, ever since environmental groups, led by the Miriam PEACE, started calling attention to the damage being done to the mountainsides and surrounding areas of Biak na Bato by firms quarrying for marble and
iron ore.

And though a self-confessed "latecomer," De la Cruz now finds herself smack-dab in the center of a controversy that sees her being pit against the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), its Secretary Angelo Reyes, and powerful mining interests.

* * *

LOCATED at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountain range, Biak na Bato is best known among Filipinos as the place where Katipunan forces, led byEmilio Aguinaldo, fled after they were routed by Spanish troops from Cavite province. It was here where Aguinaldo signed the "Pact of Biak na Bato," which resulted in a temporary halt to hostilities.

In a special report for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1998, Vinia Datinguinoo wrote that environmentalists were denouncing the operations of Rosemoor Mining and Development Corp., which was engaged in limestone quarrying within Biak na Bato, covered by a permit from the DENR.

"Environmentalists fear that these operations would wreak havoc on the fragile ecosystem of historic Biak na Bato, whose geological base forms part of the Angat watershed that supplies the water requirements of Metro Manila," wrote Datinguinoo. "Biak na Bato's natural springs serve the needs of local communities surrounding the park. Most of its over 100 caves remain unexplored and continue to evolve naturally."

* * *

THOUGH environmental groups, religious authorities and even socio-civic organizations had long been lobbying with her to intervene in the Biak na Bato controversy, De la Cruz says she chose to stay in the background mainly because "I knew that once I got involved, politics would enter the picture." The issue of mining in Biak na Bato, after all, involved the DENR, which was responsible for monitoring and regulating activities
within the national park.

That is, until the eight picnickers drowned, when De la Cruz said she saw first-hand the tragic consequences of the denudation related to the quarrying going on.

Declared a national park by President Manuel L. Quezon in 1937, Biak na Bato remained in relatively pristine state until 1981 when Dr. Lourdes Pascual was issued a prospecting permit by the DENR inside the park. Pascual later transferred her rights to Rosemoor, which began quarrying within its approximately 330,000-hectare portion of the mineral reserve, created by a proclamation issued by the Corazon Aquino administration. Later, smaller mining firms were granted permits to also conduct operations within the mineral reserve.

Residents and environmentalists are raising alarms about the quarrying going on in Biak na Bato because of the impact of the blastings on the caves, soil layer and underground water sources in the area. Datinguinoo cites the experience of Sitio Cogonan, a small community that used to get its water directly off the north face of Mt. Mabio, where Rosemoor is quarrying. By 1998, the residents had to buy their water by the barrel
because the springs had dried up, due to the blastings that caused the collapse of natural water reservoirs. De la Cruz says she fears for the fate of watershed systems in her province because once they are irreparably damaged, "Metro Manila will also lose its water and power supply."

* * *

ONE would think that the logical step to take would be for both the national and local governments to join hands and enforce the necessary laws to limit, if not totally eliminate, the sources of environmental risk in Biak na Bato. But what has happened in Bulacan since 2004 has been exactly the opposite, with the provincial government finding itself at loggerheads with the DENR.

That year, after declaring Biak na Bato a "No Mining Area," and after learning that the Supreme Court had upheld the cancellation of Rosemoor's quarry license (in 1987), the provincial government sought clarification with the DENR regarding Rosemoor's status, particularly its application for a "Mineral Production Sharing Agreement" and an "Ore Transport Permit."

What resulted was a flurry of letter-writing, paper tracking, public hearings and a media war that has since blurred the issues in Biak na Bato and has ushered in precisely what the governor feared: the entry of politics into an environmental issue.

More Inquirer columns

Previous columns:
'No peace at the end of this' ? 7/21/06
Young people's risks ? 7/19/06
Such a good friend ? 7/18/06
A food stand in the plaza ? 7/16/06
Politics is the problem ? 7/15/06
Tempest at PNU ? 7/14/06
Old people in love ? 7/12/06
'Puntong Batangan' ? 7/11/06
Johnny Depp and calamari too ? 7/09/06
We are all Nicole ? 7/08/06
Nukes for some, not for others? - 7/07/06
Borra?s call - 7/05/06
A global, super-sized Superman - 7/02/06
Sex and parents - 07/01/06

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