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Black coral vendor charged; drops out of sight

The owner of a Zamboanga-based trading company who was charged yesterday with illegally harvesting P35 million worth of black corals and other endangered marine species has dropped out of sight and been placed on the immigration watch list, officials said.

Calling them “rapists of the ocean,” the Bureau of Customs filed criminal charges against Olivia Lim Li, proprietress of Zamboanga’s Li and Lim Trading and alleged shipper of the contraband, and Exequiel D. Navarro, listed on the manifest and bill of lading as consignee of the illegally-harvested marine resources.

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In Zamboanga City, Ahadulla Sajili, Western Mindanao director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), said his office had been trying to locate Li.

“But no one is providing us information of her whereabouts or those of her husband,” Sajili said.

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A source told the Inquirer the Lis may have been trying to get out of the country.

Also charged in the complaint filed at the Department of Justice were:

Kim L. Atillano, owner of the Zamboanga-based JKA Transport System, the cargo forwarding company tapped by the shipper; Ireneo Penuliar and other yet-to-be identified employees of the Manila branch of the JKA Transport System; and officers/owners of Vicky’s Trucking, the company which transported the misdeclared cargo from the shipper’s warehouse to the Port of Zamboanga.

If found guilty, the suspects could face up to 20 years in jail and more than P1 million in fines, or both.

Misdeclared

The shipment of two containers containing black corals, stuffed sea turtles, seashells and other endangered marine species, came from Cotabato and was seized in Manila last month.

The contraband, allegedly misdeclared as raw rubber, may have been intended for smuggling to China or Europe, customs officials said.

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Reprisals from syndicate

The source, a local official, asked not to be identified, saying his friends had warned him not to talk about the matter to avoid reprisals from a syndicate engaged in illegal marine trade.

Another source, a worker at the trading firm who refused to give his name, said Li and her husband left for Manila last week but he had no idea what their employers were doing in Manila or when they would be back.

Elmer Apolinario, deputy city administrator of Zamboanga, said he had received information that the Lis were actually Taiwanese.

“The Bureau of Customs has lowered the boom on the rapists of the ocean,” Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez said at a press conference in Manila, announcing the filing of the charges.

“Their seizure of illegally-harvested marine dwellers brought to the fore the devastation being caused on the marine ecosystem by the illegal harvesters of endangered and threatened marine life and the greediness of those who finance their search-and-destroy operation,” Alvarez said.

On watch list

The respondents were accused of violating Republic Act No. 8550, which bans the gathering or selling of precious and semi-precious corals; the Fisheries Administrative No. Order 158; and the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.

An inventory showed the two seized containers were loaded with 163 stuffed hawkbills and green turtles; 21,169 pieces of black corals; 7,340 pieces of Trumpet and Helmet shells; and 196 kg of sea whips—all threatened species that cannot be collected or traded.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima ordered the suspects placed on the Bureau of Immigration watch list.

“We need to penalize those who would brazenly violate these laws and with the overarching concern on climate change. And we need to take very concrete bold and courageous actions to run after the violators,” De Lima told reporters.

Experts said the coral reef area damaged by the poachers could reach “almost five times the size” of Manila.

Navarro denial

Navarro, one of the accused, has denied participation in the illegal activity.

Navarro claimed in his counteraffidavit that JKA Transport System allowed Li and Lim Trading to load its cargo in the container vans without supervision since the latter was a regular customer with no derogatory record.

Navarro’s said he and the other employees of JKA were unaware of the shipment’s content or that Li and Lim Trading were in illegal wildlife trade.

There are reports that Li and Lim’s core business was the export of marine products to Taiwan, according to Alvarez.

The existence of a syndicate in marine trade was earlier brought to the Inquirer’s attention by Rosella Contreras of BFAR’s Fish Inspection and Quarantine Services office in Zamboanga.

Contreras said the smuggling had gone on unabated, with no arrests made since 2008.

Fear of armed men

Contreras said much as BFAR wanted to inspect cargoes to ensure they did not include banned species, they could barely move inside the port.

“If we receive positive reports, we immediately act on it. But sometimes, armed men would confront us. We could only take notes and make reports,” she said. She did not say who the armed men were.

Contreras said while there had been confiscations in the past, no one actually had been jailed.

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TAGS: Black corals, Bureau of Customs, Crime, environment, Environmental Degradation, Environmental Issues, Justice, law, Mindanao, Smuggling
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