Status of Manila Bay reclamation murky as groups press for written suspension order
MANILA, Philippines—Almost a month since President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. ordered the suspension of reclamation projects in Manila Bay, members of scientist, environmental, and fisherfolk groups continued to push for transparency and clear guidelines.
During a briefing in Malolos City last month, Marcos announced that all reclamation projects in Manila Bay, except one, have been suspended.
This pronouncement was welcomed by various groups and civil society organizations and was described as a “resounding victory” for the Filipino people and coastal ecosystems.
The Advocates of Science and Technology for the People (Agham) had said that the victory was achieved through the collective actions of groups and advocates who have tirelessly campaigned against reclamation and dredging projects for years.
However, almost a month after the President’s verbal order, Agham and green groups still call for transparency on the status of suspended reclamation projects and a written suspension order detailing the order’s coverage.
“It’s been almost a month since Marcos Jr. suspended all reclamation projects in Manila Bay, and yet there is neither written suspension order nor clear guidelines on how this will be implemented,” said Cleng Julve, campaigns and advocacies officer of Agham, in a statement.
Agham also noted that despite the verbal suspension order, reclamation activities continue in the bay.
“Even after the verbal suspension of reclamation projects, we are still hearing reports about continuing dredging activities in Cavite,” said Julve.
On August 13, merely days after the suspension announcement, militant fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) reported the presence of vessels engaged in dredging off the shores of Rosario, Noveleta, Tanza, and Naic in Cavite.
“Dredging is also destructive as it disturbs benthic ecosystems where fish live, which may eventually affect fisheries production and food security,” Julve noted.
Issue ‘clear guidelines’
On Thursday (August 7), member organizations of People’s Network for the Integrity of Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems (People’s NICHE), held a protest action at the Mendiola Arch to mark the first month since Marcos’ verbal order to suspend reclamation in Manila Bay.
People’s NICHE is an alliance of marine and coastal protection advocates who call for the restoration, instead of reclamation, of Manila Bay and other bodies of water elsewhere in the country.
“We need an executive order now to clarify the timeline and coverage of the suspension order, and also implement measures to hold those circumventing the suspension order accountable,” said Jon Bonifacio, national coordinator of the environmental group Kalikasan PNE.
Bonifacio had said that a written order will give a “backbone” to Marcos’ pronouncement.
“It is vital that they provide some clarity over which projects are suspended and that any assessments of project impacts involve dialogues with affected communities, civil society, and experts in the field of environmental and social governance,” Bonifacio added.
In an interview with INQUIRER.net, lawyer Gloria Estenzo Ramos, vice president of ocean protection and conservation group Oceana Philippines, explained that the issuance of an executive order is the “best way” for Marcos to support his verbal and public announcement.
Without it, Ramos said, private parties involved in reclamation projects in Manila Bay may not comply with the suspension order. A written order will also help “remove the state of uncertainty which is not healthy.”
The organizations also pointed out that controversial projects such as the New Manila International Airport (NMIA), a massive project by San Miguel Corp. (SMC), appeared to have bypassed the suspension order.
In a statement, SMC president and CEO Ramon Ang clarified that the NMIA is being built on existing low-lying land, not on reclaimed land. The billionaire added that no reclamation is ongoing for the Bulacan mega airport project.
“It makes little sense that major projects such as the NMIA in Bulacan appear to be excluded from the suspension order. While we can argue about technicalities and definitions, the fact remains that the project is one of the largest in the bay and is drastically altering the ecosystem,” said Bonifacio.
“If we are genuinely concerned about Manila Bay, these kinds of projects must be put on hold pending a thorough and independent assessment,” he continued.
Local environmental groups have repeatedly stressed that in 2018, over 600 mangrove trees were cleared and damaged along coastal areas near Barangay Taliptip in Bulacan — the same areas where the aetropolis project, which was then still being proposed, would be built.
However, despite backlash and protests against the project, at that time, an official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said evidence did not point to the project as the reason for the damage.
Human rights violations
Agham called on Marcos Jr. to look into the series of human rights violations against environmental defenders opposing reclamation.
On September 2, two environmental activists — Jonila Castro, 21, and Jhed Tamano, 22 — were reported missing and were later said to have been abducted by armed men in Barangay Lati, Orion town, in Bataan.
According to the anti-reclamation network AKAP KA Manila Bay, Castro is a community organizer of the organization, while Tamano serves as program coordinator of the Community and Church Program for Manila Bay of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum.
Castro and Tamayo, described as dedicated and committed volunteers, were said to be active in the campaign against reclamation in Manila Bay. They were on their way to conduct relief operations and community consultation meetings with members of coastal communities when they were abducted by four unidentified armed men.
“We join the calls to surface Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano, and urge the government to investigate this incident. The government’s silence over the abduction of the two young women is deafening and alarming,” said Julve.
The group likewise appealed to stop the intimidation and surveillance of state forces on Aries Soledad, another anti-reclamation activist opposing reclamation and dredging in Cavite.
“The continuous attacks against anti-reclamation activists and advocates only shows the Marcos administration’s failure to protect environmental defenders, which is counterproductive in protecting our coastal ecosystems especially Manila Bay,” Julve stressed.
“Environmental defenders are opposing destructive development projects, and it is imperative that the state uphold their rights and safety. The government should be at the forefront in fighting and mitigating the impacts of climate change, and not serve as a facilitator to environmental destruction by approving destructive development projects,” she added.