Something smells in the ports of Manila and Subic.
For the past two years, 50 container vans of household trash, including soiled adult diapers, have been festering in these ports, courtesy of the pussyfooting actions of a timorous administration and the studied indifference of a country an ocean away from the rot.
We’ve been raising a stink about this issue, along with the EcoWaste Coalition and similar groups here and in Canada, but it’s been like spitting in the wind. The tons of garbage were shipped illegally to the Philippines in six batches in June-August 2013 as “scrap plastic materials for recycling” by an Ontario-based company called Chronic Inc. A spot check by the Bureau of Customs uncovered the malodorous cargo, and set into motion a long, frustrating process of seeking redress from one of the world’s most progressive countries in terms of quality of life and environment.
Efforts to have Canada take back the garbage under the Basel Convention, which prohibits rich countries from dumping toxic and hazardous materials on less developed nations—and of which Canada and the Philippines are among 180 signatories—have come to naught. And so has pressure from international environment groups as well as petitions, including one signed by more than 11,000 shamefaced Canadians.
Canada has dismissed the issue as “a private commercial matter between a Canadian export company and a Philippine import firm.” That line is now parroted by the Department of Foreign Affairs, which also says that Canada is under no obligation to take back the trash. And the Philippines has since become amenable to the proposal to bury the offending cargo in local landfills—overt permission for other countries to make the Pearl of the Orient a dump for their waste.
Not that this stance is anything new. In 2007, the Arroyo administration offered Japan a convenient way to get rid of its toxic wastes and hazardous materials by dumping it here under the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement. The arrangement was aborted only by the tremendous hue and cry it triggered when discovered. In 2012, a contractor for the US naval vessel Emory Land spilled toxic wastes in Subic Bay, an incident now forgotten, with the country hardly getting apology or recompense.
The latest instance of this seeming policy of self-flagellation was on full display when Palace officials indicated that President Aquino would not raise the issue during his ongoing state visit to Canada. “We are exhausting all legal remedies to address the issue,” Malacañang said. “The legal process is continuing,” it added of the court action taken against the importer based in Valenzuela City.
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje himself explained that the government is dropping its original demand that Canada take back its trash, “for the sake of our diplomatic relations.” Perhaps the stance is in anticipation of the donor package Canada might have in store for the Philippines now that it has been conferred the coveted Country of Focus status, entitling it to 90 percent of Canada’s development assistance. And Canada is the Philippines’ 21st biggest trading partner and sixth biggest source of dollar-spending tourists.
The state visit, government officials say, is meant to cement bilateral ties between the Philippines and its firm partner in economic development. But doesn’t partnership denote equal footing between allies and respect for each other’s judicial and legal processes, as well as sovereign space and environment?
Is the Philippines reluctant to defend its interests and to demand what is due it under international law for the sake of foreign aid? Is it contorting itself to please its so-called friends, careful not to tip its begging bowl?
And what would it take for Canada to realize that dumping its garbage on a friend and ally is compromising its integrity and international stature? Would it not be right to recall the garbage, hale the offending exporter to court, charge it for the cost of shipping back the tons of “recyclable plastic,” fine it for the infraction, and then examine how the country’s export regulations can be aligned with the provisions of the Basel Convention?
After all, drug trafficking, gunrunning, smuggling, etc. are also “a private commercial transaction between two parties”—and what hell such businesses raise!
As early as February 2014, we warned in this space that even as the Philippines struggles with its own waste disposal problem, “it may end up becoming the dumping ground of other countries without a firm ‘No, not ever’ from the government.”
We must continue to raise a stink until this mess is cleaned up.
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