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‘Battle for Manila Bay’ began 20 years ago

/ 05:24 AM January 17, 2019

Yes, the battle in court began 20 years ago. The legal battle was, in fact, won 10 years later. It was a lonely battle, from the trial court to the Court of Appeals and finally with the Supreme Court no less ordering about 13 defendant government agencies to do a cleanup of Manila Bay.

The high court even gave its order a threatening ring to it — continuing mandamus, which means that the sued government agencies should report to the Supreme Court every three months until the bay was back to its fit-for-swimming state. Well, it’s been 10 years since that mandamus was issued. Was the “continuing” discontinued?

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Today, what do we have here? A Manila Bay filthier than ever, its waters unfit for habitation by sea creatures and unhealthy for humans to swim in or gather food from. In other words, Manila Bay is in the throes of death, if it’s not already dead.

Site of historic epic battles, this body of water west of the Philippines has been defiled, befouled, turned into a septic tank, if not a toilet bowl (it is shaped like so). The world-famous sunset reflected on its waters since time began should take a leave or shroud itself in mourning.

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Not that nobody cared. In January 1999, a group of concerned citizens, led by University of the Philippines law students and their teacher, environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa Jr., then fresh from Harvard masteral law studies, filed an ambitious lawsuit in a regional trial court. Oposa, a maverick lawyer who thought out of the box, included among the petitioners the tahong (mussels) and talaba (oysters).

“It is a lonely journey to have as clients the sea and the fish, that do not pay attorney’s fees,” he mused then.

“We sued practically the entire government,” recalls Oposa, a mutiawarded defender of Mother Nature and author. I spoke with Oposa the other day and he sounded gung-ho about the rehabilitation of Manila Bay, which he refers to as the Philippines’ “toilet bowl that has not been flushed.”

Talking to Oposa is always invigorating because of his no-holds-barred, out-of-the-box pronouncements, and also because he walks his talk. (I’ve written several articles on his quixotic pursuits. For his work, Oposa received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009.)

The daunting cleanup of Manila Bay  is scheduled to begin on Jan. 27. Metro Manila and several provinces—Cavite, Laguna, Bataan, Bulacan and Pampanga—have areas along the coast and have tributaries that flow into Manila Bay.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu has not yet revealed the names of establishments by the bay that have been releasing pollutants into Manila Bay. Resettling some 200,000 informal settler families that defecate, urinate and dump their garbage into the bay would be a nightmare. The task is not for one government agency alone, but for the 13 that had been previously sued and more. Private citizens, business, the Church and nongovernment organizations better enlist in the cleanup and rehab.

In his paper, “In Defense of Manila Bay,” Oposa notes: “In January 1999 when the case was filed, the fecal bacteria in Manila Bay was 1 million units per cubic meter. Twenty years after, in January 2019, one would expect it to be a little lower. But guess what? It is now 330 MILLION UNITS… In some parts of Manila Bay, it is 1 BILLION. Wow, that is pure S**T. So much for the triumph of the Rule of Law. It is said that in the Philippines, laws are only suggestions.”

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Oposa adds that the narrative of the law should change from being an enforcer to being an enabler.

Oposa offers three “practical pathways” where the cleanup could begin: solid waste or garbage that is the most visible, sewage/septage from humans which is the primary source of fecal bacteria, and relocation of informal settlers.

He cites models for the relocation of settlers, like the one in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan; he cites the Iloilo River restoration that took only about 1,000 days.

“Maybe there will be an alignment of stars,” he muses. “Emperors come and go, empires rise and fall, but a story lives forever. A story of the Sea.”

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