Dredging our assets
The daring attempt of a Chinese-manned vessel to conduct illegal dredging operations off the coast of Lobo, Batangas, is an incident that should not be allowed to pass unchallenged.
Without warning, and with not the slightest show of courtesy, the 2,900-ton Sierra Leone-registered hopper dredger called MV Emerald suddenly appeared on March 28 off the coast of Barangay Lagadlarin in Lobo, causing alarm among the residents and officials of the fishing village.
That surprise turned to indignation when officials learned the ship’s dubious purpose: to dredge and desilt Lobo River purportedly for flood-control purposes, and then ship the sand to Hong Kong for the construction of a runway for its international airport.
The local officials were aghast. They were not aware of the project, as they have an existing flood-control project with a local company. They were also afraid that dredging would damage the marine resources near their 30-hectare mangrove forest. Lobo is part of the Verde Island Passage, a marine sanctuary described by scientists as the “center of the center of marine shorefish biodiversity” in the world.
A representative of Seagate Engineering and Buildsystems, a company based in San Pascual, Batangas, came to the village to apologize and inform the locals that his company would put up signages regarding the Lobo River dredging project.
“I went totally hysterical and raised my voice at him,” recalled Mafriel Dimaano, village chief of Barangay Lagadlarin. “I told him, how come their ship came ahead and only thought of putting up signages afterwards. We were not informed at all.”
Seagate brandished a 2008 memorandum of agreement (MOA) it supposedly signed with the previous mayor of Lobo, and an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) from the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2018.
The MOA allows Seagate to dredge up to 2 million cubic meters of sand from the Lobo River. Seagate would sell the sand at $2 per metric ton to Synergy Plus Holdings Ltd., for use in the reclamation and construction of the Hong Kong International Airport Three Runway System.
But, said Lobo Mayor Gaudioso “Jurly” Manalo, “a basic and fundamental rule is they communicate with us… We don’t even allow our own fishing rafts to anchor there, how much more a foreign vessel?”
Thanks to the alert and courageous local officials of Lobo, the ship’s work was halted. National officials reacted belatedly to cancel the Seagate ECC and send the ship away. But Seagate’s Leo Campos wants to have the last word: He said they will come back soon and continue the project.
How was this company able to get an ECC for a project that was harmful to a critical area that the locals had taken pains to protect? Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda was quoted as saying that Seagate even presented deceiving permits, and that its real purpose was not to dredge but to quarry minerals. Who abetted this foreign company’s audacity to engage in deception and run roughshod over local laws?
And it may not be an isolated case. Bayan Muna chair Neri Colmenares said similar Chinese-manned dredging ships have been seen just this month off Zambales, undertaking black sand mining operations. And in 2016, Zambales Gov. Amor Deloso claimed that mountains in Zambales were flattened and the soil used by China to reclaim and fortify its hold on Scarborough Shoal, which it had seized from the Philippines.
There is reason to be concerned, in view of the many alarming concessions being given to China by the Duterte administration, including relaxing the entry of Chinese workers into the country and acceding to what many have pointed out are patently onerous loan agreements. No less than Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has warned that China can seize Philippine patrimonial assets, such as the Reed Bank, if the country fails to pay such loans.
National officials should follow the vigilant lead of Lobo leaders and citizens in scrutinizing, and shooing away if need be, foreign interests, Chinese or otherwise, who take advantage of the country’s lax law enforcement and connive with unscrupulous government officials to exploit Philippine resources.
A resolution filed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros seeking a Senate investigation on the Lobo dredging incident is a good place to start. Resolving the bureaucratic loopholes and lapses should help stop the likes of Seagate, and its Chinese patrons, from trifling with the country’s laws, and send the message that Filipinos will fight for their patrimony even if their government won’t.
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