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Needed: A moratorium on reclamations

On mainstream media, we read little of the proposed San Miguel Corp. (SMC) aerotropolis reclamation project directly affecting the Bulacan provincial municipalities of Obando and Bulakan, despite it being increasing felt by local fisherfolk who contribute to the second largest fish catch in the Philippines, and environmentalists who have documented the cutting of mangroves in the area as part of the reclamation work.

An environmental impact assessment report was publicly presented in Bulakan in February 2019 by a consultancy hired by an SMC subsidiary. According to locals, there was no prior consultation with them; that would be an affront to their human rights, and to the rule of law.

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A March 2019 national summit on the impacts of reclamation consolidated the strong opposition to this type of development. Fisherfolk communities from Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao; environmental lawyers, workers and scientists; and, surprisingly, even local and national government officials called for a moratorium on reclamation projects around the country. With only a few standing to gain and so many more ending up with so much to lose, why insist on pursuing reclamation?

Geoscientists have long warned of the negative impacts of reclamation, including increased flooding, the sinking of reclaimed and coastal lands, and increased vulnerability to tsunamis, storm surges, earthquakes and the possible eruptions of nearby volcanoes. Social scientists have correlated large-scale reclamation with increased exposure to flooding, citing evidence that aggressive and noninclusive development worsens the situation for mostly poor communities.

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Disaster scientists have pointed out the greater risk to natural hazards by middle and upper-income communities and commercial infrastructure that will replace fishing communities in reclaimed sites. Development scientists have warned of poor adaptive capacities in communities displaced from reclamation sites and forced into unfamiliar territory, which often leads to violence and crime. This is worsened by poor technological support from both the private and public sector.

A Filipino fellow of the International Network of Government Science Advice has also warned of immediate negative effects on the economic contributions from port operations should the planned reclamations around Manila Bay happen.

In the short term, the impacts of reclamation in Manila Bay, whether positive or negative, will be greatly felt by those from and in project sites. In the long term, negative impacts on nature and culture will be felt by the larger adjacent communities. At the north of Manila bay, these are the Central Luzon farming and industrial communities. In the National Capital Region (NCR), the country’s main entry port for trade, these are the commercial, industrial and residential communities who are mostly urban poor.

In other words, at least 20 million Filipinos will be put at risk by the planned reclamation projects in Manila Bay—some 10 million people from the NCR and another 10 million from adjacent provinces. These are all sectors directly or indirectly connected through ridge-to-reef ecological processes, and benefiting from the economic activities of the bay. That’s almost 20 percent of the entire Philippine population contributing to the country’s economic production.

Apart from the proposed aerotropolis development, there are more than 20 reclamation projects in the pipeline or under consideration. Their development plans include building mixed-use commercial-residential establishments, mostly with foreign investment and project management components. All are designed to cater to higher-income classes, which make up less than 30 percent of the entire Philippine population.

All these projects cite engineering and government-supported solutions, while disregarding science-based recommendations and warnings. They stand indifferent to the grounded opinion of the majority of the Filipino people who stand against, and will lose the most from, reclamation.

Vito Hernandez, an environmental archaeologist, serves as the public information officer of Agham (Advocates of Science and Technology for the People) and teaches Science, Technology and Society (STS) at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

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