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PAREx is not ‘development’

In the name of “development,” we have inflicted so much harm on the environment and on ourselves. Like many infrastructure projects before it, the Pasig River Expressway (PAREx) is touted as a development that will help usher in progress. But in truth, it will further hold back development and cause irreparable damage to the river itself and the city it has nourished.

The Pasig River has become synonymous with urban degradation, its condition made famous in the lament of the song “Anak ng Pasig” in the ’90s. Decades later, we’ve hardly done anything to resuscitate it to its former health, to a point that Pasig is routinely listed nowadays among the world’s most polluted, and polluting, rivers.

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Instead of tackling this urgent problem head-on, another stressor is about to be imposed on the Pasig River—the building of an expressway along its contours supposedly to decongest Metro Manila. It is a counterintuitive proposal. While most developed nations are moving toward daylighting projects—the dismantling and tearing down of infrastructure near and over rivers and other natural systems to allow them to breathe and soak in daylight, we are holding on to an imagined development paradigm constructed out of cement, steel, and asphalt. With the PAREx, we are about to further suffocate the Pasig River.

The Pasig, open and unobstructed, is a cooling organic mechanism for the residents of Metro Manila, absorbing the harsh metro heat. Constructing the PAREx along the length of the Pasig River will increase the metro’s temperature as the kilometers of concrete absorb heat and the volume of cars only increases air pollution.

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This framing of development as infrastructure and resource exploitation reflects a predominantly Western, if not imperialist, mode that harks back to the Industrial Revolution. It also illustrates a legal framework that looks at things, even nature, as property — a bias for human dominion and exploitation. It is both anthropocentric and reductionist, misplacing humankind’s role and participation in the larger scheme of things. We have been nurtured by nature; that civilizations have been founded along rivers all throughout human history should tell us of their great import.

The urgency of escalating environmental problems has made various legal systems (jurisdictions) recognize the importance of nature by giving them personalities—a “legal personality” for asserting protection and rights, drawing from a cultural and national consciousness that countries not unlike the Philippines were born and shaped by rivers. Rivers that have been given such notable recognition include the Whanganui in New Zealand, the Rio Atrato in Colombia, and the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers in India (See “Rivers as living beings,” Second Opinion, 10/1/21).

Our legal system will do well to adopt what our ancestors have known all along. We recognize the personalities of corporations — juridical entities that enjoy rights and protection (and corresponding obligations). But that which sustains us — rivers, mountains, nature — we regard simply as resources. We see this translated into government policies that push for the opening of mining projects and the expansion of agro-industrial complexes that raze down forests and destroy biodiversity. Time and again, they have been proven not to benefit the people but rather the interests of business.

We call on the Philippine government and the legal community to take steps in declaring the Pasig River and other rivers as living entities with legal rights. Beyond such legal framework, we also badly need a renewed vision of what development looks like, one that has already taken root in cities like Iloilo with its revitalized river, and one that will expose projects like the PAREx for what they are: private ventures purporting to be public utilities.

The truth is, a majority of Metro Manila commuters are dependent on public transport. Among urban planners, the consensus has been that the building of more roads, expressways, and flyovers has not led to the lessening of traffic, but has instead, in some cases, made it worse. Trees, walkways, bike lanes, public parks, green spaces, and efficient, comfortable, and affordable public transport: These are the real “infrastructure” for sustainable and meaningful development, one that can resuscitate both the Pasig River and Metro Manila.

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Efenita Taqueban is an anthropologist, lawyer, and environmental advocate with the Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center. Gideon Lasco is a physician and anthropologist who has conducted research on forest conservation efforts in Luzon and Mindanao, and is an Inquirer columnist. They are both faculty members of the Department of Anthropology at UP Diliman.

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TAGS: Commentary, development, Efenita Taqueban, Gideon Lasco, PAREx
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