Environmental menace | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Environmental menace

/ 05:03 AM February 24, 2024

More than the skirmishes happening above water in the West Philippine Sea, the destruction of corals and marine ecosystems underneath is the bigger crime that should concern countries in territorial disputes over the South China Sea (SCS).

For many years now, amid China’s aggressive occupation and island-building on parts of the West Philippine Sea, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and Filipino fishermen have observed and reported the destruction of corals, and the illegal and destructive harvesting of giant clams and other marine resources in the vast area within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).But last weekend’s report by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) is deeply concerning. According to BFAR spokesperson Nazario Briguera, Chinese fishermen have been using cyanide to willfully destroy the marine resources in Scarborough Shoal, also known as Bajo de Masinloc off Zambales, a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishermen.

Grave accusations

The destruction of Bajo de Masinloc was meant “to prevent Filipino fishing boats [from fishing] in the area,’’ Briguera said, quoting accounts by fishermen that, he added, have yet to be validated by the government. In response, President Marcos said: “If we feel that there is enough ground to do so, we will [pursue charges].”Indeed, such grave accusations must be backed by evidence. “Any legal action must be supported by strong, solid, and competent evidence that can withstand the scrutiny of any international tribunal,’’ Solicitor General Menardo Guevarra said.The Chinese Embassy has dismissed the BFAR spokesperson’s claim as “totally baseless and sheer fabrication,” adding that the Chinese government “attaches great importance to the protection of ecological environment and [the] conservation of fishery resources.”

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Devastating impact

It’s a tall order to prove China’s use of cyanide in the area, given that the PCG and the military already have their hands full coping with provocation by Chinese ships using water cannons and dangerous maneuvers against our fishermen and resupply missions, as well as monitoring the Chinese militia and fishing fleets that habitually swarm our EEZ.

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The government should pursue its plan to document the environmental damage brought about by China’s activities in the West Philippine Sea, and bring the issue before international bodies willing to take up this alarming infraction that has a wide-ranging global impact.

Part of that documentation are the reports prepared by private think tanks, including the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) project of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

An Amti report released last year found that activities of claimant countries in the SCS have had devastating impact, with vast areas of coral reefs destroyed and fish stocks depleted. “In recent decades, increased fishing, dredging, and landfill, along with giant clam harvesting, have taken a devastating toll on thousands of species found nowhere else on earth,” the report noted.

Giant clam harvesting

While other countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and even the Philippines were cited for causing some of the damage, the report said China was responsible for the most extensive reef destruction through dredging and landfill. Of some 6,200 acres (9.65 square miles) of coral reefs destroyed by island-building, 75 percent was due to China’s activities. Another 16,353 acres or 25.55 square miles of reef were damaged by giant clam harvesting by Chinese fishermen who drag “specially made brass propellers” underwater, causing widespread damage to the reef.

In March 2019, the late former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed a communication before the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Chinese President Xi Jinping for the environmental destruction caused by China’s occupation and island-building within the Philippine EEZ.The two noted how these activities “involve massive, near permanent, and devastating environmental damage across nations” and undermine the food and energy security of coastal countries in the SCS. The ICC, however, dismissed the communication for lack of jurisdiction since China is not an ICC member.

Environmental suit

Del Rosario pointed out that the damage to the environment and the livelihood of fishermen had been properly documented and submitted to the international tribunal, which in 2016 nullified China’s sweeping claims over the SCS.

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Rather than being on the defensive, it is time for the Philippines to take the lead in making China accountable for the destruction of the marine resources in our 370-kilometer EEZ and the wider regional waters. Be it by showing ghastly videos of destroyed coral reefs or Chinese fishermen hauling giant clams on their boats, or actually filing an environmental suit against its giant neighbor, the Philippines will be fighting a good fight worthy of support from other nations. And who knows, we just might repeat our historic victory in 2016.

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TAGS: Editorial, environment, opinion

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