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Bishops and the environment

Remarkable is an open letter published in Tuesday’s issue of this paper. It is signed by an impressive array of Catholic bishops, starting with Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila, and capped by his immediate predecessor, Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, Archbishop Emeritus of Manila.

The letter, signed by the 21 prelates in the Archdiocese of Manila and nearby locales, has nothing to do with the RH Law, the hottest bone of contention between the government and the Church leaders. While conceivably still smarting from the yearlong suit—highlighted by protests, rallies, forums and passionate confrontations on both sides—the Catholic bishops had another concern in mind.

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It was the fate of Manila Bay.

More specifically, the open letter had to do with the proposed Manila Bay Reclamation Project that, they said, “will affect those under our care, specifically provinces and cities of our jurisdiction.”

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After studying the proposed project and consulting with specialists, the Catholic prelates said, they have come up with “deep reservations on the project’s social and environmental impact.”

For some time now, government authorities, specifically the National Reclamation Authority (NRA) have been holding hearings on proposed reclamation projects, primarily the 148-acre Manila Goldcoast Reclamation Project along Manila Bay. But oppositionists to the project have protested that the NRA has skewed the conduct and schedule of the hearings in favor of the proponents.

Maybe that’s the reason the bishops were driven to take the unusual step of issuing an open letter to P-Noy on an environmental issue that has long been the subject of legal wrangling.

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Alarmed that bidding has already begun for different reclamation projects, including the Manila Bay site, the bishops pointed out that previous reclamations “have resulted in disastrous flooding especially in Las Piñas, Parañaque, Malabon, Navotas, and many towns and cities in Cavite, Bulacan and Pampanga.”

Among the concerns raised in the letter, the bishops pointed out the risks posed by “serious geological hazards” including subsidence (sinking), raised by internationally recognized geologists Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo and Dr. Fernando Siringan. Aside from subsidence, the bishops also cited the threats posed by surges and storm waves, such as those that inundated Eastern Visayas (Supertyphoon “Yolanda”) and even Roxas Boulevard (Typhoon “Pedring”), as well as the threat posed by liquefaction in the event of an earthquake, which is not all that unexpected.

During the public hearings, environmental groups also raised the point that reclamation “would not only damage the remaining coastal habitat and ecosystem but also effectively block the natural pathways of the river system flowing into the bay, thus increasing the threats of massive flooding in Metro Manila.” So it’s not just the residents in the coastal areas who’ll be affected by reclamation, it’s also the rest of us living in the Metro!

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The bishops’ letter also cites their concerns regarding the legal infirmities attending the proposed project, including the fact that the site of the proposed reclamation has been declared a protected area and national park.

But providing the “theological” basis for the bishops’ action, the letter said, was their determination “to exercise our responsibility as pastors and protectors of God’s flock and be in solidarity with all of humanity in the call to be stewards of God’s creation.”

“At the heart of Catholic social teaching is the concept of the Common Good,” the bishops said in the letter. “This is what should guide us in our decision regarding the reclamation project. So we ask, ‘Who stand to benefit from this project?’

“There is no question that the project will generate spectacular profits for the corporations pushing [it], and the local government units, many of which have serious debt problems.”

Indeed, the NRA says the reclamation project would “generate huge potential investments to achieve economic growth.” Manila Vice Mayor Isko Moreno, during a hearing, said (if a little melodramatically) that the project “is for the city that is dying from poverty,” citing the possibility of some 500,000 jobs for residents, while earning for the city billions of pesos in taxes.

But the bishops retort: “Should the decision to allow the project be determined only by financial considerations?”

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Instead, the bishops propose a “new model of development” that goes beyond mere financial gain or profit and also restores the balance of the environment, protects the health, safety and livelihoods of people, and revives heritage structures.

More concretely, the bishops ask if it wouldn’t be wiser “to boost tourism, cultural architecture, and to restore old historical sites and buildings, rather than build on reclaimed land to the detriment of the livelihood of people and the environment.” They add: Isn’t the money for reclamation “better spent for increasing and improving basic services to the people and for the protection of our ecosystems that can enhance ecotourism, employment opportunities and above all restore ecological balance?”

There is no way of knowing whether (and how much) moral suasion or influence the Catholic bishops still hold over the President or the officials determining the fate of the reclamation project. But politics or power should be of little consideration when the issue here is, simply, human survival.

I may have my personal reservations about the exercise of public power by our spiritual leaders. But the open letter on the reclamation project is one instance where the wise and judicious use of ecclesiastical influence could be leveraged for the “common good.”

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TAGS: bishops, column, environment, Manila Bay, Rina Jimenez-David
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