Score for sea creatures
It took almost eight years but the Supreme Court has ruled on a landmark case involving oil exploration in a protected seascape in favor of dolphins and other marine animals. What many derided as a lawyer’s folly has finally borne fruit.
The suit filed by environmental lawyer Benjamin Cabrido Jr. and his two colleagues against the Department of Energy and Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. Ltd. (Japex), which was then engaging in oil exploration activities in Tañon Strait, was actually backed by orders issued by two presidents (Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph Estrada) as well as the National Integrated Protected Areas System (Nipas) Act of 1992. Energy and environment officials were also named respondents.
Eight years might seem a long time for a man to withstand slings and arrows for defending cetaceans, but Cabrido did not waver. He remains as resolute today as when he filed the case on Dec. 20, 2007. “A lot of dolphins are in that area,” he told Inquirer Visayas’ Ador Vincent S. Mayol. “During the oil exploration, they moved to another location.”
In Resident Marine Mammals of the Protected Tañon Strait et al. vs Secretary Angelo Reyes et al., Cabrido, along with his fellow ecology lawyers Gloria Estenzo-Ramos and Liza Osorio, represented clients who had neither “legal personality” nor money to pay the legal fees—all the whales, dolphins and porpoises in Tañon Strait. How did he go about representing the interest of Flipper et al. in court? “There were questions raised on the legal standing of dolphins,” he explained. “But then, I felt confident because I knew the oil exploration in Tañon Strait was absolutely unconstitutional.”
The Nipas Act (or Republic Act No. 7586) restricts exploration and exploitation of natural resources in environmentally sensitive areas such as Tañon Strait, which runs between the islands of Cebu and Negros. “[B]ecause Tañon Strait is a Nipas area, the exploitation and utilization of this energy resource may be allowed only through a law passed by Congress,” Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te told reporters in the course of announcing the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling.
Associate Justice Teresita Leonardo-de Castro wrote the tribunal’s decision declaring unconstitutional the “oil exploration, development and exploitation of petroleum resources” by Japex in Tañon Strait, rendering null and void the drilling and exploration contract that the Department of Energy had awarded the Japanese firm. The decision pointed out that the strait “harbors a rich biodiversity of marine life, including endangered species of dolphins and whales.”
Cabrido’s case, while unusual, has precedents elsewhere in the world. In 2012, a group of conservationists called Earthjustice sued the United States’ National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for not properly protecting whales, dolphins and other marine mammals from the adverse effects of the US Navy’s warfare training exercises in waters around the states of California, Oregon and Washington. US District Court Judge Susan Oki Mollway ruled that the NMFS did indeed fail to adequately protect the sea creatures. In 2014, the nonprofit National Resources Defense Council and allied organizations also sued the US Navy and the NMFS for the same thing, involving exercises in Southern California and Hawaii waters that are poised to continue until 2018.
Cabrido can revel in the Supreme Court’s decision, which marks the first and only time that marine mammals have won a court case in the Philippines. “Now, vindication comes,” he said. It’s heartening that what had been ridiculed as an oddball case actually prospered and succeeded. It may have taken some time—the wheels of justice grind even exceedingly slower in other cases—but the landmark decision should pave the way for more such cases requiring the defense of the animals who share the planet with us.
It’s a happy ending, but only a small step in the fight to protect the environment and the creatures that inhabit it. “They too won in the lawsuit,” Cabrido said. How arduous and constant the struggle must be for such victories to be claimed.
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