More than just oil in the West Philippine Sea
For the past few weeks, public discussions on the West Philippine Sea have focused on the petroleum resources that many believe to be there. The floating dock found on Sabina Shoal, and reports that China may deploy its newest and largest mobile offshore drilling platform in the PH EEZ/continental shelf, raise fears of a race to find and extract these resources whatever the cost. But the risks from such activities are far greater than the possible loss of oil and gas. Petroleum is not the only valuable resource in the West Philippine Sea.
The Kalayaan Islands and the area west of Palawan are vital to national food security. These waters comprise about 10 percent of our EEZ and annually contribute some 20 percent of our total marine fish catch. Its potential annual fish yield is estimated at 5 million tons. It hosts vast coral reefs that are spawning grounds for common food fish like tuna, galunggong and danggit. Studies by the UP Marine Science Institute indicate the area around the Kalayaan Islands have critical ecological links to the coastal areas of Palawan, NW Luzon and Sulu Sea, supplying and replenishing coastal fish stocks which our people directly depend on for subsistence.
The area is also a treasure trove of biological and genetic resources. Its coral reefs span an area almost as large as Mindanao, comprising 30 percent of the nation’s total coral reefs. Many marine species, including those threatened or endangered, take refuge in it. Its marine biodiversity ranks among the highest in the world. It can be an important source of natural pharmaceuticals that are safer and more effective than those currently in use. It can also produce natural compounds for creating environment-friendly products like organic pesticides, cosmetics and nutrition supplements. Filipino marine scientists have already discovered some of these new species and pharmaceuticals.
The area around the Kalayaan Islands also holds the key to the long-term sustainability of the marine resources of our archipelago. Migratory species of fish, sharks, whales and other creatures ride the waves and currents between the West Philippine Sea and the Gulf of Thailand and the Pacific Ocean to travel throughout the region. The movement of water allows the area of the Kalayaan Islands to supply young fish and coral larvae and sustain the productivity of not only the west Philippine coast, but also the coasts of Vietnam, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Research has also confirmed relationships between species in the Kalayaan Islands and the Sulu Sea, indicating that Philippine internal seas benefit greatly from their connection to the West Philippine Sea. Understanding the oceans’ conditions and ecological linkages through scientific research are essential to prepare us for future changes in weather and climate. Thus, the West Philippine Sea plays a major role in our adaptation to future environmental conditions.
While these living marine resources are very precious, they are also very fragile. They are very sensitive to change and react very quickly to human activities. Significant damage has already been done in the past: for example, China’s buildings and offshore harbor in Mischief Reef well within the PH EEZ in the late 1990s required major excavation and destruction of significant coral reef areas. Uncontrolled foreign oil exploration definitely increases risk from pollution, habitat degradation and destruction of fragile marine habitats. Such activities will hasten the deterioration and loss of invaluable living resources, and endanger the legitimate interests and future generations of the PH.
The importance of living resources and their direct relationship to our national survival must be the basis for promoting respect for legal order in the West Philippine Sea. It does not merely conceal oil to be found, but is a rich, active and direct source of our people’s daily life support, food and livelihoods, now and in the future. Its linkage to the marine environment of the Philippines and the entire Southeast Asian region establish a common interest with other nations and a basis of cooperation within the framework of international law. There are many possible options for such cooperation, such as the establishment of international marine protected areas, a World Heritage site and regional seas management.
But regardless of form, any future cooperation and peaceful settlement of the issues must be based on conditions of mutual respect, equality and trust. These can only be earned and gained through principled interaction and mutual recognition of the respective rights, entitlements and interests of the parties involved. They require not only diplomatic statements, but more importantly, clear substantive actions and consistent demonstrations of good faith. While the West Philippine Sea may historically be the subject of common Southeast Asian and other international interests, we should never forget that it concerns, first and foremost, a shared responsibility of the Filipinos’ national heritage.
Jay L. Batongbacal teaches at the UP College of Law, with a degree of Doctor in the Science of Law from Dalhousie University in Canada; he specializes in international marine environmental law. Porfirio M. Aliño is a professor at the UP Marine Science Institute; his PhD in Marine Chemical Ecology is from James Cook University in Australia. He and his colleagues have done extensive field research in the Kalayaan Islands and the West Philippine Sea.
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