The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) recently met with leaders of environmental groups and held an experts’ forum on land reclamation as part of ongoing consultations and policy review to get inputs from various stakeholders on critical environmental issues.
In both forums, Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga underscored that inputs from all sectors are valuable for the DENR to deliver its mandate.
She added that the dialogues enable the gaining of ground-based knowledge, and accelerate the collection of data and evidence from affected communities and stakeholders.
“We are reviewing everything—policies, processes and the immediate actions that need to be taken in order to address this environmental issue. Your inputs today are valuable for the DENR. I am here to listen. That is the promise I am giving you. That listening will result in what we are trying to actually achieve: changes in the process, changes in the policy, and possibly, changes in tpeople,” Yulo-Loyzaga said during a dialogue with critics of land reclamation last month.
Similarly, on May 8, she reiterated the need to listen to experts before deciding on the issue of land reclamation, taking into consideration the costs and benefits of such development projects.
Environmental groups have been resisting the planned massive land reclamation projects in various parts of the country.
Sought for expert legal opinion on the regulatory powers of the DENR to stop the projects, Oceana Vice President Gloria Estenzo-Ramos said the Philippine Constitution states clearly the state policy that guarantees the right of every Filipino to a healthy and balanced ecology.
This provision alone, according to Estenzo-Ramos, an environmental lawyer, should be enough basis to say “no” to land reclamation and even cancel the environmental compliance certificates (ECCs) and area clearances that were issued by the DENR in the past.
“Other pertinent provisions declare the state duty to protect the country’s marine wealth. There’s a law on the preferential right of municipal fisherfolks which is defined in the Fisheries Code,” Estenzo-Ramos told the BusinessMirror via Zoom on May 4.
She said several regulations pointed out “cumulative impact assessment” in its totality as a requirement in granting approval to land reclamation projects.
“Standards have been set. There is a principle in environmental law that once a standard is set, you can no longer regress. There are strong arguments for really mainstreaming the duty of protecting our natural life support systems, including our oceans, which clearly need to be prioritized,” she added.
Role of local, national governments
According to Estenzo-Ramos, local government officials are mandated by the Fisheries Code to protect the municipal fishing grounds and say “no” to land reclamation.
She expressed dismay that some local officials are pushing for land reclamation in the name of development and profit, setting aside the more important longer-term benefit of having a healthy and productive coastal and marine ecosystem.
“If you consider the right of fisherfolks, dapat wala nang [there should be no more] land reclamation,” Estenzo-Ramos argued.
She said there are other laws against land reclamation, including that on protecting mangroves.
Oceana believes that the national and local governments have an overwhelming number of reasons and legal arsenal that can be used to fight land reclamation “yet they choose to ignore [the laws] and keep their eyes closed.”
Estenzo-Ramos said the national and local governments have a long list of models to make the coastal and marine areas sustainable development models that would generate green jobs that would ensure a sustainable income and create more livelihood opportunities in the process.
Tourism and sustainable fisheries alone, she said, would benefit coastal communities more than land reclamation that would not only destroy coastal and marine ecosystems, but also result in biodiversity loss, and worse, threaten the lives of thousands of people in the process.
Deliberate process of converting bodies of water
According to the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) land reclamation is a deliberate process of converting foreshore land, submerged areas or bodies of water into land by filling or other means using dredge fill and other suitable materials for specific purposes.
The PRA said anything can be built on a reclaimed land just like a natural land feature, provided that the reclamation is properly done.
They include power plants, water systems, commercial buildings, industrial establishments, airports, seaports and housing units, among others.
Urban, rural expansion
Land reclamation is often proposed by local government units (LGUs) and its development partners from the private sector to expand territories for various purposes, including residential, commercial and industrial.
They address concerns caused by overpopulation and overcrowding by creating more space or area “where businesses and the people are no longer happy to live, work and do business.”
Land reclamation also takes place “to create a large space as a viable and practical option rather than procuring right-of-way in decongested urban areas to be used as a platform for vital government infrastructure projects, such as airports, ports, roads, bridges, water and power utilities or simply to decongest traffic in a particular area.”
25 approved land reclamation projects
There are 52 land reclamation projects in various stages in the country, 25 of which have already been approved and 27 are in the process of application.
Some of these projects are in Manila Bay, particularly the waters adjacent to Roxas Boulevard in Manila, Pasay and Parañaque cities. Two projects are in the side of Bacoor, Cavite.
The land reclamation projects sit on one of the country’s most important water bodies that have spurred economic activities and continue to support the country’s economic growth through the so-called blue-economy activities, including shipping, fisheries, and tourism.
Threatened by massive pollution, Manila Bay is currently the subject of a Supreme Court continuing mandamus directing 13 government agencies, led by the DENR, to rehabilitate and restore its water quality back to its pristine state.
Moratorium on new reclamation projects
In her welcome remarks during the experts’ forum, Yulo-Loyzaga underscored the need to consider all of the risks, including that posed by climate change.
“It’s our role to ensure that our core facets to protect and preserve our ecosystems and enhance our environments must be for the benefit of all,” she said.
The DENR chief noted that there is an existing moratorium on land reclamation, referring to Presidential Directive 2022-016, dated April 12, 2022.
She said the DENR intends to follow the order, which directs the agency and the PRA to put on hold the acceptance of new applications for reclamation projects.
Furthermore, she noted that Executive Order 74, signed on February 1, 2019, provides that no reclamation project shall be approved without area clearance, and DENR-issued ECC.
Manila Bay master plan
Dr. Rex Victor Cruz, Professor Emeritus at the University of the Philippines Los Baños-College of Forestry and Natural Resources, presented the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan (MBSDMP) that was initiated in 2018 with the National Economic and Development Authority taking the lead.
The deputy team leader of the Consortium that developed the MBSDMP, Cruz said the vision of the Manila Bay master plan is to ensure a sustainable and resilient Manila Bay, which include improving water quality, restoring ecosystems, reducing disaster risks and promoting inclusive growth in the region.
According to Cruz—an expert in forestry, watershed management, climate change and integrated land use, environment and natural resources planning—the four pillars of the MBSDMP are the integrated coastal zoning management Planning Framework, which defines the principles of any development in Manila Bay; Priority Measures that focuses and strategically addresses priority concerns; Enabling Environment, which sets it toward ensuring priority measures that are timely and smoothly implemented; and Stakeholders Engagement, which aims to motivate commitment and optimize proactive participation, including compliance of policies and programs.
Fernando Siringan, a professor at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute, said land reclamation, also called dump-and-fill, in various parts of the country, might adversely affect coral reefs and associated habitats, seagrass beds in the case of coastal or marine area, and non-coral reef-related areas like rivers, lakes inter-tidal and sub-marine tidal areas.
Siringan—who specializes in marine/coastal ecology, sedimentology and seismic stratigraphy—said many mangrove areas in Manila Bay no longer exist because of land reclamation.
He cited Rizal Park and Roxas Boulevard, which were results of land reclamation.
“What was buried underneath can no longer be recovered,” he pointed out.
Mangrove forests, coral reefs, seagrass beds and tidal and muddy flats provide important ecosystem functions, Siringan explained.
He said many ecosystems were lost already, but what else may be lost, such as the subtidal environments, remain unknown due to lack of data and information.
He appealed to the DENR to study what is to be lost in land reclamation.
Land reclamation, he added, has adverse environmental impacts and associated risks.
They include an increase in turbidity and sedimentation in nearby areas; cascade effects of loss of habitats and changes in substrate types of adjacent areas, changes in surface and groundwater hydrology, changes in wave and tidal current patterns, and stability of reclaimed areas.
Threat to ecosystems, biodiversities
In her talk, Executive Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim of the Asean Centre of Biodiversity, presented “Biodiversity-inclusive Impact Assessment for Reclamation Projects.”
She cautioned against altering natural landscapes through land reclamation.
Citing the case of Waikiki in Hawaii, a wetland that was converted into a beach resort through land reclamation, she said that with climate change, the beach is starting to erode.
Engineering solutions, she said, is delaying the worst-case scenario, wherein Waikiki will be claimed back by nature.
A former director of the DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau, Lim presented a 2014 study commissioned by the DENR-BMB during her time, wherein the economic valuation of goods and services derived from Manila Bay was undertaken.
According to Lim, the study was triggered by the proposed land reclamation in Manila Bay encompassing 26,234 hectares affecting critical habitats, mudflats, mangroves, ponds and marine ecosystems.
“It is not just a beach area, not just a mangrove area; we also have ponds, mudflats [in Manila Bay]. So it’s a variety of ecosystems [that will be adversely affected],” she said, adding that some P9.7 billion in revenues may be lost if ecosystem goods and services are not taken into account.