Monday, September 7, 2015

Sanctuary under threat

published at The Standard, June 14 2015
If you take a map of the Philippines, you would see a strip of water between Luzon and Mindoro Islands. This is called the Verde Island Passage (VIP) Marine Corridor, with an area of approximately 1.14 million hectares.
The corridor spans the provinces of Batangas, Mindoro Occidental, Mindoro Oriental, Marinduque and Romblon. It has been identified by scientists as “the center of the center of marine shore fish diversity in the world.”
According to Conservation International, “more than half of the Philippines’ documented fish species can be found here. Numerous studies continue to yield discoveries of species that are new to science, further underscoring the global biological significance of this area.”
On December 18, 2006, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo issued Executive Order 578 – “establishing the national policy on biological diversity, prescribing its implementation throughout particularly in Sulu Sulawesi Marine Ecosystem and the Verde Island Passage Marine Corridor.”
The EO reiterates the constitutional provision protecting and advancing the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology, and emphasizes that the Philippines is a party to various multilateral environmental agreements to conserve biological diversity.
This is, the EO adds, to ensure and secure the well-being of present and future generations of Filipinos.
And just last week, no less than the California Academy of Sciences announced they found more than 100 marine species in the Verde Island Passage, many of them previously unknown to science. These are “rare and new species of sea slugs, barnacles, urchins and mysterious live animals from dimly-lit, deep water reef building.”
The CAS exploration, done in both shallow and deep waters here, proves that indeed VIP is the center of the center of marine biodiversity.
“It’s thrilling to return here,” said Terry Gosliner, PhD, CAS senior curator. “This is one of the most outstanding regions of diversity in the world.”
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The municipality of Lobo in Batangas is a coastal town that fronts the Verde Island Passage. Lobo Mountain, covered with dense forests, has historical significance because it is believed that General Miguel Malvar hid here before surrendering to the Americans, just to spare Filipinos from further suffering.
Beyond the mountain lie the beaches of Lobo, the waters there forming part of the Verde Island Passage.
Lobo’s residents have always taken pride in the beauty of their town. I myself, upon the invitation of a friend, have twice vacationed in this southern tip of the island of Luzon. The beach is beautiful, the water delightful, the surrounding scenery breathtaking – and the knowledge of the natural treasures hidden from the eye but are there, anyway, is just awe-inspiring.
Looking out into the water, one would think: “This is not a declared marine sanctuary for nothing.”
These days, though, the sanctuary is under threat. Egerton Gold Philippines, Inc. is applying with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for a permit to undertake gold mining in Lobo through surface contour or open-pit mining. The DENR seems to be deliberating on the matter – even scheduling a public consultation on the issue – even as it should have rejected the idea outright because of Lobo’s proximity to the sanctuary.
The two proposed mining sites span a total of 262 hectares across three barangays. All of the coastal towns will be affected, as will be the mountain called Mabilog na Bundok.
The proponents of the project have themselves identified its direct and indirect impact on the community. Among the direct impact are the disturbance of existing flora and fauna, creeks and existing roads, as well as discharge of treated wastewater.
They also list the Verde Island Passage as among those that will be indirectly affected by the project, but are quick to say that they just included it because of its “environment, historical and tourism significance” even if it is distant from the project.
But consider this: During the construction phase, risks to water will be the disturbance of corals and mangroves, as well as accidental oil spills.
And during the operation phase, land erosion would be one of the main risks. The DENR itself, in a map published online at the Philippine Information Agency Web site (http://pia.gov.ph/gis/province.php?rid=4&id=19&lid=220) has found that the municipality of Lobo is susceptible to landslides. Imagine how this risk could be magnified by mining activity in the area. The people themselves would be in danger – and these are people who have for long taken pride in their town and in the natural treasures beyond their beaches.
The impact thus is not as sanitized and tame as the words on paper seem to imply. In fact, the warning signs are all there. Environment officials should rethink their options, especially since the 2006 EO is clear and equivocal about its role in the preservation of biodiversity.
The government must put its foot down. Not everything can be valued in pesos and cents. “Threatened sanctuary” is an oxymoron.

adellechua@gmail.com

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