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Popular opposition suspends a bridge project in a Philippine coral haven

The Indigenous Tagbanua community, who successfully fought against an earlier project to build a theme park, say they were not consulted about the bridge project in Palawan.

Nicole Tayag, 30, learned to snorkel at 5 when her father took her to the teeming waters of Coron to scout for potential tourist destinations back in 1995. One particularly biodiverse site they found was the Lusong coral garden, southwest of this island town in the Philippines’ Palawan province.

“Even just at the surface, I saw how lively the place was,” Tayag told Mongabay. “We drove our boat for so many times that I remember the passage as one of the places I see dolphins jumping and rays flying up the water. It has inspired me to see more underwater, which led me to my career as a scuba diver instructor now.”

Tayag said she holds a special place in her heart for Lusong coral garden. So when she heard that a government-funded bridge would be built through it, she said was concerned about its impact on the marine environment and tourism industry. Before the pandemic, the 644-hectare (1,591-acre) Bintuan marine protected area (MPA), which covers this dive site, received an average of 3,000 tourists weekly, generating up to 259 million pesos ($5.4 million) in annual revenue. Bintuan is one of the MPAs in the Philippines considered by experts as being managed effectively.

The planned 4.2 billion peso ($88.6 million) road from Coron to the island of Culion would run just over 20 kilometers (12.5 miles), of which only about an eighth would constitute the actual bridge span, according to a government document obtained by Mongabay.

Tayag said they’ve been hearing about the project for 20 years now. “[I] didn’t give much thought about it before, really.” Then, in March this year, Mark Villar, secretary of the Philippine Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), posted the project’s conceptual design on his Facebook page.

Tayag said she was shocked that the project was finally going through. “I was even more shocked when I realised it’s so close to historical dive sites and to coral garden,” she said.

Without the concerned citizens and organisations who raised the alarm bell in this project, this would have gone in the way of so many so-called infrastructure projects, which are disregarding our sacred rights to a balanced and healthful ecology.

Gloria Ramos, country leader, Oceana Philippines

Part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure programme, construction of the Coron-Culion bridge was scheduled from 2020 to 2023. By November 2020, site clearing had already started in the area designated for the bridge’s access road.

But on April 7 this year, the Philippine government announced it was suspending the project to ensure mitigating measures for its environmental impact are in place. This follows a public outcry from academics, civil society groups and nonprofit organizations that say the project is fraught with risks and irregularities.

“Without the concerned citizens and organisations who raised the alarm bell in this project, this would have gone in the way of so many so-called infrastructure projects, which are disregarding our sacred rights to a balanced and healthful ecology,” said Gloria Ramos, head of the NGO Oceana Philippines.

Cultural heritage collapse

Tayag is part of a group, Buklod Calamianes, that initiated an online petition seeking to stop the project. They warned of the damage that the bridge construction could pose to the marine environment, as it would sit within a 5-km (3-mi) radius of seven of the top underwater attractions in Coron and Culion. In addition to the Lusong coral garden, these dive sites include six Japanese shipwrecks from World War II.

“Heavy sedimentation from the construction will settle upon these fragile shipwrecks and potentially cause the collapse of these precious historical underwater sites,” said the petition, which has been signed by more than 19,000 people.

Palawan Studies Center executive director Michael Angelo Doblado said the shipwrecks need to be protected because they’re historically significant heritage sites of local and global importance. “These are evidence that important battles between the American and Japanese air and sea forces happened there.”

Doblado, who is also a professor of history at Palawan State University, said the occurrence of these shipwrecks also highlights that the Calamianes island group that includes Coron and Culion was important for the Japanese forces, whose weapons and other equipment relied on Coron as a source of manganese.

“For these wrecks and its local importance to Coron and its people, that would be left to them to decide,” he told Mongabay. “Is it really important for them historically as a municipality that they will be willing to preserve and protect it? Or will they be willing to sacrifice and give it up as a price for development?

“It also begs the question, if tourism is one of the major earners of Coron, and the proposed bridge … will boost its tourism, is it not ironic that the shipwrecks … will be directly affected by this infrastructure project that is supposed to boost tourism?”

The government had touted the bridge as improving connectivity between the islands to boost the tourism and agriculture sectors, among other benefits. But if it really wants to help the local tourism sector, Doblado said, the government “should have carried out a construction plan that skirts or avoids destroying or affecting these shipwrecks which are famous dive sites and considered as artificial reefs that promote aquatic growth and diversity in that area.”

This would swell the construction cost, he said, but would be vital to saving not only the historical underwater ruins but the marine environment and tourism industry in the long run.

Impact on marine ecosystems

The Philippines has around 25,000 square kilometers (9,700 square miles) of coral reefs, the world’s third-largest extent, and its waters are known for the highest biodiversity of corals and shore fishes, a 2019 study noted. However, the same study showed that the country, located at the apex of the Pacific Coral Triangle, lost about a third of its reef corals over the past decade, and none of the reefs surveyed were in a condition that qualified as “excellent.”

The bridge project added to concerns about the loss of hard-coral cover. Tayag’s group estimated that it would affect 334 hectares (825 acres) of corals, as well as 140 hectares (346 acres) of mangroves. It said the heavy sedimentation, runoff and silt from the construction could cloud the water, blocking the sunlight that’s essential for the growth of the algae that, in turn, nourish the corals.

Coral expert Wilfredo Licuanan from De La Salle University in Manila told Mongabay that the corals and the abundance of sea life they support are quite sensitive to water quality change due to sedimentation. “If you have sediments … their feeding structures are clogged, light penetration is hindered … and then there’s general smothering of life on the sea bottom.”

When corals are undernourished, he said, it can prevent the calcium carbonate accumulation that constitutes reef growth and that takes tens of thousands of years. “If the corals are not able to produce enough calcium carbonate, your reef is not able to continue to grow and … will start eroding,” Licuanan said.

Once that happens, the reefs will not be able to keep up with climate change-induced sea level rise, and will cease to protect the coastlines from big waves and to serve as habitat for many other species, including those that feed fishing communities. “So, all the ecosystem services of coral reefs are dependent on the position of calcium carbonate skeleton,” Licuanan said.

“Any construction activity, be it road building, resort construction, anything of that sort requires that you move earth,” Licuanan said. “You dig, you relocate soil, and so on. And almost always, that means a lot of the soil gets mobilised and is brought to the sea, causing sedimentation.”

That impact to the reef ecosystem will reverberate up to the residents who depend on it for their livelihoods, said Miguel Fortes, a marine scientist and professor at the University of the Philippines. “If you destroy one, you’re actually destroying the other,” he said in an Oceana online forum.

Fortes said it takes about 35 years for damaged coral reefs to recover. That compares to about 25 years for mangroves and a year for seagrass, both of which are useful in mitigating climate change, he said. In Coron and Culion, these ecosystems provide estimated annual economic benefits of 3.7 billion pesos ($77.2 million), on top of the 4.1 billion pesos ($85.2 million) generated by the islands’ recreation zones.

Coron Bay’s fisheries production is an important spawning and nursery ground, said Jomel Baobao, a fisheries management specialist with the nonprofit Path Foundation Inc., one of the partner implementers of the USAID Fish Right project. The five communities adjacent to the bridge project alone stand to benefit from a total estimated yield of 89 million pesos ($1.8 million) annually.

“A USAID-funded larval dispersal study showed that Bintuan area is the sink for larvae that come from different sources, making it a rich nursery ground,” Baobao told Mongabay. He added that Coron Bay serves to funnel larvae from the Sulu Sea and West Philippine Sea, and any disruption to that flow could affect fishing yields in Bintuan and other areas.

“The narrowest portion in the bay located in Bintuan where the bridge will be constructed is significant to water exchange between these two seas,” Baobao said. This might be affected if there will be ecosystem loss or destruction in the area because of the bridge.”

The area’s reefs are home to economically important species such as red grouper, lobster and round scad, as well as giant clams, according to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. Among the coral species that flourish around the Calamianes island group are two endangered ones: Pectinia maxima and Anacropora spinosaIn the Philippines, the latter is found only in the Calamianes.

No green permits

Preliminary tree cutting and clearing of the road leading to the bridge entrance reportedly began in November 2020, raising fears that it could trigger siltation that could jeopardize the marine park.

In a 2020 paper, Licuanan said that management actions, such as enhanced regulation of road construction on slopes leading to the sea and rivers that open into the sea, and consequent limitations on government infrastructure programs that impinge on these critical areas, are crucial in conserving the country’s remaining coral reefs.

“Road building practices locally are particularly destructive because they [the DPWH and private contractors] rarely prioritize soil conservation,” he told Mongabay.

But despite the recent activity, the project has not received the green light from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a provincial government agency. PCSD spokesman John Vincent Fabello told Mongabay that no strategic environmental plan (SEP) clearance has been issued to the DPWH for the project. The clearance would essentially guarantee that the high-impact project is located outside ecologically critical zones like marine parks.

“They [DPWH] don’t have an SEP clearance yet,” Fabello said. “Government big-ticket projects still have to [go] through the SEP clearance system of the PCSD. Administrative fines shall be imposed if building commences without the necessary clearance and permits from PCSD and related agencies.”

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said it will also require the DPWH to undertake an environmental impact assessment to obtain an environmental compliance certificate and tree cutting permit for the project. “Government projects will still go through the permitting; you have to follow the process … but it will be faster,” said DENR regional director Maria Lourdes Ferrer.

The DPWH confirmed it had not undertaken the required public consultations, feasibility study, or permit applications prior to the start of construction activities. DPWH regional director Yolanda Tangco said they fast-tracked the construction work because the initial 250 million pesos ($5.2 million) in project funding released to the agency in 2020 would have to be returned to the treasury if it was not spent within two years.

Fortes said this reasoning is unacceptable because projects should not only be politically expedient but also based on scientific evidence and actual user needs.

“To me, this means money still supersedes more vital imperatives [such as] cultural and ecological,” he said. “Poor planning is evident here because it entails huge sacrifices.”

Tangco said her office expects to receive additional construction funding for 2021 to 2023 from the national government. “But if we have decided not to continue it, we will remove it [in our proposal]. Most probably, we will revert the funding and terminate the contract,” she said.

She added that in the feasibility study expected to be completed in July 2021, the public works office is considering two more route options: “Our alignment isn’t fixed. If we can find an alignment with lesser impacts to the environment and Indigenous people, we will pursue that and issue variation and change orders [to the contractor].”

Indigenous communities fight back

The Indigenous Tagbanua community of Culion has slammed the project for failing to obtain their permission through a process of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), required under Philippine law.

“We don’t want that bridge here because we fear that it will affect many — our seas, our livelihoods, our lands we inherited from our ancestors,” Indigenous federation chairman Larry Sinamay, who organised a rally on April 5, told Mongabay. “Where would we get our food when our place is destroyed by this project?”

“The social and sacred value of this traditional space to the Tagbanua should be respected by every member of the community, even us outsiders, tourists and developers,” said Kate Lim, an archaeologist who has conducted studies in the region. “The concept of ancestral domain is that it’s communal and utilised by everyone and not just by one sector only.”

In a letter dated March 31, the federation of 24 Tagbanua communities appealed to the national government to halt the project’s preliminary construction activities, pending impact assessments.

“If we receive no response to our plea, we will be forced to seek legal remedies to fight for our Indigenous rights provided under the Philippine Constitution, Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, and other laws related to environment and natural resources,” the federation said at the time.

The Tagbanuas have experience standing up to projects they see as imperiling their environment and culture. In 2017, they banded together to stop a proposed Nickelodeon theme park, which also lacked the necessary scientific studies, consultations and permits.

“Even if we are battling a pandemic, we can’t forget that our battle to protect Palawan’s natural resources must go on,” said Anna Oposa, executive director of Save Philippine Seas, who joined the Tagbanuas in fighting the Nickelodeon project. “The Tagbanua IPs have the experience and power to block or at the very least significantly delay this potentially destructive project and come to a consensus with other stakeholders.”

While the public pressure has prompted the government to suspend the project, the community says it isn’t dropping its guard.

“In a time of pandemic and lockdowns, projects are easily sneaked in and started out of the public’s eye who are confined in their homes,” Tayag said.

“We are closely monitoring these bateltelan [hard-headed] officials. We trust that the government offices looking into this project will do what is right and not just focus on its ‘good intention.’”

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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