Unedited version of my article in The Philippine Online Chronicles’ OY! Project. Enjoy!
SAVE TUBBATAHA. Environmental activists displayed colorful marine-themed placards calling for immediate redresses in the destruction of over 4,000 sqm of mature corals in the Tubbataha Reef National Park. Photo by Leon Dulce
The grim numbers of Tubbataha are slowly sinking in.
The estimated damage on coral reefs in the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park caused by the minesweeper USS Guardian is now pegged at an extent of 4,500 square meters, which rise to as high as 10 meters. This level of coral maturity required 2,500 years of growth. Its destruction will affect the home of more than 350 species of corals, 600 species of fish, 2 species of sea turtles, 12 species of marine mammals, 56 species of invertebrates and 7 types of birds. An estimate of at least 600 kilos worth of annual fish catch is expected to be lost.
These data were discussed at length in a gathering of environmentalists, scientists, fisherfolks, lawyers, women’s groups and other sectoral organizations held in Quezon City last February 23. The ecological, socio-economic and political impacts of the minesweeper USS Guardian’s grounding on the Tubbataha Reef National Park were assessed to form a broad unity that will claim economic and social justice for the maritime disaster.
The implications of the incident are expected to go beyond the patch of corals that may seem minuscule to the uninformed. Frances Quimpo, executive director of the Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines (CEC Phils), said scientific studies demonstrate the integral role of Tubbataha Reef to seed the entire Sulu Sea with coral and fish larvae.
The Reef is in the very heart of the Coral Triangle, a globally critical and biodiversity-rich area that covers marine ecosystems in Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. Its disruption spells disaster especially for our local small fisherfolks who are considered the nation’s poorest in 2006 and 2009 with a poverty incidence ranging from 23.9 to 66.7 percent according to the National Statistics Coordination Board.
From left: Marine ecologist Dr. Rex Montebon, fisherfolk leader Pedro Gonzales, women’s rights activist Joms Salvador and physicist Dr. Giovanni Tapang presenting scientific, socio-economic and political assessments of the Tubbataha grounding incident. Photo by Leon Dulce
Tubbataha also a problem of sovereignty, patrimony
The women’s group Gabriela called the incident “the Rape of Tubbataha” for its clear violations of our country’s national patrimony and sovereign rights as a free nation. Aside from violating several sections of Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs National Park Act of 2009, the disaster was the latest of long-standing unpunished environmental and social crimes that military forces of the United States have done with impunity in the Philippines.
The Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), among other onerous bilateral agreements with the US government, was pinpointed as the underlying policy that allowed for such grave abuses from their warships and troops.
Green groups have previously noted how past military exercises involving naval maneuverings and live fire exercises under the VFA have already caused the destruction of coral reefs, the pollution of ecosystems and even the death of civilians. In 2004, US naval ships indiscriminately discharged sewage waste and oil in Subic Bay, a feat repeated by the tanker MT Glenn Guardian when it dumped 189,500 liters of hazardous domestic waste and 760 liters of toxic bilge water again into Subic.
Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, noted how routine port calls of frigates, submarines and other US naval warships are presently being made almost on a monthly basis due to the VFA and in line with their rebalancing of forces from West Asia to the Asia-Pacific to challenge the regional dominance of China.
Dr. Giovanni Tapang, chairperson of the AGHAM-Advocates of Science & Technology for the People warned that there may be more to the incident than just an accident, noting reports that billions of barrels of crude oil may be lying underneath Tubbataha. In fact, 15,000 hectares of Tubbataha were originally covered by oil exploration efforts.
Justice beyond financial compensation
In response to the grounding incident, involved US personnel offered no explanation for their trip to Tubbataha and their hostile response to park managers and Philippine Coastguard personnel who attempted to get near the grounded USS Guardian. Instead, they merely expressed their apologies and willingness to pay for financial compensation.
The Aquino government displayed a clear reluctance to answer this issue. Clearly, such responses from both the US and Philippine governments will not sit well with the Filipino people.
The forum organizers led by CEC Phils, Gabriela, the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment and the Center for Women’s Resources, united in the demand for “justice beyond financial compensation”, calling for the prosecution of liable officials and the payment of all charges necessary to restore Tubbataha Reef to its pristine state prior to the grounding.
Participants of the confab led the formation of Task Force Tubbataha (TFT), an alliance convened by environment, women and other sectoral groups pushing for the due prosecution of liable entities in the Tubbataha grounding and the revocation of the VFA. Among the proposals of the TFT’s initial conveners include the following:
- The formation of a multi-disciplinary Technical Working Group that will assess the extent of reef damage, including a baseline inventory of the different types and characteristics of the affected coral reefs, the economic valuation of their ecosystem services, and even the socio-economic indicators of surrounding communities affected by the impacts of the grounding incident;
- Immediately conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the incident to verify the motives, errors and culpability of the erring US personnel as well as the negligence of local public officials mandated to address this issue;
- Exhaust all legal actions possible to compel government agencies to enforce laws on our environment and sovereignty, hold accountable all erring US personnel and agencies and reverse onerous bilateral agreements such as the VFA and the Mutual Defense Treaty.
The TFT said they are prepared to bring the issue even up to the United Nations. Earlier, Bayan Muna Partylist Representative Teddy Casiño and Kabataan Partylist Representative Raymond Palatino filed House Resolution 3012 condemning the incident and calling for immediate redresses. These efforts must come together in a massive coordinated effort to win this landmark fight that would not only rehabilitate a World Heritage Site, but may very well bring back the dignity of the Philippines as a nation.#
Leon Dulce is the campaign coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment and a grassroots new media trainer for the Computer Professionals’ Union. He casually blogs and tweets in his spare time.