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The battle for Manila Bay: reclamation or the commons

May 10, 2013 3:00pm
It's summertime and the fishing is easy on Manila Bay.

Crisaldo Alte, 52, has been throwing his hook and line from the seawall here for decades ("wala pa yang baywalk na 'yan") and on most days has never failed to catch an assortment of fish.

He boasts that he has caught a fish here called "buwan-buwan," a larger specimen of which he saw on the Discovery channel being hauled in by none other than former US president George Bush.

He and his equally swarthy friend Rey Modesto, 59, then rattle off the names of the other fish they have caught in these waters just next to the Manila Yacht Club, where boats of billionaires face the makeshift rods of men who fish for the day's meal. "Terrapon, mamalig, banak, kanduli," they say alternately. "Babansi, asuos, sekoy."
Location of the proposed Solar City.
"Minsan ang daming alamang, magbababa ka lang ng maliit na lambat," says Modesto.

Then there's the tilapia all the fishers along the bay call "Arroyo," branded such, they believe, because of the black spots on its face. "Parang Dalmatian," says Alte with a wide grin.

Conversations on any given morning along the bay easily contradict claims that it is dead, an argument asserted in a land developer's controversial proposal to reclaim 148 hectares of this portion of the bay, a stone's throw from the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Dead bay?

According to project developer Manila Goldcoast, the reclamation project “will not cause any disruption of whatever nature to the bay’s marine ecology, not when studies conclusively show the absence of marine life – even sponges and ascidians that are tolerant to turbid and polluted water – in the project site and contiguous areas.”

“[The project] will not impact adversely on the environment,” it concluded in its project statement.

The developer's claim of a dead bay – as well as the expected obstruction of Manila's iconic sunset – are among the various contentious issues surrounding the plan, which was quietly approved by the Manila city government last year and is now the target of an array of creative protest actions led by artists of the CCP.

On Earth Day last April 23, a long row of CCP workers and artists in Filipiniana costumes formed a long human chain along the seawall to protest the project. More recently, a satirical art installation billboard went up on the CCP's front lawn announcing the rise of a faux condo complex that would supposedly block the sunset.

The two-kilometer stretch from the Manila Yacht Club to the US Embassy along Roxas Blvd. is nearly all that remains of open sea that faces Manila. Much of the original seaside from Tondo to Cavite has already been transformed by previous projects that transformed sea into land.

Manila Goldcoast is now eyeing the area behind the yacht club as an upscale business district with high-rise office and commercial buildings, which would rival Eastwood in Libis or The Fort but bigger, with space for casinos and a mall.

Manila city government reverses itself

The plan is the latest battleground between the moneyed forces of privatization and citizens groups trying to stop the further encroachment by vested interests of "the commons," or public space where even the poor would have equal access.

The plan was approved by Manila City Hall in 2012 after the city council surprisingly reversed a decision in 1992 by an earlier set of councilors. But unlike in 1992, when a private developer could be contracted by the national reclamation authority to do the project, the rules have been changed so that the city government is now the official proponent with a developer partner.

Now an advocate of reclamation, Mayor Alfredo Lim had originally backed the council's ordinance prohibiting the reclamation of the last remaining portion of the bay along Roxas Blvd. that is accessible to the general public.

Back then, local government heeded the call of citizens groups that drew the line on reclamation, vowing to preserve that hallowed two-kilometer unprivatized stretch of sunset view, where shoeless non-mall goers could enjoy one of the free perks of being a Manila resident.

In the last year, Manila's city government has leaped exuberantly to the side of the developer.

Critics snipe that the timing of the approval of the P12-billion reclamation project so close to the elections is not coincidental. Local officials counter that they are only doing what is best for the city.

The proposed Solar City project is being envisioned as Manila’s financial hub, with space as well for malls and casinos. According to its developers, the 148-hectare project will be divided into three “islands,” one of which will house the “first international cruise ship terminal” in the country.

The project is part of the government's National Reclamation Plan, which includes 38 other proposed reclamation sites stretching from Cavite to Bataan.

Fred Lim and Isko Moreno agree for a change

Now mortal enemies who have been busy throwing brickbats at each other during the campaign, Mayor Alfredo Lim and Vice Mayor Isko Moreno, who are both running for re-election, find themselves on the same side of the reclamation issue, with both strongly supporting the project as a fast way for Manila to catch up with other cities.

"Makakasama ba sa Maynila? In terms of revenues ‘yung mga real property taxes, business that will be established there, ang makikinabang City of Manila," Lim told GMA News Online.

When asked why he reversed himself just a year before the May elections, Lim sidestepped the issue and instead said, "Sa lahat ng parte ng mundo, pag nagkaroon ng reclamation e nagiging productive."

Moreno, for his part, said this "city within a city" has been "one of my dreams for Manila.”

“Una, tignan mo for the past 21 years, we are being left behind. I will give you a very honest and comparative example: 21 years ago, there is no Fort Bonifacio development in Taguig. Ang tawag nga roon ay munisipyo ng Taguig, probinsya ng Rizal. Now, Taguig City,” he added.

"Now, 21 years thereafter, what can we offer? Nothing… That’s why we came up with the idea of reclamation," Moreno further explained.

Rene dela Cruz, Mayor Lim’s long-time aide and now the city's legal officer, simply explained that the mayor opted to accommodate development to attract investors.

“Wala na kaming matayuan ng any activity or business anymore. No businessman [is] interested here. Manila is the only city in NCR (National Capital Region) that has a potential of business expansion. Manila lang ang may bay. That’s why, bakit hindi tayo maglagay ng business potential,” he said.

He said the project may also help plug the P3 billion deficit that the city is facing, a fact that Lim's opponent in the mayoralty race, former President Joseph Estrada, has been harping on during the campaign.

For his part, lawyer Luch Gempis, secretary to the City Council of Manila, said, “Much as we want to transform Manila under our current setup, there is this big budgetary constraint."

“Unless we do something drastic, parang wala nang pupuntahan ang budgetary deficit,” he added.

Public consultations?

What was considered drastic by the city government was considered sneaky by a rainbow coalition opposed to the reclamation for various reasons.

The group claimed that despite the fact that the opposition dates back to the early 1990s, none of them knew that the city government was about to sign a deal with Goldcoast.

Less than one year after the City of Manila issued Ordinance No. 8233 that provides power to the City Mayor to take steps in reclamation, Goldcoast and the City of Manila entered in a Contractual Consortium Agreement in April 2012.

In less than 10 days, the City Council hastily ratified the agreement, leading to a memorandum of agreement between the city, Goldcoast and the Philippine Reclamation Authority in June.

Two supposed public hearings were held in October before the city council finally ratified the agreement last December.

Although the City Council of Manila and the Mayor’s Office claimed to hold public consultations, a committee report of the City Council's laws committee showed otherwise.

“The public hearings were held on 04 and 11 October 2012 wherein the representatives of Goldcoast, PRA and the City Legal Officer were present,” the report said, notably failing to mention the sectors representing the public.

A staff member of Councilor Jong Isip, chairman of the City Council's laws committee, said environmental organizations such as the EcoWaste Coalition and Gaia Philippines were present during the public hearings and were just not mentioned in the report.

However, in an inquiry by GMA News Online, those groups denied having attended any public hearings.

Secrecy, last-minute invitations

A representative from the EcoWaste Coalition noted that the Manila council indeed invited them to the public hearings but always at the last minute.  

“Halimbawa bukas na ‘yung meeting, ngayon lang kami sasabihan. Paano kami makaka-attend e may naka-schedule din naman kaming engagements,” said Paeng Lopez.

The group S.O.S. Manila Bay: Save our Sunset movement questioned the contract between the Manila local government and GoldCoast as it allegedly failed to conduct public consultations.

The agreement between the City of Manila and Goldcoast was “shrouded in secrecy,” environmental lawyer Galahad Pe Benito told GMA News Online in a phone interview. “Why resurrect the project? That’s why it is a big question for us.”

Lory Tan of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) concurred with Benito, saying: “How can they claim to have had [public] consultation when [the agreement was made] confidential.”

Impact on environment

At the very least, the project's opponents say the plan's impact on the environment should have been thoroughly studied first before the contract was signed.

For one, they say that by turning sea into land, the project will aggravate the flooding experienced on Roxas Blvd. and other parts of Manila during the rainy season.

But Manila Goldcoast said this was unlikely. “It will not cause floods and will, in fact, reduce the occurrence of floods like other reclamation models all over the globe,” it said in a statement.

But that scenario is far from conclusive, according to environmental scientist Dr. Rene Rollon, director at the Institute of Environmental Science & Meteorology–University of the Philippines, who is among those calling for more project studies.

Rollon explained that the main cause of the recent flooding in areas adjacent to the bay came from river channels that drain into the bay. He said impeding the land-sea interaction will just worsen flooding.

“Kung flooding na galing sa dagat, hindi naman ‘yan isyu ngayon, actually, ang flooding galing sa taas [ang mas dapat problemahin],” he said.

Rollon is among the citizens asking the government for a 10-year moratorium on reclamation.

“Ang tingin ko, pag ginawa mo 'yung reclamation, parang you are declaring na wala ka nang pakialam sa connection ng sea at land essentially. Wala ka nang pakialam kung may function ang coastline na ito. Ito ‘yung binubura mo,” he said.

Critics have called for the redevelopment of existing land in Manila instead rather than filling in the bay, and point to parts of reclaimed Pasay that have been neglected, its infrastructure unfinished or unoccupied.

Ball now with DENR

With the project approval by Manila's city government, the ball is now in the hands of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which has the power to issue or withhold environmental compliance certificates on certain projects.

According to City Legal Officer Rene dela Cruz, the DENR has yet to issue the (ECC) for the Manila Bay reclamation project.

If they acquire the coveted clearance, the project's proponents are just one step closer to getting the Notice to Proceed from the Reclamation Authority – a pro forma permit from the agency that has long pushed for the project.

Regardless of who wins the election in Manila, the next city administration will not be inclined to stop or slow down the reclamation of the bay, not when it is one of the few issues on which both Lim and Moreno, running on opposing tickets, see eye to eye. — HS/KBK, GMA News
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