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As lockdown ends, activists brace to resume fight over Manila Bay reclamation

  • Controversial land reclamation projects in Manila Bay look set to resume as the Philippines emerges out of the strict lockdown imposed in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • President Rodrigo Duterte, who previously denounced any reclamation activity in Manila Bay due to the potential environmental impacts, has more recently given mixed messages on the issue as the administration looks for funds for its pandemic response.
  • There are 25 reclamation projects in varying stages listed with the country’s reclamation authority, at least four of which have received the go-ahead from local government units.
  • Activists say they anticipate construction — one of the activities permitted under the eased lockdown protocol set to go into force from June — to ramp up, particularly as Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program is seen as key to jump-starting the Philippine economy post-lockdown.

MANILA — Land reclamation projects in Manila Bay are expected to resume once Metro Manila transitions from lockdown this month, some part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s flagship “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.

In early April, Duterte said he was willing to sell government properties to fund his administration’s pandemic response, including allowing reclamation projects in Manila Bay that he’d previously opposed in exchange for rice and cash.

“Our reserves can only last for a few months,” Duterte said on April 6. “I am willing to sell the whole Dewey Boulevard for whoever wants to reclaim [the land around it]. Give me rice and I will approve that even if I don’t agree to reclamation.”

The 7.6-kilometer waterfront road, more popularly known as Roxas Boulevard, is a government asset that cannot be sold. The land adjacent to it, however, can. Duterte’s office retracted his statement the next day and reiterated the president’s opposition to land reclamation.

In February, Duterte addressed critics of the reclamation projects by saying he would not allow “massive land reclamations by the private sector” until the end of his term in 2022. The environmental impacts, he said, will cause the “collapse of Manila.” But he remains open to government-led reclamation projects.

Prior this, 25 land reclamation projects have already been registered and are at various stages of approval with the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA). Of these projects, at least four have already been approved.

Manila Bay is protected by a Supreme Court ruling issued in 2011, which directed government agencies and private entities to clean up, rehabilitate, preserve, restore, and maintain the waters of the bay. Satellite Landsat 2000 image of Manila Bay via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Altogether, these projects will cover roughly 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) — nearly half the size of the entire Metro Manila area. Groups opposed to the reclamation estimate that these activities will affect 10 million families directly and indirectly.

Plans to reclaim land in Manila Bay have long been opposed over the potential environmental and social costs, including the destruction of mangrove forests and  key biodiverse areas, as well as the displacement of thousands of residents and the threat of exacerbated flooding.

Manila Bay, the catchment basin for the capital, is notorious for its deadly pollution levels. It’s the subject of a Supreme Court ruling ordering government agencies to clean it up. The environment department has asked for a 1.5 billion peso ($30 million) budget this year for cleanups and water quality monitoring.

Environmental groups have expressed concern that the government’s rehabilitation efforts, which include the relocation of more than 200,000 informal settler families, are a pretext to make the area palatable for land reclamation investors. Government offices, however, deny this.

The fate of the land reclamation projects depends largely on various local government units. Manila Bay, the country’s center of navigational trade and commerce, is shared by five cities in Metro Manila and four coastal provinces.

“The first supporter of reclamation is the local government units,” says Jan Jaap Brinkman, a consultant for the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA). “If they don’t want reclamation, there will be no reclamation.”

Brinkman leads a Dutch study team that the government tapped for the Manila Bay master plan. But so far, he says, they have no good overview on the position of the local mayors when it comes to land reclamation.

Many families living in poverty built their homes and started communities along Manila Bay because it’s cheap and close to work but they face relocation as the government rehabilitates the bay. Image by Micah Castelo

Records show that 16 of the 25 reclamation projects were either initiated by local officials, the provincial government units, or are being undertaken with external entities. Of these, four have already been approved in Metro Manila: one is already under construction, and three have completed the public consultation phase.

Outside the capital, three projects are in the pipeline in Cavite province, while a major airport project has commenced in Bulacan province. “Before the lockdown, many communities already face reclamation,” says Fernando Hicap of the activist fisherfolk group Pamalakaya. “On paper, these projects are still in the application stages; but on the ground, there are construction activities going on. In Cavite alone, three projects are being constructed.”

Local blocks and blessings

The idea of reclaiming land in Manila Bay by filling in the coastline with earth to form artificial islands or extend land area isn’t new. Past reclamation projects covering more than 600 hectares (1,500 acres) have spawned commercial complexes that house the country’s biggest mall, island business parks, and residential complexes.

In the city of Manila, Mayor Francisco Domagoso, popularly known as Isko Moreno, rejected all reclamation plans when he took office in 2019. The city sits at the center of the bay, so it is entwined in many of these projects. The former mayor, Joseph “Erap” Estrada, also an ex-president, approved the 419-hectare (1,035-acre) Horizons Manila, a 100 billion peso ($2 billion) commercial district that’s set to create three islands off Manila’s port.

In Navotas, 11 km (6.8 mi) north of Manila, the 650-hectare (1,600-acre) Navotas Boulevard Business Complex has been under construction since 2017. It has been reported for putting up a seawall that has blocked local fisherfolks from municipal waters.

In Pasay, 9 km (5.6 mi) south of the capital, local officials have approved two projects: Pasay 360, a business district to be built by a private developer, and Pasay 265, backed by a public-private partnership that includes a subsidiary of Chinese state-owned developer China Communications Construction Company Ltd. (CCCC).

Status of Reclamation Projects. Inter-Agency Meeting on Reclamation Projects, 17 May 2018. Image courtesy of PRA.

Ver Madrona, from the Pasay City legal office, says the municipality has “complied with all the requirements imposed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the issuance of the Environmental Compliance Certificate and Area Clearance on the Project. Several national agencies have likewise issued separate certifications of ‘No Objection’ to the Manila Bay reclamation project.”

But another project in the bay doesn’t have as much political support. The Las Piñas-Parañaque Coastal Bay Project, a 635-hectare (1,570-acre) joint initiative by the cities of Las Piñas and Parañaque, stalled after Cynthia Villar, a senator, filed a legal block with the Supreme Court late last year. The 14 billion peso ($276 million) project, which would cut through the 175-hectare (430-acre) Freedom Island, a Ramsar site and a known spot for migratory birds, is intended to be a new airport to ease congestion at Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

Further south, in the province of Cavite, three reclamation projects are progressing: the 320-hectare (790-acre) Bacoor Reclamation and Development Project and its attached 100-hectare (250-acre) Diamond Reclamation and Development Project, both in Bacoor City; a 70-hectare (170-acre) offshore gambling hub in the city of Kawit; and the Cavite Coast Sangley Point, or Sangley Point International Airport Project, a 2,700-hectare (6,670-acre) facility that’s included in Duterte’s updated “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.

The airport project was awarded in February to a consortium that includes CCCC, and the airport is included in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, according to a report from The Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Pandemic season

Work on the various Manila Bay reclamation projects was suspended when the national government imposed a lockdown, or enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), on March 17 to curb the spread of COVID-19. The Philippines has recorded 14,319 cases and 873 deaths as of May 25. More than half of these cases are in Metro Manila.

With the easing of the lockdown from May 16, groups critical of the reclamation projects say they anticipate these activities will commence immediately. The eased lockdown, known as the modified ECQ, allows local governments to identify and implement zoning schemes for high-risk areas in their respective cities. Specifically, it allows companies to operate with 50% of manpower until the end of May. After that, an even looser general community quarantine (GCQ) comes into force, which will allow construction activities to resume.

A coastal road project that will encroach on the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA), a Ramsar site south of Manila Bay, has been halted by a legal block. Image by Elmer Nev Valenzuela via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“We anticipate the worst, but we’ll play it by ear,” says Pamalakaya’s Hicap. “We haven’t grasped the full impact of the pandemic on our organizational work yet but our movements, especially our community assemblies, will definitely be affected.”

Under the ECQ, all domestic land, air and sea travel was banned, employees ordered to work from home, public transportation suspended, and only select businesses allowed to operate. The initial lockdown in Metro Manila was set to end on April 14, but was extended to April 30, and again to May 15.

Other provinces and regions have already begun transitioning to a modified GCQ, an even laxer version of the GCQ, starting May 16. Sectors allowed to operate under these conditions include mining and quarrying, forestry and logging, extraction of crude oil and natural gas, and construction.

The administration’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program, delayed due to the pandemic, has been given the green light during the GCQ. Officials see the program as key to jump-starting the Philippine economy following the massive reallocation of state funds for pandemic response and suspension of development during the lockdown.

The country is expected to transition into a “new normal” from June onward, which will see the continuation of social distancing rules and the mandatory wearing of face masks in public and temperature checks for entry into establishments.

For communities, the lifting of the lockdown also signals the continuation of what they tout as the battle for Manila Bay. “The communities are ready,” Hicap says. “Reclamation projects are likely to continue. We anticipate things to escalate once lockdown lifts.”

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Banner image of egrets at the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA), a Ramsar site in Manila Bay. Image by Elmer Nev Valenzuela via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0

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