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Missing mangroves are root of contention over Philippine airport project

  • Work on a new international airport project in Bulacan, just north of Manila, has already resulted in the decimation of more than 600 mangrove trees in the Manila Bay area, residents say.
  • Bulacan’s coast is a key mangrove forest and important bird and biodiversity area, and one of several sites along the bay that’s facing threats due to land reclamation projects.
  • The Bulacan “aerotropolis,” a 2,500-hectare (6,200-acre) airport complex, is part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s revised “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program and has been awarded to San Miguel Corporation, the Philippines’ biggest company by revenue.
  • The cutting of mangroves is prohibited under Philippine law, but no one has been held accountable for the hundreds of trees cut in Bulacan — a problem that residents and environmental groups say will intensify as construction of the airport returns to full force by October.

MANILA — On July 29, the San Miguel Corporation, the Philippines’ largest company by revenue, started planting 25,000 mangrove trees in a coastal area just north of the capital, Manila.

The 10-hectare (25-acre) project in Hagonoy municipality, Bulacan province, is part of the company’s plan to plant 190,000 mangroves over 76 hectares (188 acres) in Bulacan and neighboring provinces. In a statement, San Miguel president Ramon Ang said it would help address flooding and environmental concerns in the area, which is the future site of a 2,500-hectare (6,200-acre) airport complex, called an “aerotropolis,” that San Miguel is building.

But the planting campaign hasn’t assuaged the concerns of environmental groups, which are largely leery of the mega project and its impact on the environment. “While this may sound [like] good news to marine conservationists, this, in fact, won’t absolve San Miguel Corporation from their crimes against the environment and the coastal communities in Bulacan,” Jerwin Baure of scientist group AGHAM Diliman said in a statement. “Mangrove planting does not make the giant corporation … pro-environment and pro-conservation.”

The “crimes” refer to the clearing of mangroves  — illegal under Philippine law — in the area since 2018. Environmental rights groups say residents have told them of how hired laborers who identified themselves as representatives of San Miguel cut down more than 600 mangrove trees in Taliptip, a fishing village in Bulacan, to prepare for the construction of the airport.

Mangroves, nipa trees plantations, migratory birds and fishponds in Bambang and Taliptip, Bulakan, Philippines. Image by Judgefloro via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)

San Miguel has denied any involvement in the clearing of the mangroves in 2018. The regional office of the Department of Natural Resources (DENR) has still not identified the perpetrators, and no one has been held accountable to date. While fishponds near the mangroves have been sold to private groups, “evidence did not point to the [aerotropolis] project as the reason for the damage,” says environment department regional director Celia Esteban.

The mangrove forests in Manila Bay have been steadily degraded over the decades to make way for infrastructure and commercial hubs. The incident in Taliptip, which sits about 25 kilometers (16 miles) north along the bay from Manila, coincides with the construction of the aerotropolis and can’t be a coincidence, says Fernando Hicap of Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya), a fisherfolk group.

The Bulacan aerotropolis, or New Manila International Airport, which aims to decongest the country’s primary airport, Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), is part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s revised “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program and among the 25 identified land reclamation projects taking place along Manila Bay.

There’s skepticism that the mangroves in Taliptip will be spared from the airport project; its sheer size will require the developer to fill in fishponds and salt beds that are a stone’s throw from the mangroves. Yet government offices and San Miguel’s environmental consultant firm, Philkairos Inc., have told residents that the 24.5-hectare (60.5-acre) Bulakan Mangrove Ecopark “will be left undisturbed.”

Mangrove area in Taliptip, Bulacan. Image courtesy of Save Taliptip movement

“It is not easy to replace decades-old mangrove forests,” Baure says. “As the airport’s construction commences this October, cutting of more mangrove trees is inevitable, an act which the DENR claims is entirely prohibited under existing environmental laws.”

Mongabay contacted San Miguel for comment on this story but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

 The victims

 In August 2018, Shirley Bacon woke up to find more than 600 mangrove trees destroyed in Taliptip, a community of almost 5,500 people, where fishing and producing salt are the main forms of livelihood. Most of the residents are informal settlers; some of them relocated here from decluttered shanties in Manila, but most have lived in Taliptip their whole lives and seen the mangroves take root through the decades.

The same mangrove thicket attracts thousands of migratory birds every year, says Cristina Cinco of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP). “When we go to Taliptip from 2016 to 2018, there were numerous houses in the mangrove areas,” Cinco says. “We saw a boy grow up; he’s a teenager now during that span of time. He always joins us for our birdwatching activities.”

By January this year, when Cinco’s group returned to the mangrove forests as part of the annual Asian Waterbird Census, they met the teenager again, now against a missing backdrop: houses were gone and mangrove trees had been cut down.

Early this year, birdwatchers saw 24 endangered black-faced spoonbill (Platalea minor) wading in the future site of the airport. Image by spaceaero2 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Mangroves were also cleared in the smaller villages of Capol, Bunutan and Pariahan, all in Bulacan province. Similar cases have been reported throughout the 199,400-hectare (492,700-acre) Manila Bay coastline. All these incidents took place the same way as in Taliptip: in the middle of the night.

Manila is believed to have gotten its name from the mangrove species that once proliferated throughout the bay. Known locally as nilad (Scyphiphora hydrophylacea), “these mangroves have grown profusely along Manila Bay and the Pasig River since pre-Hispanic times,” local mangrove expert Jurgenne Primavera tells Mongabay. The ecosystem of which they’re a part yields important fisheries products such as seaweed, fish, crabs, prawns and mollusks for food. The trees themselves have, throughout the country’s history, provided firewood, timber, dye, fiber, honey, drink and medicine.

But more than their uses for daily life, mangroves reduce, attenuate and even absorb wave energy, acting as natural shields against storm surges and tsunamis. A kilometer of mangrove forest can reduce surface wind waves by more than 75%, Primavera says. “They will mitigate the impact of rampaging waves — nature’s protection against nature’s fury,” she adds.

But the mangrove cover along the bay has been decimated: from 54,000 hectares (133,400 acres) at the end of the 19th century, it shrank to 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) by the early 1990s, and 794 hectares (1,962 acres) by 1995. Today, there are less than 500 hectares (1,236 acres) left of the centuries-old mangrove forests, according to the DENR. These remaining clusters can be found in Bulacan and in Cavite, in the southern stretch of Manila Bay.

Mangrove area in Taliptip, Bulacan. Image courtesy of Save Taliptip movement

Bulacan alone is home to 22 mangrove species, including piapi (Avicennia marina), a sturdy tree that serves as both a natural wave barrier and shelter for fish, according to Stay Grounded, a global network of more than 150 organizations that oppose the airport project.

Losing the mangroves for the airport will leave Bulacan with 294 hectares (726 acres) of mangroves, according to a forest mapping project conducted by Homer Pagkalinawan from the University of the Philippines. And the loss could render the community — and the airport that will be built on the cleared site — exposed to the more than 20 typhoons that hack through the archipelago on an annual basis, he says.

For fisherfolks, the loss of the mangroves could impact the abundance and diversity of fish species in the area. Manila Bay might be the center of the country’s navigational trade and commerce, but for locals, it’s a major fishing ground, albeit one where fish catches are declining after decades of illegal fishing and industrial pollution.

The alleged suspect

On a map, the site of the aerotropolis is a mosaic of squares: salt farms and fishponds spanning 2,000 hectares bought by Silvertides Holdings Corp., a company San Miguel has contracted to carry out land acquisition. While Silvertides isn’t a subsidiary of San Miguel, the relationship between the two companies isn’t clear.

Site of the New Manila International Airport in Bulacan, Philippines. Map courtesy of Oceana Philippines

It was Silvertides that received an environmental and compliance certificate (ECC) for an unidentified land development project on June 14, 2019, that covers the villages of Taliptip and Bambang. It’s in this same area where San Miguel plans to build its aerotropolis, through a 50-year concession agreement signed with the Department of Transportation on Sept. 18, 2019, under a “build-operate-transfer” agreement.

The 745.6 billion pesos ($15.4 billion) airport complex will feature four parallel runways, eight taxiways and three passenger terminals. It’s designed to accommodate more than 100 million passengers a year — far more than the 7.5 million a year that Ninoy Aquino International was designed for — and can also be expanded to six runways to accommodate 200 million passengers per year. The company aims to link the airport to the 8-km (5-mi) toll road to Metro Manila, through the North Luzon Expressway. (San Miguel also operates major toll roads in the Philippines, from which it reported 24.3 million pesos in revenue in 2018, according to a financial report released during this year’s stockholders meeting.)

San Miguel has deferred construction of the new airport complex until the Department of Finance clarifies issues related to government liabilities on the deal. In January, the project had its groundbreaking, and on July 8 the DENR issued the project’s ECC. On Sept. 1, the House of Representatives approved a 50-year franchise for the airport.

But groups opposed to the project continue to question its feasibility and highlight the secrecy surrounding the environmental impact study, a requirement for a project of this scale, which they say has not been released publicly.

Residents resist the construction of the New Manila International Airport. Image courtesy of Save Taliptip movement

“The EIS is supposedly a public document, yet the environment agency has denied its access to environmental organizations requesting for a copy,” says Baure from the scientists’ group AGHAM Diliman. “This questionable move by both the DENR and SMC raises concerns among various stakeholders as the document might have overlooked key [environmental] concerns.”

On top of the decimation of existing mangroves, the area will also require land reclamation, which, when done over a 2,000-hectare area, could cause sedimentation, says Jennifer Ramos, a lawyer with the environmental NGO Oceana Philippines. Both the cutting of mangroves and large-scale sedimentation would constitute violations of the country’s environmental laws and would be subject to litigation, she says.

The project is also set to displace 3,000 residents, who say they have not been given specific information on their relocation. Local officials have not said anything about the fate of the residents, most of them fishermen who depend on the bounty of Manila Bay.

“What we are hearing on ground is that there’s a measly relocation of about 150 housing slots for us who will be directly affected as soon as SMC’s airport project starts,” says Teody Bacon, Shirley’s husband and president of Samahan ng mga Mangingisda at Mamamayan sa Latian ng Bulacan, a coastal residents’ association. Bacon has lived in Taliptip for more than 30 years.

Taliptip residents receive aid during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Image courtesy of Save Taliptip movement

‘They took advantage’

When COVID-19 swept through the Philippines, lockdown measures adopted by the government pushed back the construction of the airport project. But even before the lockdown and the pandemic, the community was already locked in: security forces swooped down on the community by December last year and prohibited outsiders from coming in.

The pandemic has brought hunger to the community, as movement restrictions curtail residents’ fishing activities. Residents say they’ve also had to deal with emissaries from San Miguel, who offered each household 250,000 pesos ($5,200) to end their opposition.

“They took advantage of the fact that we barely earned [during the lockdown],” says Shirley Bacon. “Because of that, some were forced to accept the money. But before they get the payment, they are required to destroy their houses. The agreement we heard was that those who accepted will destroy their houses first and then they’ll get the money two days after.”

Today, only six residents remain in the Sitio Kinse area where Bacon lives. The offers didn’t end. By June 25, Bacon and her family were visited again, she says. They were told that no relocation site had been allotted for them and that they should stand down. “They said the airport will continue rain or shine,” she says. “They say they are a big company and we should take the money.”

Taliptip residents who agreed to relocate were asked to dismantle their homes before receiving compensation. Image courtesy of Save Taliptip movement

Despite this, the remaining residents have refused to leave and are open to fighting a legal battle — but that won’t be as easy as it sounds, says Oceana’s Ramos. While there are numerous grounds for litigation — including the cutting down of mangrove trees, which is a crime under the country’s forestry laws — the legal path will require evidence and affidavits from numerous parties: from scientists who can prove the environmental importance of the area and the gravity of threats from the airport project, down to community members who would need to detail their experiences on the ground.

“It’s a complicated option,” Ramos says. “But before legal action, it’s important that the community is organized … that it is strengthened, that they will stand with each other whatever happens because this is a tough battle.”

Maria Fe Anastasio, another resident, says she sees no other place for them but here in Taliptip, with its mangroves. “We aged with the mangroves here,” she says. “We never go hungry here. From the bay we get fish, shrimps, crabs …  And we get it for free. Can we get the same from the barrio [where the relocation site is]? I doubt it. We will fight for this land and we hope they won’t force us to move out.”

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Banner image of Mangrove area in Taliptip, Bulacan. Image courtesy of Save Taliptip movement.

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