Benham Rise: How the shelf was won

By Jay L. Batongbacal and Efren P. Carandang

Posted at Jul 28 2012 02:37 PM | Updated as of Jul 28 2012 11:12 PM

The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS)'s recognition of Philippine jurisdiction over the Benham Rise Region is the Philippines' first successful validation of a claim in accord with the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention.

It is the first major expansion of the Philippines' maritime boundaries since the late 1970s when it declared its EEZ (exclusive economic zone). This happy outcome is a tribute to a quiet and diligent work and collaboration by a team of public servants, scientists and legal experts who pursued the claim for over a decade.

The story of the Philippine claim to Benham Rise began with a workshop in 2001 to assist the DFA and the DENR's National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA) with regard to the implementation of the Law of the Sea.

Ms. Suzette Suarez of the UP Institute of International Legal Studies (UP-IILS) organized the workshop to discuss the requirements for claiming extended continental shelf (ECS) areas for the Philippines.

Dr. Teodoro Santos of the UP National Institute for Geological Sciences (UP-NIGS) identified and proposed Benham Rise, then a relatively unknown area of the Pacific Ocean east of Luzon, as a possible ECS area in addition to areas west of Palawan.

This resulted in an inter-agency Memorandum of Agreement among key government agencies and the academe to work together to make the ECS claims. Under then-Administrator Diony Ventura, the NAMRIA set itself to the task of conducting the extensive hydrographic surveys required as a basis for the claim.

They commissioned a desktop feasibility study by the Norwegian firm Blom-ASA with Norwegian assistance. Afterwards, the NAMRIA's Coast and Geodetic Surveys Department sent its two survey ships, the Presbitero and Ventura, on several cruises to the Pacific to map the seabed beyond 200 nautical miles away and more than 5000 meters deep.

In 2007, the cabinet-level Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs created a Technical Working Group to prepare the Philippines' formal claims or “Submissions,” to be filed with the CLCS in the United Nations.

NAMRIA inaugurated the Philippine ECS Project under then-Director Efren Carandang. Its first task was to recruit scientific expertise, to which Dr. Santos and the UP-NIGS quickly responded. Ms. Nancy Aguda and Jenny Anne Barretto, both young geologists of UP-NIGS, together with Engr. Dennis Bringas of NAMRIA, undertook much of the very tedious technical analysis, supported by a team of cartographers, hydrographers, and IT-specialists detailed from other NAMRIA offices.

Many experts from the UP-NIGS such as Dr. Mario Aurelio and Dr. Mahar Lagmay were also called in. Additional data were gathered from both local and international institutions, and NAMRIA procured the latest in computer hardware and software to process them.

Participants from the DOJ, DOE, PCG, NSC, and other relevant agencies also joined discussions on policy issues about the claim. The team then produced draft submissions with advice from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) based in Southampton, UK.

At the time, there was very little first-hand information about the actual intricacies of writing and supporting ECS submissions with the CLCS. NAMRIA contacted UP Law Prof. Jay Batongbacal, who was still taking up his doctorate in Canada, to join the project even while abroad, participating in the project's second major workshop via Skype. Prof. Batongbacal then met with Comm. Galo Carrera of Mexico, a CLCS Commissioner and colleague who had given maritime boundary workshops in the Philippines back in the 1990s. Over a cup of coffee in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Comm.

Carrera agreed to assist the Philippines in preparing and finalizing the submissions.

For help on the technical aspects, NAMRIA engaged the GNS, New Zealand's equivalent of the UP-NIGS and PhiVolcs. New Zealand had just announced its success in securing approval of the New Zealand ECS claim. The GNS team provided the Philippine team with information and advice on their actual experiences in making their claim, as well as enhanced their knowledge and capabilities in analysing and interpreting the data.

The team then decided to make the submission for Benham Rise first. With the new project participants, a completely different version of the Submission emerged from the previous drafts.

Comm. Carrera facilitated an exchange of views between the Philippine ECS Project team and their counterparts in Mexico, who had also successfully completed their own ECS submission.

He also visited the Philippines to work directly with the Project team in marathon technical workshops. All previous work was reviewed, re-analyzed, and sometimes rejected, in order to produce the new Submission.

Mr. Rolando Peña of UP-NIGS served as technical editor. Thousands of pages of raw data and documents had to be collated, digitally reproduced, and professionally packaged by the NAMRIA's IT Group led by Deputy Administrator Linda Papa, and integrated into customised browser software for the exclusive use of the CLCS. Their hard work resulted in boxes of documents that filled half of the NAMRIA's service van, and which were later delivered to New York.

Meanwhile, there was movement in the legislature on the proposed amendment of the Philippine archipelagic baselines law, which was an important prelude to the making of a Submission to the CLCS. NAMRIA undertook the Global Positioning System (GPS) surveys of the proposed basepoints, and prepared several baseline configurations for Congress to consider.

The ECS team closely monitored the developments in the legislature, and was relieved when the new baselines law was passed in March 2009.

The Philippines made its submission on April 8, 2009, a month before the original deadline.

On August 15, 2009, the ECS team made its first formal presentation to the CLCS en banc. Then-Ambassador Hilario Davide introduced the delegation led by Amb. Minerva Falcon, who delivered the overview and summary of the claim and its basis. The initial meeting ended on a very optimistic note, and the Commissioners and their staff (many of whom turned out to be Filipino expatriates) warmly congratulated the team for a very clear and straightforward presentation that even laymen understood.

The team thought that the Philippines would have to wait until the year 2014 before the CLCS could begin consideration of the submission.

They were thus completely surprised when in January 2011, there was a notification that a CLCS Subcommission, chaired by Lawrence F. Awosika of Nigeria, had commenced the validation of the claim, and that it had already sent technical questions. For some reason the Philippines had jumped the line! The ECS team members were quickly convened to respond to technical issues raised in the notification, and the following August, they returned to the CLCS led by NAMRIA Administrator Peter Tiangco.

Computers, printers, and office supplies in tow, most team members arrived in New York just a day before Hurricane Irene which prevented the other members from the DFA from joining.

As the city recovered, the meeting proceeded, joined by members of the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Philippines to the United Nations and Sen. Loren Legarda. Dr. Lagmay of the UP-NIGS delivered the technical presentation as the rest of the team closely observed the reactions of the Subcommission.

Although the Subcommission accepted the answers of the delegation to almost all the technical issues, they not agree on basis for the location of the southern border of the ECS area. The Subcommission was inclined towards a substantially decreased ECS area.

The delegation requested another meeting at which to provide additional data and analysis, which took place the following December 2011. It turned out to be the busiest and most challenging of all the meetings. Despite daily discussions, the Subcommission was not swayed from its position.

The stalemate jeopardized the resolution of the Submission. However, upon the delegation's request for guidance, the Subcommission pointed out that it was possible to draw the border using another method adopted by the CLCS.

The new method actually increased the area of the claim; so the team enthusiastically spent a sleepless night excitedly drawing up new scenarios and borders with everything from computers to kitchenware. Into the early morning, the geologists, hydrographers and cartographers drew up maps and figures, while the lawyers prepared the necessary diplomatic script. On the last meeting held several hours later, the Subcommission agreed with the Philippines’ new proposed boundaries.

The team members thought that their work was finished, so in March 2012, only a three-man delegation composed of NAMRIA Administrator Tiangco, now-Deputy Administrator Carandang, and now-Dr. Batongbacal attended the final meeting with the Subcommission to confirm that their report to the CLCS en banc reflected the previous meetings’ agreements.

But another surprise was sprung: the delegation determined just before the actual meeting that it was still possible to again expand the claimed area, this time at the northern border.

They woke up the technical staff in Manila to recompute the borders and produce new maps and coordinates in only three hours. The effort was successful, with the Subcommission accepting the change.

The delegation left with a new map and technical description of the Benham Rise Region comprising a larger area than the Philippines had at first claimed.

On 12 April 2012, the small delegation returned and accompanied the Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Philippines to the United Nations in making its final presentation to the CLCS en banc, before its final deliberation on the Philippine submission.

Amb. Libran Cabactulan delivered the final pitch, speaking of the Philippines' adherence to international law, and thanking the Commission for the fruitful collaboration in determining the outer limits of our ECS in the Benham Rise Region.

He made this presentation to the full Commission, which by this time was chaired by Comm. Carrera. Since he had previously assisted the Philippines, Comm. Carrera could not help our cause in the deliberations, and as Chairman he was bound by rules of confidentiality.

The day after the meeting, as the delegation met him to bid a friendly farewell, he warned that nothing was fixed yet, and that he would notify the Philippines of the results in the following weeks. But he congratulated the delegation for a good final presentation and a job well done, and then parted by saying, with a smile, “I think we should be thankful for the very good weather.” Now we know why.

Jay L. Batongbacal is assistant professor of the UP College of Law and legal advisor of the Technical Working Group, Philippine Extended Continental Shelf Project.

Efren P. Carandang is deputy administrator, National Mapping and Resource Information Authority and project manager, Philippine Extended Continental Shelf Project.

Institutions that contributed to the Benham Rise submission:

The Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs (CMOA)
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), thru
National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), and the
Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB)
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA)
The Department of Justice (DOJ)
The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Philippine National Oil Company Exploration Corporation (PNOC-EC)
The National Security Council (NSC)
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)
The University of the Philippines (UP) through the National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS) and the Institute of International Legal Studies (IILS)
The Norwegian Agency for Development (NORAD)
The Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences of New Zealand (GNS-Science)
Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe (BGR)
Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)

This article first appeared on the websites of the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA) and the UP National Institute of Geological Sciences (UP NIGS).