There are plenty of reasons why, in the Philippines, Dumaguete is considered one of the happiest places to live in. There are its beaches, the pleasant weather, the peaceful community and low cost of living. There’s the warm and friendly locals, and that good balance of modern conveniences and a simple, island vibe.
This city in Negros Oriental has long been considered a haven for retirees and expats. You’re tired of working and partying in Manila and want a low key existence? This is where you make a new life for yourself.
Dumaguete was included in Forbes’ 7 best places to retire around the world in 2014, and was also named the country’s top retirement spot for foreigners in 2018 and 2019. But can Dumaguete, a coastal city, also known as the City of Gentle People, really be it’s idyllic self for long?
Not if the proposed development of a 174-hectare “smart city” on reclaimed land, uhm, gains ground—this is according to scientists and environmentalists. These groups have raised their voices against the said project, reported to cost P23 billion, which will give rise to malls, condominiums, hospitals, business hubs and a docking port for a planned yacht club, among others.
These groups opposing the plan has pointed out the possible detrimental effects of the development to the rich marine ecosystem of the city and to the communities in the area. A joint statement released by Silliman University (SU) President Dr. Betty McCann, former SU presidents Dr. Ben S. Malayang III, and former DENR Secretary Dr. Angel Alcala said “the project will directly destroy, literally bury, the few remaining coral reef, seagrass and soft-sediment ecosystems that support small-scale fisheries and gleaning in Dumaguete.”
They also stressed that the massive reclamation project will negatively impact the marine protected areas (MPAs). “These MPAs are part of a system of protected coral reefs, seagrass beds and soft-sediment ecosystems in Negros Oriental that is meant to boost fisheries productivity, conserve marine biodiversity and support tourism,” their statement reads. Over the past two decades, Dumaguete has committed to protect its marine ecosystems and secure the fisheries-based livelihoods through the establishment of these MPAs.
Meanwhile, in a Facebook post, the Students Toward Environmental Welfare and Research for Development and Sustainability (STEWaRDS), a group of students in SU, estimated that 36.5 hectares of seagrass beds and 36.20 hectares of coral reefs will be forever lost and buried by the reclamation, if the project pushes through. Last April, the group published on their Facebook page videos shot outside the MPA of Bantayan, which showed the live coral reefs in Dumaguete waters.
As reaction to the planned ‘smart city’, youth groups like the above mentioned STEWaRDS, the Kabataan Para Sa Karapatan-Negros Oriental, Mangrove Matters PH, Association of Young Environmental Journalists-Dumaguete Chapter, and Lihok NegOr have launched a petition to save the Dumaguete coastline, its community and diversity. The petitioners stress that the Dumaguete Mayor Ipe Remollo’s “boulevard rehabilitation” program (or the reclamation project), would destroy three of Dumaguete City’s MPAs in Barangays Banilad, Looc, and Bantayan. “This would have a great impact and further the decline of our local biodiversity and delicate ecosystems that many communities in the city rely on for much of their daily needs,” the collective writes.
The petition, so far signed by 15,000 supporters, calls for the end of all reclamation and boulevard extension projects. They stress that government leaders must instead focus on making the city sustainable and climate-resilient, and address the basic needs and well-being of its citizens. The groups maintain that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu signed the approval of “Area Clearance” for the project on December 16, 2019. The said clearance is valid for five years.
In an interview with Karen Davila on ANC’s Headstart, Mayor Remollo said he has not yet signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with development firm EM Cuerpo Inc. for the proposed project. They have also not yet submitted their proposal with the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA). Remollo also denied reports that the DENR has already issued an area clearance for the project.
Asked if he had consulted with the groups opposed to the project, the mayor said he had agreed with city and barangay officials that prior consultations will be made. But these will happen only once the project proponent would already have detailed engineering plans, so that the environmental impacts can be discussed. He said that he had committed in the MOU that all concerns will be brought to the PRA and the DENR for discussion. “There is nothing to discuss here [at the moment], because there are no plans yet,” he insisted.
Remollo denied having any close affiliations with EM Cuerpo Inc. “I have no dealings with them previously, contrary to those that are coming out. Not a single government official has benefited from this,” he says.
The mayor pointed out the small land area of the third class city (3,400 hectares), and that the city government has no money to purchase the available dry lands in the city from the owners. “With the reclamation, walang puhunan ang city government,” he told ANC. The mayor envisions building a mini-BGC in Dumaguete. He insisted that “the reclamation is not harmful,” because environmental impacts can be mitigated. He maintains that the project will be a sustainable solution to the poverty of the people of Dumaguete and Negros Oriental.
He also told Davila he is “not only mayor for the environmentalists or a particular institution, for the rich people living along the boulevard” but he is “mayor of 150,000 residents. Seventy percent of those are the poor, jobless.”
Meanwhile SU’s Dr. Rene Abesamis of the school’s Institute of Environmental and Marine Sciences also expressed during ANC’s Headstart that the reclamation project must be avoided. “There is no doubt in my mind that is going to be a monumental ecological disaster. It’s going to be this tomb for marine ecosystems. It’s going to be this underwater tomb," Abesamis told ANC. “We have to understand how big this is. According to the press release, it's 174 hectares. That’s equivalent to maybe 4,000 basketball courts, 10 Lunetas.”