Black coral poaching is new 'muro-ami' - Paje

By Ira Pedrasa,

Posted at Jun 06 2011 03:51 PM | Updated as of Jun 07 2011 03:38 AM

MANILA, Philippines - Environment Secretary Ramon Paje tagged the recent illegal black coral trade as the new “muro-ami.”

“I am not surprised if they use the children, with some who can stay underwater for 20 minutes,” Paje said in a Senate hearing on Monday.

This is precisely the reason why the local government is very much needed in stopping the trade, he said.

Muro-ami fishing is practiced by exploiting children to destroy corals in order to catch fish.

During the continuation of the investigation in the Senate, he said shells and corals are found within 15 kilometers of municipal shores since these also need sunlight. This is well within the jurisdiction of the local government.

He said he has asked the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) to direct local governments in lending a hand to the DENR and unmask the illegal trade.

Gordon Cancio, a professional diver and marine expert, reminded the government that tracking the illegal act may only exacerbate the problem. He said it should also focus on providing people the livelihood, in order that they are stopped from being used to harvest the black corals.

‘Cut wealth resource'

Environment experts and government officials, on the other hand, want the alleged operator behind the black coral smuggling prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

Environment committee chairman Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri wants authorities to investigate whether Olivia Lim Li and her cohorts have become recalcitrant and have continued with their alleged operations despite previous criminal charges.

It was learned during the hearing that similar contrabands were seized from the properties of Lim and her husband way back in 2008.

The Bureau of Customs filed on Friday smuggling charges against Li and 3 others implicated in the illegal shipment of around P35 million worth of black corals and other endangered marine species weeks ago.

A consequent watch list order was issued by the Department of Justice (DoJ) against Li, consignee Exequiel Navarro, Kim Atillano and Ireneo Penuliar.

Zubiri also asked the DoJ to also issue a hold departure order against the respondents.

'Hit where it hurts most'

Ramon Magsaysay awardee Antonio Oposa Jr. said “we should also emphasize the money aspect…hurt them where it hurts the most.”

Oposa, who is also a lawyer known for championing environmental causes, challenged the Bureau of Internal Revenue to check the tax liabilities of the respondents.

He also stressed they should not be slapped with criminal charges alone.

“The government should file not just multi-million, but multi- multi- million environmental damages. We should run not just after the worth of the corals,” he said. He noted the Philippines is known for environmental damage accounting.

Matter of policy

Zubiri also noted the issue has become a matter of policy, particularly in terms of “nipping it in the bud.” He noted why no one was able to detect the crime, even if the black corals and sea turtles were huge enough to be loaded into containers.

Zamboanga Mayor Celso Lobregat noted the questions remain, such as, “what should be done really? We should know where these black corals were extracted from? How do you extract it?”

He said the coastline of Zamboanga is 130 kilometers long, which is not easy to monitor.

“Nobody has noticed the loading. [For example] Li will call the shipping line, which will call for container vans, and these will be transferred to where Li wants it shipped,” he said.

He noted that with the length of the coastline, some contrabands land in “illegal ports.”

Some of government officials present during the Senate hearing also noted that they can only do so much in terms of inspecting the packages. The Maritime Industry Authority, for example, can only inspect packages when they are already loaded in ships.