MANILA - A coalition of environmental groups in the Philippines voiced opposition Tuesday to the planned increase of U.S. military presence in the country, predicting it will damage the environment, hurt people's livelihoods and hinder ecotourism.
In a press conference, activists of the Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment said the U.S. military has yet to compensate Manila for environmental damage caused when it maintained bases in the Philippines from the 1940s up to 1992, and when a U.S. Navy ship ran aground in January at Tubbataha Reef, a World Heritage site in the central-western part of the country.
"We'd like the 'polluter pays' principle to be at work. If you do damage because of your efforts, then you ought to pay for damage, and without getting freebies through usage of public assets, of virtually unlimited use of our public ports without paying for prior damage caused by port calls of their very own," lawyer Edsel Tupaz said.
The United States and the Philippines are currently negotiating to increase the rotational presence of U.S. forces in the Southeast Asian country and allow them greater access to Philippine military facilities as the former implements its rebalancing strategy to the Asia-Pacific region and as the latter seeks to improve its external defense capability amid China's assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Some 600 U.S. troops are said to be temporarily stationed at any given time in the Philippines to train and assist the local military, and their numbers reach the thousands when the two countries hold joint military drills under their Visiting Forces Agreement.
The Philippines and the United States have a mutual defense treaty signed in 1951.
"In 1991, the U.S. military left toxic wastes when they closed their base in Clark and a year after, in Subic. There were an estimated 1,000 individuals who died from these and some 2,460 others living in Clark who were affected. Up to now, they have not yet made payments, and have not done any cleanup," Giovanni Tapang of the Advocates of Science and Technology for the People said, referring to areas north of Manila that hosted huge U.S. air and naval bases.
University of the Philippines professor Roland Simbulan, whose strong advocacy against U.S. military presence contributed to the constitutional ban on foreign military basing in the Philippines and the eventual closing of American bases in the country more than two decades ago, said the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement and the planned increase of U.S. rotational presence "revive many of the adverse issues that were caused by U.S. bases before, among them, environmental, security and social."
Kalikasan's Leon Dulce cited for example how the planned construction of a naval facility at Oyster Bay on Palawan Island could adversely affect the area's rich marine biodiversity, displace fishermen whose source of living is concentrated there, and wreck its ecotourism potential.
Dulce's group believes that once Manila and Washington forge an agreement on the increased U.S. rotational presence, the U.S. military will be allowed to use the planned naval facility.
"The re-basing they are doing now in the context of the U.S. strategic pivot is not really geared at providing minimum credible defense posture to its allies in Asia," Dulce said.
"Rather, it's largely economic and territorial interests of the U.S. that motivate this. We view their assertion of placing a military facility in Oyster Bay as being in the context of countering China's increasing aggression in the West Philippine Sea," Dulce said, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea waters that fall within its exclusive economic zone.
"We think this is not in the Philippines' interest and needs. There are peaceful, diplomatic means to resolve the standoff between China and the Philippines. But this standoff is being used to legitimize the entry of U.S. forces in Asia and the Pacific," he added.
Tupaz, who heads the legal suit against the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet for damage to Tubbataha Reef, laments at how Filipinos tend to be forgiving and accepting of the United States even if "there is no question that there is a nexus or a concrete multi-causal link between the environment and military presence."
The Tubbataha Management Office has demanded the United States pay 58.4 million pesos or $1.5 million for the primary damage on 2,345.67 square meters of the protected reef as a result of the USS Guardian grounding.
Angelique Songco, head of the office, expressed exasperation when asked by Kyodo News on the progress of the payment, saying, "The U.S. says it is still negotiating with our Department of Foreign Affairs. There's no end to these talks. And not a single centavo has been paid."
Tupaz said that should the Philippine Supreme Court grant environmentalists' petition in April for a temporary environmental protection order for Tubbataha Reef, then they can invoke it to oppose the entry of any U.S. military asset in the Philippines in the future.
Tapang said there is a separate plan to take legal action against the increased U.S. rotational presence in the country.
The environmentalists also plan to raise the issue when they hold a mass demonstration during the visit this weekend in Manila of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.