MANILA -- The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and a group of fisherfolk from Palawan and Zambales asked the Supreme Court Tuesday to issue a writ of kalikasan and compel cabinet members and government officials to protect and preserve the environment in the West Philippine Sea, which is at risk of “massive destruction” due to Chinese fishing vessels.
In a 35-page petition, the IBP and the fisherfolk accused high-ranking government officials of neglecting their duties under the law to protect the Ayungin (Second Thomas) and Panatag (Scarborough) shoals as well as the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef.
Ayungin Shoal and Panganiban Reef have been declared part of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by the South China Sea (SCS) Arbitral Tribunal while both China and the Philippines have conflicting maritime claims over Panatag Shoal.
Named as respondents in the petition were the environment, agriculture and justice departments, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), Philippine National Police (PNP) and the PNP Maritime Group.
Petitioners relied on official documents submitted to, and on the findings of, the SCS Arbitral Tribunal, which on July 12 2016, found that fisherfolk from Chinese-flagged vessels have engaged in “harvesting of endangered species on a significant scale” and in “harvesting of giant clams in a manner that is severely destructive of the coral reef ecosystem.”
The SCS Arbitral Tribunal ruling further held that “China’s reclamation and construction of artificial islands, installations, and structures at…Mischief Reef has cause severe, irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.”
Aside from alleged harvesting of vulnerable, threatened and endangered species in Panatag and Ayungin shoals, petitioners also cited the use of cyanide and explosives in these areas, as well as construction activities in Panganiban or Mischief Reef.
A recent exclusive report by ABS-CBN News’ Chiara Zambrano showed dead clams piled up in Scarborough or Panatag Shoal marked with different colors. Filipino fisherfolk said vessels with Chinese flags were behind this.
Petitioners claimed that there the government must strictly enforce environmental laws in the three areas.
Among the laws they invoked were Presidential Decree 1599 creating the country’s EEZ with corresponding mandate to preserve the marine environment and Republic Act 8550 or the Philippine Fisheries Code providing for protection to the marine environment.
Petitioners said all the requirements for the issuance of the writ of kalikasan are present: an actual or threatened violation of the constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology; the threat or actual violation comes from unlawful act or omission of either a public official/employee or private individual/entity; and the resulting environmental damage is of such magnitude as to affect the life, health or property of inhabitants in 2 or more cities or provinces.
“Chinese fishermen harvested endangered and threatened species and used cyanide and explosives in their fishing. Foreign entities engaged by Chinese authorities constructed and damaged coral reefs in the process. The marine environment and resources in the abovementioned areas were damaged severely and extensively in spite of adequate Philippine laws to protect them," the petition alleged.
Clearly, the damage is brought upon by lack of enforcement of Philippine environmental laws by Respondents,” it concluded.
They also claimed there is basis for the high court to issue a writ of continuing mandamus because respondent government agencies have “unlawfully neglected” to perform their duties.
Petitioners also sought periodic reports from government agencies.
The IBP petition was signed by IBP National President Abdiel Dan Elijah Fajardo and lawyers Andre Palacios and Gil Anthony Aquino, in collaboration with human rights lawyer and senatorial candidate Chel Diokno.
Diokno, in a forum during the IBP National Convention in Iloilo on March 29, cited the same laws mentioned in the petition to show that the government had violated Philippine laws even without an arbitral award.
“Thus, while the President has said he will set aside the arbitral ruling and even call it useless and unenforceable, he and every single member of this government has the legal obligation to respect and implement PD 1599, the Fisheries Code, RA 9522 and the 1987 Constitution. The arbitral ruling merely affirms internationally what is already part of our domestic law,” he said.
“Second, it reveals that the President and his minions, by letting China have its way in the West Philippine Sea, are actually violating PD 1599, the Fisheries Code as amended, and the 1987 Constitution and for this they should be held accountable,” he added, calling these acts a betrayal of public trust.