House panel OKs bill declaring portion of Benham Rise protected; solon hits partial coverage

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 07 2021 05:39 PM

House panel OKs bill declaring portion of Benham Rise protected; solon hits partial coverage 1
This photo was taken during a marine expedition at Benham Rise on May 26, 2016. Branching corals contribute to the complexity of the reef. Oceana Philippines/File

MANILA — The House Committee on Natural Resources on Wednesday approved a substitute bill that establishes the "Philippine Rise Natural Park" in Isabela and declares it as a protected area under the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act, but not without some lawmakers objecting to its limited coverage. 

Deputy Speaker and Buhay Party-list Rep. Lito Atienza voted against the bill and questioned why its current version only covers a smaller portion of the Benham Rise compared to the one filed by Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon.

Atienza and panel chair Cavite Rep. Elpidio Barzaga figured in a verbal scuffle, prompting the suspension of the virtual committee hearing.

UNDERMINING PH CLAIMS

According to Atienza, Biazon's bill was pushing for the whole Benham Rise to be declared a protected area in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) award. 

The country's claim to Benham Rise, a 13-million-hectare area located east of Luzon island that is believed to be gas-rich, was approved by the United Nations in 2012.

However, the bill that Barzaga approved only covers a portion of it or about 350,000 hectares.

This, according to Atienza, would undermine the Philippines' territorial claim. 

"Hindi ba pinahihina natin ang posisyon ng Pilipinas diyan? 
Pagdating ng araw na ang Tsina ay magke-claim na naman," Atienza told the media after the hearing. 

(Aren't we weakening our position there? One day China will make another claim.)

"[They will say] 'but you have proclaimed, as protected by you, is only a 350,000-hectare area, we are not touching that but we are claiming the whole.' Ano sasabihin natin (what will we say)?" Atienza said.

Atienza said Barzaga has railroaded the procedure and that the committee ignored his questions.

But Barzaga explained during the hearing: "Parliamentary procedure ito, the rule of the majority prevails, no one person can compel us to follow his wish."

Barzaga also denied Atienza's claims, adding Congress may later on expand the scope of the bill once it becomes a law.

Atienza vowed to question the approved bill before the plenary.

The undersea plateau made headlines in 2017 after Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang confirmed that Chinese vessels recently passed through Benham Rise for "marine research," but insisted this was only in exercise of the principle of "freedom of navigation" and "right to innocent passage."

China and the Philippines have resolved disputes in another area, the West Philippine Sea. China has committed repeated incursions in the country's exclusive economic zone, asserting its sovereign rights over the larger South China Sea. 

—With a report from Zandro Ochona, ABS-CBN News

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