MANILA -- The Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) is just among the few buildings overlooking reclamation projects in Manila Bay.
An official from the state insurance company shared how the activities in the reclaimed areas have progressed.
"It's inevitable every day. When we see the Manila Bay 2 years ago, we can see the sunset. But now, minsan amazing din, what we see now are sands. Ganoon kabilis," said Atty. Lucio Yu Jr., assistant chief legal counsel of GSIS, told a Senate panel during its probe into reclamation activities in the country.
An official from a hotel overlooking Manila Bay also shared his sentiments.
"I noticed that during the term of Pres. [Rodrigo] Duterte, he repeatedly emphasized that 'Under my presidency, I will not approve any private reclamation'. The very last time we saw that in the news was August 2021. But then 2 or 3 months later in November 2021, reclamation in Manila Bay started. We were surprised... We don't know whether these agencies got the clearance from the President's Office or they did something behind the president... It's quite fishy," said Esteban Peña Sy, president of Philippine Plaza Holdings, Inc., Sofitel.
Even Sen. Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Environment committee, was dismayed upon finding out that the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) and the project's proponent enter into a memorandum of understanding - without sufficient studies on its implication, especially in the environment.
Asec. Gilbert Gonzales, director of the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), explained that the process begins when a project proponent approaches the PRA.
"There is pre-qualification assessment, then the PRA informs the applicant of their pre-qualification. And the proponent and PRA enters into memorandum of understanding. The MOU indicates the acceptance of the proposed reclamation project and is the basis for endorsing it for the ECC application," he said.
DENR Sec. Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga said the PRA "has moved over time from different government offices".
"There's a history behind where PRA was formerly lodged in terms of its own office. And previously it was within the DENR, as it was previously with NEDA as well. So the PRA has moved over time from different government offices until it's final place in the previous administration with the Office of the President," she said.
"Maybe there is some defect on that, na parang may nag-lobby na sila ang may say," Villar noted.
For Sen. Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III, this system is unfair.
"Nagulat ako h, some of the projects that we have ordered suspended are in an advanced stage na. There's an unfairness there, either unfairness to the proponent or an unfairness to the environment," he said.
Villar also revealed that the general manager and chairperson of the board of PRA was suspended due to the approval of two overlapping projects in Bacoor, Cavite.
"Isa iyong Frabelle, (and) Cavitex Holdings but it's not part of the Cavitex road. I spoke to Mr. Pangilinan, he said he just bought the toll road, he did not buy the reclamation. The reclamation is still under Virata. So it's now a struggle between Frabelle Shipping and Virata, overlapping iyong reclamation nila, in-approve ng PRA. Kaya sinuspend ng president iyong general manager at chairman ng PRA. Ganoon ka-defective iyong PRA... In trouble kayo. Marami ng request sa akin na tanggalin na ang PRA," she said.
The lawmaker stressed that even the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park, which is a protected area, was not spared from the effects of reclamation activities.
The committee is issuing a subpoena on former EMB Dir. William Cuñado, who issued the environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for the reclamation projects.
It was also pointed out in the hearing that the EMB director and DENR secretary can release the said certificate.
The agencies promised to revise the application process.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros was curious why the PRA allowed a Chinese contractor to conduct reclamation activities in Manila Bay, despite being blacklisted by the United States.
"Hindi po ba tayo concerned na iyong Chinese state-owned contractor na gumagawa ng reclamation work sa Manila Bay na iyon ay may ties sa Chinese companies, na tinutulungan ang Tsina na i-militarize ang WPS? Dahil sa artificial islands na cinonstruct nitong kompanyang ito, iyong Chinese Coast Guard at People's Liberation Army tuloy ay naha-harass nila halos non stop," she said.
Atty. Joseph John Literal, assistant general manager, of the Reclamation and Regulation Office, said the project complied with all the necessary permits.
"The involvement of the Chinese contractor is on the side of the contractual joint venture between the LGU of Manila and its partner, which is Waterfront Premier Development Corporation. The contractor of Waterfront, it's a subsidiary of CCC, this is China First Highways Engineering Corporation... We're concerned because of these issues... Even before allowed the operations of these contractors from China, we require the contractor to secure a special permit under the rules of MARINA... They have submitted a clearance from the Coast Guard, MARINA... and endorsement from National Security Council," he said.
Yulo-Loyzaga assured their revisions to the processing of permits for reclamation projects will consider environmental, social, anthropological, cultural, and security dimension of the projects.
"We are taking into consideration the geostrategic implications of all these activities. And we are in fact recommending that any issues regarding the Philippine Navy or any branch of service approval be elevated to the Department of National Defense and the Department of Foreign Affairs," she shared.
Amid the suspension of reclamation projects in Manila Bay, DENR is focused on the environmental compliance review of all ongoing and upcoming projects, and on the impact assessment, with the help of experts.
Metrics are also ready in case problems are found in the reclamation.
"First, we try to avoid the harmful impact. If we cannot avoid, we need to minimize. We need to reduce the impact. The final stage is there must be compensatory action in order for the impact to be actually offset against some kind of value in terms of the laws of the ecosystem service," Yulo-Loyzaga explained.
"There can be an instance where there could be no compensatory action that could be available. At which point... these are decisions that will be made by a higher authority than ourselves in terms of the development planning priorities of the country. The recommendatory basis whether something should be stopped or minimized will be established by the science we will do," she added.
Villar told concerned agencies: "I'm asking people, especially DENR. I always say to you, kayo, wag kayong mag-promote ng business. Mag-promote kayo ng environmental protection. Let DTI promote business... You're supposed to protect the environment, you're not supposed to protect business."
Fisherfolk group Pamalakaya and environmental advocates trooped to the senate to denounce reclamation activities.
They insist that fishing areas need rehabilitation, and not reclamation.