February 29, 2024

Our waters have long cried out for help; now, the call echoes out in greater waves.

Environmental advocates, fisherfolk from Batangas City, and students and professors across the Philippines joined together to discuss the increased protection for the Verde Island Passage (VIP) and the passage of legislation for limiting and prohibiting activities harmful to the VIP, last Sept. 29 and 30 at De La Salle Lipa (DLSL). 

During the summit, a panel of speakers from the different invited organizations were  present and workshops were also conducted where attendees grouped themselves according to the topic they would like to discuss and advocate.

In marine-related fields, the VIP is referred to as “the center of the center of marine shore fish biodiversity”, or otherwise, “the Amazon of the oceans”, a hotspot for marine biodiversity, covering at least 1.4 million hectares, and encompassed by the provinces of Batangas, Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro and Romblon.

Marine biologist, Ethel Wagas, explains the influence of the VIP to the biodiversity of the Philippines. (S. Carandang)

Ethel Wagas, a marine biologist from Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), said in an interview, “Batangas is considered as a hotspot. Sa mga scientist[s], it’s a source for larvae that will supply the fish, corals and any other coral reefs. So, yung lahat ng water bodies sa different parts of the Philippines could [actually be] reliant on what the VIP uses”. 

When the fuel tanker MT Princess Empress capsized within the VIP, it caused 800,000 liters of the oil it was carrying to taint Oriental Mindoro’s waters on Feb. 28 of this year.

 

Road to feasible solutions

Among the topics in the workshops was enhancing policy and legal protection, for many have voiced out that because of the insufficient attention and care being shown towards the VIP, there is a need for laws revolving around its protection. 

The inclusion of VIP in the Expanded National Integrated Protected Area Systems (ENIPAS) Act and the World Heritage Sites, as well as Oil Spill Compensation Acts, and limitations on who can enter and pass through the VIP are examples of laws that environmentalists wish to enact.

Maximo Bayubay, a fisherfolk from Batangas, expressing the significance of the VIP Summit. (D. Fronda)

Community-led efforts, including citizens’ science, empowerment and awareness-raising, and innovative or “new-to-us” strategies, both of which revolved around the protection of the VIP through the efforts of the masses, were topics discussed for the other workshops. 

Ivan Andres, the deputy head of research for the Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED), said “The Verde Island passage is, of course, the center of biodiversity,” and that, despite this, such information is not actually accessible on the grounds among fisherfolk and coastal communities, which is why events like these are vital. 

The MT Princess Empress tanker, owned by RDC Reield Marine Services, Inc. (RDC), had an outdated permit to operate, and almost three months after the oil spill on the VIP, the Department of Transportation revoked the RDC’s Certificate of Public Convenience.

 

Assessing the damage

Despite there no longer being any visible traces of the oil in the VIP since June of this year, the disaster left unforgettable impacts on the lives of not only the people affected, but also marine diversity.

Fisherfolk from the affected areas expressed concerns for their livelihoods and the little importance given to an area that should have been protected better by the government during the VIP Summit.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) reported the number of affected individuals to be more than 200,000, with 27,850 being fisherfolk whose means of livelihood had to be put on hold because of the water’s poor quality. 

NDRRMC also reported that food security and nearby residents’ health were affected by the oil spill, with the damage to fisheries costing P2,646,798 and reported 211 cases of respiratory problems, headaches, nausea, and skin irritation, among others. 

Samahang Mangingisda ng Sitio Ilaya (SAMASILA) stated that from health concerns to the losses of their occupations, the challenges they faced due to the oil spill were not inconsequential, and how no one, save for themselves, helped them rise from the disaster. Summit attendees agreed on how the damage dealt to the VIP is worth more than the financial aid that was given to them.

Additionally, according to both the fisherfolk and CEED’s representatives present at the VIP Summit, the construction of more fossil fuel power plants and liquefied natural gas (LNG) stations around Batangas City has yet to come to a stop, which would mean more greenhouse gas emissions and the further disturbance of the VIP’s marine ecosystems in Batangas.

VIP Summit’s attendees actively discussing during the program. (D. Fronda)

In an interview, CEED’s advocacy and networking staff from the oceans, coastal communities and climate work department, Matthew Tabilog explained that there are plenty of threats to the VIP, especially the expansion of LNGs. 

“Over two million Filipinos depend on the coastal resources found in the VIP,” he said. “[…] [Aside] from the emissions of the LNG, it also displaces yung communities natin, [especially] yung mga fisherfolk,” Tabilog added. 

These issues were also tackled further in a documentary by DLSL’s alumni presented during the VIP summit, “Sa Aplaya, Doon, Sa Malayo,” a thesis which centered on the crises  experienced by the Verde Island’s fisherfolk.

 

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This two-day event, which fostered awareness and concern for the VIP through productive workshops and intensive discussions, was organized by CEED, sponsored by Caritas Philippines, Protect VIP, Mindoro State University, and DLSL. 

 

Article by Mharq Ghierzey Abe

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