A few kilometers away from the famous Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park in Palawan lies Ulugan Bay. According to a UNESCO study, it is home to around 15% of the mangrove forests of the Philippines with “extensive natural, biological and economic value.”
Within Ulugan Bay lies Oyster Bay where earlier this year, the Philippine Navy announced that the military would build a more-than-half a billion peso port. This is ostensibly to upgrade its naval base at the bay to accommodate “big vessels” of the navy that were acquired to be a “credible deterrent” to protect our shores. One of these ships is the USCGC Hamilton, now renamed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, which was transferred to the Philippine Navy as foreign defense assistance from the United States.
Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE) raised alarm over the building of military naval base in this area. Oyster Bay is strategically located in West Philippine Sea and just 150 kilometers from the disputed Spratlys Islands. The project for the construction of the naval base was bid out by the government to the private sector in November last year.
With the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) being negotiated between the Philippines and the United States, the bases being upgraded will now be part of the available locations for use of the United States. In the EDCA, the US can lease bases owned by the Philippines so that troops under the Visiting Forces Agreement can use them. All of these agreements brings back the US bases effectively in our country.
Kalikasan PNE questioned the upgrading of the navy base in light of the fact that we still have not yet obtained environmental compensation and justice is still in sight more than a year after the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park. The grounding of the USS Guardian destroyed around 2,345 square meters of vital coral reefs in Tubbataha.
Tubbataha Reef, an atoll coral reef declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world heritage site, lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, the geographic center of global marine biodiversity containing at least 40 percent of the world’s fish and 75 percent of coral populations.
The US Navy incurred a $1.4-million fine for the primary damage caused to Tubbataha Reef, but a similar grounding incident in Hawaii last 2009 reached damages valued between $25 million to $40 million. More than a year after, the United States government has yet to pay due compensation for the environmental disaster it caused in one of the country’s most important marine biodiversity hotspots.
Kalikasan PNE also notes that the naval base construction is in the context of the US military’s policy of growing their military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of Kalikasan PNE, said that the upgrading of a naval base in the marine rich area in the area of Ulugan Bay, in particular Oyster Bay, will result in further ecological destruction in our fragile marine ecosystems. Aside from having a diverse marine ecosystem, Oyster Bay also has vast forests around it with a rich flora and fauna.
The International Peace Bureau based in Geneva said in a briefing paper on the military’s impact on the environment described the effect of military activities such as naval construction and exercises to the environment. In their paper, they noted that military activities place a number of stresses on the physical environment such as pollution of the air, land, and water, the immediate and long-term effects of armed conflict and the effect of land use.
Possible effects of the upgraded naval base would be the effects of encroachment on the ecology of the fishing areas, the fragile coastal habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves, and seabeds. The sediment pattern and flows at the project can also change due to the increased activity. This can lead to silt runoff, increased sanitary wastes and other chemical discharge used in construction and operations.
This is not the first time environmental effects from US bases would be felt in the country. After the formal termination of the bases agreement in 1991, toxic waste contamination issues have plagued the former Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base. As early as 1992, no less than the US General Accounting Office in its report—“Military Bases Closure: US Financial Obligation to the Philippines, accounted for the storage tanks and fire-fighting training facilities that do not comply with US Standards, emitting untreated pollutants in the air, heavy metals directly drained in the bay or buried in the landfill, and toxic chemicals that directly go into the soil and water table. We can list further the Glen Defense dumping of wastes in Subic and the Tubbataha grounding to this list.
We should only remind ourselves of our history with US presence in the country before we let them ruin the beauty and biodiversity of Oyster Bay.
Giovanni Tapang, Ph.D., is the national chair of the organization of scientists, AGHAM.