“WTF ?!?” was my immediate reaction when I saw a picture on the front page of today’s Inquirer, which shows two high-rise buildings being built right smack in the middle of the Subic rainforest. Apparently, the Philippine arm of Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction Corporation, one of the world’s largest shipbuilders and construction companies, with 2006 sales in excess of 2 billion US dollars, saw it fit to build “staff housing” for its Korean expats by tearing down a huge swatch of our diminishing forest cover. The “staff housing” consists of a 10-storey high building and another 20-storey structure which dwarf the forest growth around it. The buildings are obscene, like a cancerous growth on a baby’s face, and the picture made me ill just by looking at it.
My dismay was compounded by the claim that Hanjin got an Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC) for the project, estimated to cost about US$ 20 million. WTF again. Having experienced the pains and tribulations of trying to get an ECC for medium-sized, legitimate enterprises on privately-owned land in non-ecologically fragile areas, it boggles the mind how Hanjin got an ECC to built what are essentially residential condominiums in a public forest.
According to Amethya Dela Llana-Kovak, Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) ecology department chief, the ECC was issued last year in a “built-up” area of the Subic forests, which supposedly allows development activities. The condos are located near a former naval magazine or ammunition depot. It doesn’t take a military genius to figure that the magazine would have been built in a fairly remote area in the Subic rainforest, for obvious reasons. It would also have left most of the surrounding area untouched, save for a mound or two housing the magazine itself and which would have been immediately reclaimed by secondary forest growth. This doesn’t mean its Ok to build high-rises in the same area. What were they thinking ?
I’m not a tree-hugger, despite a short, forgettable stint with the DENR, but this is criminal. The Subic Watershed Forest Reserve (SWFR) is noted for its high biodiversity and is one of the ten priority sites of the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS). These are public lands that are habitats of rare and endangered species of plants and animals, biogeographic zones and related ecosystems, whether terrestrial, wetland or marine, all of which are therefore designated as protected areas.
Home to monkeys, deer, snakes, bats, and many species of birds, the Subic forest not only contains some of the rarest hardwood trees found in the Philippines; it is also a vital watershed, preventing erosion and providing drinking water for the area. Hence, the urgent need to preserve the Subic rainforest is of national, even global, importance.
Neither am I a Korean-basher, like a number of our countrymen nowadays. I actually like Koreans, they being the “Irish of Asia”, legendary for their boozing. No slouch in that department myself, I’ve had a chance to clink glasses with many a Korean over the years. I found them lively and convivial, although they may get a bit rowdy as the night wears on.
In their business practices, however, Koreans can be as subtle as a steamroller. Take Hanjin, for example . Its dismal safety record has resulted in at least six (6) deaths in its Subic shipyards in a span of a mere 4 months (since December 2007) and scores of injuries. No matter, its business as usual. Hanjin reportedly treats its Filipino workers abominably. I recently represented a Philippine technological school with which Hanjin wanted to establish linkages in order to recruit engineers for its shipbuilding operations. In exchange for an offer of scholarships, Hanjin wanted the beneficiaries to commit to working for it at little more than slave wages for a set number of years. This was tantamount to involuntary servitude, and needless to say, the arrangement didn’t push through.
And now this. Its not as if there’s a dearth of suitable living quarters for expats and their families in Subic . The area abounds with hotels and housing communities, many at the edge of the rainforest, where parrots and other colorful fauna, including foraging troops of macaques, are a common sight. For Hanjin to have built these mostrosities is a desecration of our national patrimony.
In its website, Hanjin claims that
it will evolve into an eco-friendly heavy industries & construction company where the future of the world and our earth comes first.
This is what Hanjin means by “eco-friendly” ?
In June of 2007, another Korean company caused an uproar when it built a spa on public land right at the mouth of Taal Volcano in Batangas, within the permanent danger zone of one of the country’s most active volcanoes. The resulting public outcry scuttled the project.
I’ m aware that the situation is as much about Filipino venality as it is about Korean arrogance and insensitivity. There are people in high places who are in cahoots with Hanjin and who allowed this to happen. Hopefully, there will be opportunity enough to hold them accountable. But the immediate task is to put a stop to the project. Lets join hands with NGOs and other like-minded groups to prevent the further rape of the Subic rainforest. Bantay Kalikasan had been to the site and its managing director, Ms. Gina Lopez, has expressed horrified outrage. Lets lend our collective voices to BK and other organizations to put an end to this barbarism once and for all.
The Inquirer spoke to Sen. Richard Gordon, former SBMA administrator, who expressed shock at construction of the Hanjin buildings. The Inquirer further clarified:
The site of the Hanjin condominium buildings is within the Subic Watershed Forest Reserve, a check by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQUIRER.net, showed.
Covering 10,000 hectares and cared for by the US Navy until its pullout in 1992, the site was classified as protected by virtue of Proclamation No. 926, which then President Corazon Aquino issued on June 15, 1992.
The reserve, located on the Morong, Bataan, side of the free port, was declared protected for “purposes of protecting, maintaining, or improving its water yield and providing a restraining mechanism for inappropriate forest exploitation and disruptive land use.”
An official of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Bataan said the proclamation had been amended, shrinking the reserve to 8,000 ha.
While the original proclamation had assigned executive control and administration of the area to the environment secretary, the SBMA has actually been managing it, the official said.
Gordon said the three-ha area where the 10-story and 20-story condominium buildings were put up had already been cleared of trees when Subic was still a US naval base.
He said an ammunitions and explosives testing area, warehouses and bunkhouses used to stand in that area.
“There were no trees anymore. Maybe 18 or 19 trees were cut, but these were small ones,” Gordon said, correcting the impression that the buildings were put up in the middle of the forest.
He said the structures only appeared to be in the middle of the rainforest because the photo run by the Inquirer was taken “as you enter the naval magazine.”
“What I disagree with is that [a building went too high], beyond the treetops. They allowed the Koreans to go beyond 10 stories. Nakakainis iyon (That’s annoying),” Gordon said.
He said he himself was shocked to see the structures, which cannot be seen from the ground because of the tree cover and can only be seen from the sea or from the air.
When Gordon asked Armand Arreza, present SBMA administrator, why he allowed it:
I asked him why he (Arreza) approved it. He said they accommodated Hanjin because it was Subic’s biggest investor. He said he was not told by the staff that there was something wrong.
The Inquirer further laments:
But now that the public knows what’s taking place, what’s next?
The usual finger-pointing will follow: Who are responsible for this depredation? And the foreign investors will be the target of criticism, though the real criticism should be aimed at the local and national officials who allowed the foreign investors to do what they pleased.
We predict that no one will take the blame, because incumbent officials will point to their predecessors; and officialdom, past and present, will claim that much as it makes no sense, they have lovely maps showing that indeed, building apartments in the middle of a rainforest had been well-planned all along.
And if environmentalists insist on making noise about the ongoing construction, and demand that officials should be held to account, why then, officials can resort to that tried and tested government line, “Show us your evidence,” followed by “Bring it to court.”
Of course the public can point out that the buildings are there, and the rainforest has obviously been reduced, and the damage has been done. But officials will likely go scot-free; the buildings will remain, a monument to deceit.
The problem is no one can sell out Filipino interests better than Filipino officials. It doesn’t matter if a plan allowing the construction of the “Subic forest apartments” exists, or if a cover-up would take place after the fact to justify it. The point is, it clearly makes no sense to punch a hole in the rainforest to build apartments.
Lip service goes hand in hand with a general policy that encourages the trumping of transparency to ensure impunity for the accountable. The ongoing construction in the Subic rainforest points to a government that views governance as a race–to do what it wants, so long as it keeps a step ahead of anyone who might have a contrary opinion to whatever it has set out to do. Anyway, in the end, so long as government gets what it wants, it will be generations of Filipinos yet to come who will pay for it.
Anywhere else, a society that cares for the environment and believes in public servants being held accountable for their actions would see the SBMA purged of its incumbent board, the environment secretary handing in his resignation, and Congress initiating an investigation due to pressure from an outraged environmental movement.
Instead, only in the Philippines would we get what we will get: nothing.
And the fixers who made this latest ecological depredation possible are laughing all the way to the bank–confident that they can get away with it after telling the compliant public, again, not to destabilize the “resurgent” economy, and to just move on.
To have an idea about Hanjin’s presence in the Philippines, it has signed a memorandum of understanding to build a $2 billion shipyard in the northern Mindanao province of Misamis Oriental. It has committed a total of $1.68 billion for its Subic shipyard project.
Senators Legarda and Zubiri pledged to look into the controversy surrounding the construction by Hanjin of the two high-rise condominiums in the Subic rainforest and expressed concerns about possible violation of environmental laws and said the Senate should investigate the matter.
Despite an uproar from green groups and threats of a Senate investigation, the SBMA and Hanjin aren’t reconsidering the construction of two high-rise condominiums within the free port’s lush forest, the environment and public opinion be damned.