Environmentalists warn of destruction with increase in US troop presence, military facilities

“US troops have a history of environmental crimes in the Philippines that have remained unaddressed with impunity.” – Dr. Giovanni Tapang, Agham

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Do we have to cause our destruction just so the United States can have its way in the Asia-Pacific? This underscores the questions and protests of leaders from various grassroots and environmental groups as US Secretary of State John Kerry visits the country this week. Kerry is visiting the Philippines Oct. 10 to 11 instead of US President Barack Obama. One of their likely agenda is the finalization of the framework agreement providing increased presence and base access of US troops in the Philippines, including allowing construction of US facilities on Philippine soil and prepositioning of US military equipment, supplies and materiel. US and Philippine negotiators prefer to call the framework agreement as just about “increased rotational presence.”

L-R: Dr. Giovanni Tapang (chairman of AGHAM), Atty. Edsel Tupaz (counsel for legal actions filed vs US Navy's 7th  Fleet), Leon Dulce (coordinator, Kalikasan-PNE), and Salvador France (Pamalakaya vice chairman) lead in exposing unaddressed environmental crimes by US military
L-R: Dr. Giovanni Tapang (chairman of AGHAM), Atty. Edsel Tupaz (counsel for legal actions filed vs US Navy’s 7th Fleet), Leon Dulce (coordinator, Kalikasan-PNE), and Salvador France (Pamalakaya vice chairman) lead in exposing unaddressed environmental crimes by US military

Even without the full force yet of that planned increase by the US, the Philippines is already suffering and “getting crushed under the footsteps of a large giant,” said Dr. Giovanni Tapang, chairman of AGHAM (Advocates of Science and Technology for the People). Speaking at a press conference Tuesday (Oct. 8) to press the Philippine Supreme Court to hasten its response to legal actions filed since April this year against the US Navy’s 7th Fleet for destroying parts of protected Tubbataha reef, Tapang decried the moves to increase US military presence in the country when they have a list of still unaddressed environmental crimes here.

“US troops have a history of environmental crimes in the Philippines that have remained unaddressed with impunity. They have not done any cleanup and compensation for toxic pollutions past and present: from the chemical waste they left in the former US bases in 1991 to the dumping of hazardous sewage and bilge water in Subic Bay just last year. We fear that this toxic trend will worsen as 60 percent of US maritime forces aim to reposition themselves in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Tapang.

Expanding scope of destruction

“There is no question, there’s a multi-causal link between the environment and US military presence,” said lawyer Edsel Tupaz, counsel for legal actions filed against the US Navy over the grounding of the USS Guardian, a US Navy minesweeper, at Tubbataha reef, a World Heritage Site in the Sulu Sea.

Tupaz said that as a people, we Filipinos “tend to be accepting, we keep opening doors, allowing US troops.” But he cited grim records of harm US troops have wreaked here, such as the toxic wastes left in the two former US bases (in Clark, Angeles, Pampanga and Subic in Zambales).

An estimated 1,000 people have died due to the ‘legacy’ of toxic wastes by the US Armed Forces in their former military bases. Some 2,460 individuals have been recorded as affected by the toxic wastes left by US troops in their former bases. The US has not made any payment nor did it undertake a thorough cleanup until now, Tapang of AGHAM said. He noted that past and present Philippine presidents have “failed to bring the issue of cleanup” in talks with the US.

“With Sec. Kerry’s visit, it looks like they won’t talk of the cleanup as well. Worse, they will even allow the US Navy to use more naval bases here,” said Tapang.

The Philippine government and military have confirmed that US military troops are reusing their former military bases in Pampanga and Zambales, under a basing setup currently being adopted by the US. That setup involves “sharing” bases and camps with the Philippine military. As Agham’s Tapang describes it, “using the Philippine Navy, for example, to hide their use of Philippine facilities.”

The co-sharing of military bases and facilities means co-sharing of costs to build and maintain it. As lawyer Tupaz said, this is a policy question: If the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) or the (Aquino) administration find the so-called joint military exercises with the US mutually beneficial, then, as with any other so-called mutually beneficial exercises, they will also pay for it.

“Accountability will be shared,” said Tupaz. That differs from past military basing setup where “the former US bases were clearly US-controlled,” Tupaz said.

A latest example in relation to US base access agreement, the Philippine Navy has confirmed plans to construct a naval base on Oyster Bay, part of the biodiversity- and resource-rich Ulugan Bay near Puerto Princesa City, Palawan. Some P500 million ($11.6 million) has reportedly been released to fund the construction of the naval base, according to Naval Forces West Commodore Joseph Rostum Peña.

The more visible part of its construction right now are the building of access roads, Salvador France of Pamalakaya, an organization of fisherfolks, told Bulatlat.com. Salvador said their members reported that they often see US troops in the area, even if there were no announced war exercises.

When the new naval base in Palawan is completed, it is expected to accommodate at least four large naval vessels, Naval Forces West Commodore Peña reportedly said. Pamalakaya feared that as shown by their experience in Bicol, fisherfolks would be banned from fishing when US troops and warships are in the vicinity.

Aside from the fact that the new naval base may be an infringement of the Constitutional ban on foreign military basing here, “The naval base construction in Oyster Bay once again demonstrates the wanton disregard of both US and PH military for the preservation of important ecosystems and the protection of livelihood for fisherfolk and ecotourism industries in the entire Ulugan Bay,” said Leon Dulce, campaign coordinator of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE).

Citing a UNESCO ecological assessment conducted way back in 1998, Dulce said Ulugan Bay has high biodiversity and a huge expanse of healthy marine and coastal habitats. Ulugan Bay is also directly adjacent to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, another protected area and world heritage site. Dulce warned that placing a hazardous facility that is very much a legitimate military target near it threatens the integrity of the national park.

The UNESCO study published in 2002 pointed out that Ulugan Bay is home to 63 fish species of which 35 are of commercial value. The entire bay also has high seagrass density and highly diverse coral communities, and is home to 15 percent of the country’s mangrove forest cover. Various environmental groups and grassroots organization fear that Ulugan Bay will be the next area where US forces will cause another toxic disaster.

One justification cited for this costly and biodiversity-destructive construction is the supposed need for the Philippine Navy to build a base for its two World War 2-era Hamilton-class cutters. These were the two discarded and stripped off coast guard ships purchased from the US military in 2011 and 2012 using Philippine funds from royalties in the oil and gas production in Palawan, the controversy-laden Malampaya fund.

Where is the reparation for past destruction?

Worries over the destructive impact of US military activity in PH seas and soil were sparked early this year when the minesweeper USS Guardian ran aground and destroyed 2,345 square meters of heritage coral reefs in the no-ship zone Tubbataha Reef Natural Park.

“There has been no indication from the US Government of any forthcoming payment, compensation, or redress of grievances for the people of Palawan, if not the people of the Philippines. The US has not submitted any restoration plan, compensation plan, or any other semblance of concrete restitution to the PH government. We wonder why the US seeks to use the PH as a staging ground in their pursuit of a ‘balancing of powers’ without paying for a single dollar of damages their troops and assets themselves caused,” said lawyer Edsel Tupaz, counsel for the legal actions filed against the US Navy 7th Fleet for the destruction of Tubbataha.

In urging for a Writ of Kalikasan against the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, the various environmental groups’ demands are admittedly circling just a small aspect of the damage inflicted on Tubbataha Reef. The Philippine government itself wanted only P58 million ($1.339 million), and the discussion of damage, said Tupaz, is focused just on the destroyed 2,345-hectare part of the protected reef. He called the destroyed part the “main scar” and the “primary damage” of the grounding.

In a 2009 case of US Navy grounding in Hawaii, the state of Hawaii involved various groups in assessing the damage and required rehabilitation, and it went beyond primary to secondary and tertiary damages done to their corals, Tupaz said. He noted that it takes 75 to 100 years for reef damages to be fully restored. In assessing secondary and primary damages, Tupaz said, one must include not just the damage to corals but also the damage to endemic species, to migratory birds, fish, and in other functions of the coral reef, such as its functions as a buffer zone.

“One of the reasons why we have the best beaches is we have these coral reefs,” Tupaz said. These reefs offer protection from strong waves and water current. As such, the damage in Tubbataha logically affects its usual ability to nurture endemic marine species as well as service as buffer zone for nearby beaches and coastal communities. But these effects are reportedly not being tackled at all.

Tupaz’s group is asking the Supreme Court to issue a TEPO (temporary environmental protection order) against the US Navy. The TEPO, he said, is basically an injunction requiring or prohibiting an act, in this case, prohibiting certain actions of US navy ships in certain areas. That the SC still has not responded to their call in the face of increased arrival of US Navy ships is only expected, Tupaz said, explaining that the courts are usually hesitant to issue something like a TEPO “because it’s a strong measure.”

But in the face of years’ worth of toxic legacy left by the US military in Subic and Clark, and the glaring limitations of what are being discussed, if at all, concerning the US Navy’s inflicted damages on Tubbataha, Tupaz said, we Filipinos can’t wait for more years of US military presence without asking now for the environmental criteria to be followed by such military presence.

“We’d like absolute restriction of joint or unilateral exercises in sensitive areas for marine protection. If you have high marine biodiversity in the area, don’t bring your ship there,” said Tupaz. He said the “least harm rule” should also be applied, taking into consideration the damage capability of weaponry that would be brought and used in war exercises here.

“These parameters are not culled from air, these are already being applied by the US Navy in various areas,” Tupaz said. He added that “the polluter pays principle” must also apply regarding their presence here.

Unity statement

In a unity statement, various environment groups expressed calls to both the US and Philippine governments, and urged the public to lend voices to these calls also as a change.org petition. The calls include the following:

-Oppose the return of US bases in the Philippines through the proposed base access agreement and the US strategic reposition policy;
-Grant immediate justice and compensation for environmental destruction caused by US troops, including the cleanup of toxic and hazardous wastes in the former US bases and the immediate compensation for the impacts on Tubbataha Reef;
-Achieve peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region through peaceful, diplomatic means; and
-Repeal and reject all previous, current and upcoming bilateral military and territory agreements between the Philippines.

The signatory organizations include Kalikasan PNE, AGHAM, Center for Environmental Concerns – Philippines, Agham Youth, Ecological Society of the Philippines Pamalakaya, Cordillera People’s Alliance, Panalipdan Southern Mindanao, Central Visayas Fisherfolk Development Center, Bukluran para sa Inang Kalikasan Batangas and Taripnong Cagayan Valley.

Aside from urging the public to support the environmental groups’ plans to hold protest actions as a way of greeting US State Secretary John Kerry, and to challenge the Supreme Court to hasten the proceedings of the Writ of Kalikasan filed against the US Navy, Dulce of Kalikasan-PNE announced that they are planning to conduct an environmental and socio-economic appraisal of Ulugan Bay. The purpose is to have an initial assessment of the specific impact the naval and other military operations will have on the marine environment of the bay.

“For us fisherfolk, when we have a visitor, they usually leave after a few days,” Salvador France, vice-chairman of Pamalakaya said. “Problems crop up when the ‘visitors’ go on to live here — they leave us toxic wastes, it affect our communities and our livelihood.”

“I hope the people will unite against these US military bases,” Salvador said, adding that for all the problems these basing of increased US troop invariably brings, it is questionable if the Philippines needed to play such role in the 60 percent redeployment in the region of US troops and arms. ()

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