[OPINION] Reclaiming the narrative

Jon Bonifacio


[OPINION] Reclaiming the narrative

San Miguel Corporation (SMC) is having a field day fending off critics of its New Manila International Airport (NMIA) project in Bulacan, following massive flooding in nearby areas after the recent onslaught of Typhoon Egay. Instead of dabbling in semantics and legal trickery, however, Ramon Ang and his allies should instead own up to the fact that the new airport isn’t all that they are chalking it up to be. In fact, SMC’s project has been mired in controversy from the very beginning.

In the backdrop of the Marcos Jr. administration’s recent announcement to suspend reclamation projects in Manila Bay, many were hopeful that this would also mean the suspension of the 2,500-hectare airport development in Bulacan. SMC has clarified that their airport is not included in this suspension order, stating that it is not a reclamation project — something that may have come as a surprise to many.

It is true that, upon checking the Philippine Reclamation Authority’s (PRA) records, the NMIA is nowhere to be found. It is instead legally classified as a “land development” project outside of the scope and concern of institutions such as the PRA. SMC has argued that the area of the airport is simply land “prone to regular inundation,” and that they are “not creating new land” with their project.

The simplest way of reclaiming land is the notorious dump-and-fill process which characterizes many projects in Manila Bay. But land reclamation in itself can also take on other forms, such as permanently draining water from historically inundated areas. Reclamation, after all, can literally mean reclaiming the land — exactly what Ramon Ang has argued. It would also be helpful to find out how exactly the 150 million cubic meters of fill material dredged from the seafloor off the coast of Cavite was used for “land preparation” and “formation of ground platform”, as outlined in the project’s non-technical summary.

In countering the charges levied against the project in relation to flooding, it seems that Ramon Ang and his cohort of world-class engineers have a very limited understanding of the dynamic processes that take place in complex river delta systems such as that of Northern Manila Bay. Regardless of how you do it — indiscriminately smothering ecosystems with the dump-and-fill method, or draining out large volumes of water to expose the land below — you are dramatically and permanently altering the landscape. Experts have pointed out that placing such a massive project at the mouth of a river delta, adjacent to major rivers such as the Meycuayan River and the Santa Maria River, will undoubtedly slow the outflow of water, which can lead to flooding in nearby communities.

Despite their adamant public refusal to recognize their project’s contribution to flooding, SMC has perhaps been driven by some level of subconscious guilt as they have invested substantially in various flood control initiatives in nearby areas. The most monstrous iteration of which is their unsolicited proposal to build a 16,000-hectare flood control and — this is both laughable and alarming — expressway project that plans to swallow the entire Northern Manila Bay area, from Bataan to Bulacan. For one, the project will avail of massive amounts of reclamation, or land development, or whatever term SMC’s lawyers would deem appropriate. For another, the fact that flood control in a high-risk area somehow involves unrelated and potentially harmful infrastructure should make clear as day the folly of entrusting such projects to groups like SMC.

All of these issues about the NMIA stand in the backdrop of various other human rights, economic, and environmental issues of the project. From mangrove forest destruction to military harassment of communities to economic displacement of fisherfolk, SMC has much to answer for. In fact, international groups like Global Witness and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have been vocal about the airport from the very beginning. In a recent monitoring report of the project. In a recent monitoring report, Netherlands-based consultancy firm Steward Redqueen also noted that there have been notable delays in SMC’s implementation of its Environmental and Social Action Plan, putting into question their claims of meeting international standards. Here in the Philippines, the People’s Network for the Integrity of Coastal Habitats and Ecosystems (People’s NICHE) and its various member organizations have been at the forefront of opposing the project on social and ecological grounds.

The latest move of the Marcos Jr. administration to suspend reclamation in Manila Bay is a welcome step in the right direction, but it is also an opportunity to do much more. If we are genuine with our plan to study the social and environmental problems across Manila Bay, it makes complete sense to put a stop to the single largest project in the bay area, whether or not it is legally classified as reclamation. Until then, it’s probably worth taking SMC’s ongoing PR campaign with a healthy grain of salt.