Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Testing Executive Order 79: Sibuyan Island

(An edited version of this article was published in Manila Standard Today on September 18, 2012.)

The controversial Executive Order 79 signed by President Benigno Simeon C. Aquino III and its Implementing Rules and Regulations are already set in place. What’s next? Consider the case of Sibuyan Island, situated in the middle of the Philippines composed of three municipalities belonging to the province of Romblon.

This ice-age island called Sibuyan Island is undoubtedly a hotspot for biodiversity conservation as seen by the scientific community. Biologists claim that the island has vast variety of flora and fauna species found nowhere else in the world. The National Museum counted 1,551 trees in one hectare with 223 species, of which 54 are endemic, concluding that Sibuyan has the world’s densest forest, as confirmed by noted botanist Dr. Domingo Madulid. Thirty-three percent of the land area is basically primary forest which covers more than 140 square kilometers.

This 445 square kilometer island is a center of endemism, according to the US-based scientific institute The Field Museum which also says that the beetles and lizards of Sibuyan have yet to be studied, but it would be a good bet that more new species remain to be discovered by biologists. Sibuyan Island boasts 700 vascular plant species and is a critical plant site as described by the Philippine National Herbarium. A scientific study conducted by University of the Philippines researcher Miah Mayo Malixi shows that there are 35 endangered and endemic species in almost all barangays outside the protected area, Mt. Guiting-guiting Natural Park (MGGNP). With an approximate area of 15,265.48 hectares, MGGNP has been established by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 746 in 1996 under the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act (NIPAS) or Republic Act 7586. Moreover, a publication ‘Priority Sites for Conservation in the Philippines: Key Biodiversity Areas’ by the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) exposes that there are one critically endangered, four endangered, and eight vulnerable species of biodiversity within and outside the protected area.

In a publication of DENR together with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), New Conservation Areas in the Philippines Project, it assesses that “several new (endemic mammal) species have been discovered in small islands such as Sibuyan (five new species) and Camiguin (two new species), catapulting these islands to a new status as centers of mammal endemism.” It further explained that “the distribution of land mammals illustrates that each island that existed in the Philippines during the latest Ice Age period is a unique center of biodiversity. Smaller islands that remained isolated during the Ice Age, although small, are also considered unique centers of biodiversity. One example is Sibuyan Island (463 km2), which hosts four species of endemic non-flying mammals (plus one bat), a total exceeding that of any country in Europe.”

Almost every year, new biological species are being discovered. In 2008, a new species of stick insect has been discovered, the Pharnacia magdiwang. In 2010, a new species of shrew has been documented, crocidura ninoyi. Gekko coi or Leonard’s Forest Gecko, named after famous taxonomist Leonardo Co, was known in 2011. And in 2012, a new owl species has been found, Ninox Philippensis Spilonota.

MGGNP has been proclaimed by PAWB as an Important Bird Area (PH 058) and Conservation Priority Site (CPA 82). The seas of water surrounding Sibuyan and Romblon Islands have been considered as a priority conservation area for Cetaceans. Sibuyan Island is also a Conservation Priority Area for amphibians and reptiles.

In addition, the whole island has been declared a mangrove forest swamp reserve through Presidential Proclamation 2152 in 1981, putting it as an initial component NIPAS.

To emphasize and maximize biodiversity conservation for and of communities, a project granted by the UNDP in the amount of US$ 48,982 had been satisfactorily completed. The project mainly the Sibuyan Island Ecotourism Development Plan which according to UNDP’s Small Grant’s Program, a biodiversity conservation undertaking through the promotion and institutionalization of ecotourism programs and projects and setting-up of an island-wide network that will serve as support mechanism for environmental conservation and management.

Since year 2008, the whole province of Romblon, including Sibuyan Island, has been stricken by flooding, landslides, storm surges and typhoons, to mention Typhoons Frank, among others, which devastated crops and livestock amounting to Php 110 million. Further, the combined climate and weather related risks vulnerability of the Romblon is relatively high. In fact, the geohazard maps of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau show that almost 100% of Sibuyan Island barangays are highly susceptible to flood. Additionally, nearly 85% of Sibuyan Island is highly susceptible to landslides.

On 23 December 2009, five days before he resigned as DENR head, Secretary Lito Atienza approved a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) valid for 25 years in favor of Altai Philippines Mining Corporation (Altai), a subsidiary of Canada-based Altai Resources Inc., which is now operated by Sibuyan Nickel Properties Development Corporation (SNPDC) by virtue of an agreement on November 2004 with SNPDC’s Australian Connection and shareholder Sunshine Gold Pty. Ltd., a subsidiary of Australia-based Pelican Resources Ltd. As early as 2006, SNPDC through its subsidiaries All-Acacia Resources Inc. and Sun-Pacific Resources Inc. applied for small-scale mining permits before operating under Altai’s mineral rights.

In 2007, then DENR Secretary Angelo Reyes issued a Special Cutting of Trees Permit within 406 hectares of land, equal to 9,455.183 cubic meters or more or less four million board feet, in which conservation institution Haribon Foundation assessed that there are threatened tree species to be cut such as apitong and yakal species included in the national list of endangered plant species. Although the permit has been suspended, it was neither revoked nor cancelled and may be lifted anytime.

As of September 2012, there are active applications for MPSA in an area of 623.70 hectares for feldspar, 1,791.21 hectares for nickel and chromite exploration, and 544.3 hectares for gold under Minahang Bayan.

Despite the joint resolutions of the three municipalities of Sibuyan: Magdiwang, Cajidiocan and San Fernando which clearly says that “Sibuyan Island’s sustainable development can be achieved through enhancing the vast agricultural lands and natural bounties of the island than through the temporal benefits mining industry have promised; and believed that in the pursuit of the development of the passionate care for Mother Earth and the Environment shall not be set aside and disregarded,” the national government still accepts mining applications in the island.

With the call of communities, and one life sacrificed in the person of San Fernando Councilor Armin Rios-Marin, the local government units invoked their constitutional rights to a healthful and balanced ecology under Article II Sections 15 and 16 of the Philippine Constitution and the general welfare clause of the Local Government Code of 1991, Chapter II Section 16; and the provisions of Climate Change Act, Disaster Risk Reduction Management Act, National Integrated Protected Areas Act, Wildlife Conservation and Protection Act, Philippine Agenda 21; and in the spirit of the Convention on Biodiversity, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and all of the aforesaid facts and figures; in which the Mining Act of 1995 stands alone together with the Small Scale Mining Act of 1991, and some other related policies, although constitutional; intergenerational responsibility and precautionary principles are also invoked to exempt Sibuyan Island from mining.

If mining would still be allowed in critical island ecosystems which has delicate biodiversity and excellent ecotourism potentials; in protected areas, mapped geohazard areas, without social acceptability with companies circumventing laws and policies in favor of themselves hiding in corporate veils in connivance with corrupt officials, then Executive Order 79 and its Implementing Rules and Regulations are inutile, so do with the Mining Act of 1995.

Thankfully, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau suspended the activities of SNPDC.

But, suspension is not enough – the license must be revoked, if the executive order under the shadow of the mining act is effective.

Shaping our country’s future?

Quo vadis?