On the proposed ‘Bikini Bottom’ down South

With the approval of the 2017 national budget of PHP3.35T of which PHP2.5B is allotted for tourism, the country’s thirteen regions can now start implementing their tourism plans. But especially this year having declared 2017 as the Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development the UN reminds nations that it’s not just tourism. This test for sustainability came early to our shores, in Coron Palawan last year’s ‘Best Island in the World’ according to Travel+Leisure where a Nickeldeon theme park has been proposed. An environmentalist group claiming the proposed park will involve underwater development mounted a social media campaign against it.

Without additional information than what’s reported online, I cannot say whether or not the group has it right. However, their campaign against the development highlights two things that are also faced by the rest of the country which compel vigilant groups to react thus.

First: the more legitimate group of people to voice what, why, where, and how development should happen be it in their barangay, municipality, city, province, or region are the insiders or residents (voters and taxpayers in the area, technically). That’s not happening though. Yes, locals talk among themselves when development activities negatively affect them but such do not reach the camps of decisionmakers. Are they scared? Maybe. Cynical? Perhaps. Regardless of reason, local people have effectively surrendered their collective right to development, viz.

Recognizing that development is a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom,

Recalling also the right of peoples to exercise, subject to the relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, full and complete sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources,

Recognizing that the human person is the central subject of the development process and that development policy should therefore make the human being the main participant and beneficiary of development,

Proclaims the following Declaration on the Right to Development:

1.   The human person is the central subject of development and should be the active participant and beneficiary of the right to development.   

2.   All human beings have a responsibility for development, individually and collectively, taking into account the need for full respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as their duties to the community, which alone can ensure the free and complete fulfilment of the human being, and they should therefore promote and protect an appropriate political, social and economic order for development.

Abdication from the inside has given rise for outsiders, be it civil society groups and organizations, media, academia, and such like, to step in and determine “in behalf” of locals what is best for them. This is not to say that outsiders have no business doing so, but rather if and when outsiders must go in they are duty-bound to ensure informed and meaningful participation of local people. At the end of the day, the decision of local people should be respected. In committing to this process, not only are outsiders protecting local people’s right to development but also set the stage for greater awareness, knowledge, and capacity for self determination.

In the cited Palawan development case, the voice of locals are absent in the campaign and media reports. What do they know? What do they say? Theirs is the most important.

Second: We can get too focused on the immediate negative costs of the project that we forget we’re living in an age of technological advancement in architectural and engineering design, methods, materials, and tools hence lose what could otherwise be greater benefits of the project. Don’t Filipinos make regular pilgrimages to Disneyland in HongKong, Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, or Palm Island in Dubai? Weren’t these places developed at the scale that it’s disapproved here? The latter two are on reclaimed land.

Development is the future. We cannot live in huts forever. Sooner or later, a tide of such great height will come and wash it away. Nor live off bananas and coconuts straight from the trees everyday. The more intelligent way forward therefore is to pay more attention to developers’ plans to mitigate unsustainable effects and impacts of their projects, and if such are absent or mitigation measures inadequate it is the place of local people to say so.

This is done through the standard development process known as Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) System, or what’s referred to in the Philippines as the Philippine EIS System (PEISS). This is not only just an SOP in development planning, but in this country a legal requirement under Presidential Decree 1586 passed in 1978 subsequently enhanced in 1981 through Proclamation 2146.

Coron is an Environmentally Critical Area (ECA) hence under PD 2146 development projects sited there shall comply with the PEISS. The figure below illustrates the EIA processes corresponding with the phases in the project development cycle:

Here in more detail are the different stages in EIA. Public input are required during (1) EIA study scoping, (2) EIA study/report, (3) review and evaluation of EIA, and (4) environmental monitoring and evaluation or audit.

At the time former President Marcos signed off on PDs 1586 and 2146 the country was under a centralized government system which explains identification of the Ministry of Human Settlements as lead agency of the PEISS. The National Environmental Protection Council (DENR now) served as Secretariat. In 1991 during Corazon Aquino’s administration LGUs were given authority over devolved activities of national government. DENR took over the PEISS mandate and in more recent years specifically through DENR MC 2007-08 clarified the LGUs’ involvement in the Process .

In reality, however, the PEISS has been largely flouted. The concrete result of this we see on the landscape. Therefore I do understand the immediate negative reactions to the Coron development. To be blunt, nothing brings out the “dirt” in development than this side of the planning process ie. permits and approvals from planning boards, zoning authorities, conservation and/or historical commissions, and environmental authorities. It’s good training ground for fresh out of university urban planners though.

How do you face an angry mob of locals? You don’t. There’s a roundabout way to deal with that. It’s called the impact fee and it’s legal. Here and abroad. The LGU planning officer (or other assigned personnel) negotiates with the developer for the best monetary deal in the name of mitigation measures. The fee could amount to anything as name your price. What these impact fees are actually spent on- locals don’t usually hear about it either. It could be a handful of trees for all the community know. Regardless, and from all angles, the developer walks away the winner in these deals. They could pass on the impact fee amount to buyers.

When an LGU has been paid the impact fee and there’s no improvement seen or felt in the locality… this is when the importance of organization hits community residents. They need to have legal entity with legal rights to acquire funding and therefore employ professional expertise, lobbying power. I have yet to see in the country a community-based group organized around property or development rights and sustainable development.

How do I conclude? Real estate development can be quite a jungle but it’s not to say development projects per se are bad. This country is being groomed and marketed as a “more fun” tourist destination and to deliver on that promise we need to upgrade services and infrastructures in order to compete with other destinations worldwide. What makes development bad is when locals are deliberately left out of the process and gain nothing or little from development projects.

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