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ROUGH CUTS | The ‘paradise’ we must not lose




Vic N. Sumalinog

OUR friend Wennie Gorres shared with us during the weekend a copy of a video documentary of the activities of several marine biologist divers who validated the existence of a huge underwater area of the Pakiputan channel with a massive growth of corals and its attendant habitation.

The channel separates the Island Garden City of Samal (IGaCoS) and Davao City, which is in the mainland. The government will be constructing a connector bridge that is estimated to cost P23 billion pesos. The talk of a bridge to be constructed started as early as the 70s. Between then and 2016 the project was just a nebulous dream. And there was no indication that the connector bridge will come to reality.

Things changed though when the Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte became President of the Philippines in the 2016 national elections. Not only that the talks became louder, the groundworks actually started. And the most important of these activities were the formal endorsement of the project to the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) Board by the Regional Development Council (RDC) XI, the subsequent conduct of a feasibility study by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the deliberation on the proposed project done by the NEDA Board and its formal approval. We consider as the last activity of the groundworks the identification of the mode of funding the multi-billion infrastructure project. And when these were done, the ball was passed on to the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) for the start of the implementation processes.

But even as the people of Davao City and IGaCoS were excitedly expecting for the realization of the project, several controversies surfaced. First, the JICA feasibility study, which estimated the cost of the bridge construction at P16 billion, was suddenly ditched and a surreptitiously done feasibility study by Ove Erup, a Hong Kong-based consultancy firm, was substituted. This time the cost estimate ballooned to P23 billion, some P7 billion higher than the cost estimated by JICA.

The second controversy spawned by the proposed project is the apparent lack of transparency in the discarding of the JICA study, as well as the activities of the Erup study including the time when these were started, where, and how the consultants arrived at a decision where the bridge should be routed.

Clearly, the ditching of the JICA study was an open display of bias against a location that makes the bridge shorter and P7 billion less costly that the substitute site. It was also an open disregard of the irreversible damage the Ove Erup-recommended route would bring to the rich marine life in the channel.

And last, but not necessarily the least, of the controversies attendant to the bridge construction is the apparent haste of the local governments of Davao City and IGaCoS in accepting the Hong Kong consultant’s feasibility study and their subsequent endorsement of the project. And based on several news reports, the project still does not have an Environmental Clearance Certificate (ECC) from the Department of Environment AND Natural Resources (DENR).

But why haven’t the DPWH or whichever agency is concerned; or maybe the Ove Erup, secured an ECC from the DENR? Chances are, these agencies already knew that in the new feasibility study, they did not include actual observation and documentation of the marine life situation in the route recommended. It is even possible that they just take their data on marine life from the JICA document. The JICA study’s proposed route of the span hosts less coral reefs and other underwater habitats as compared to the marine habitation in the Ove Erup proposed route. So, if the “experts” from the consulting firm indeed undertook dives and documented the coral growth in the channel they’d surely know that down under the water is a paradise worthy of eternal preservation.

Really, we have this notion that the non-documentation of the underwater situation could have been deliberately done. Why, because if such documentation is existing this would surely be required for submission by the DENR when the concerned agency or agencies submit its application for the issuance of an ECC. And based on what we have seen in the video documentary shared with us by our friend Wennie, the coral reef stretching some kilometers long and its habitat are so healthy, indications that there are unceasing efforts to protect them from any potential destruction.

Seeing the entire video documentary eventually made us ponder on our most cherished idea of what development is, as imparted to us by a professor while we were attending audit classes leading to a Public Administration course at the University of Southeastern Philippines (USeP) years back. That is, “The real measure of a development project is when upon its completion there are more beneficiaries than sufferers.”

As we seriously weigh in our thoughts on the Davao City-Samal connector bridge project we could not make sense arguing that there will be more who would consider themselves beneficiaries, more so the moneyed who can afford to do economic activities in the island. They may even enjoy the benefits for the long term. But will such benefits of a bridge remain for the longer or even the longest period?

We are raising the question because one of the sufferers of the project is the environment, specifically the marine ecology that spawns some of the most important components of the people’s daily food requirements. Yes, substantial supplies of fish, crustaceans and other marine products that give the human body its important nutrients when eaten, emanate from the coral reefs of the Samal channel. When their habitat gets destroyed as the bridge piles are driven, for certain the underwater paradise will also start its journey to extinction.

Is there still a way to turn back the tide? Yes, there is and it is just a matter of making a decision – a win-win one. All the government has to do is go back to the JICA study and recommendation. Surely the government can have a substantial saving on the project cost even if it has paid a substantial sum to the Hongkong consultant.

Or, would the government rather insist on the Ove Erup scheme and wait for the vengeance of nature altered by the greed of some few “bad” men in its service? Such vengeance may not be soon. But it would surely come to haunt the generations after us.

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