By Michelle Bender and Darlene Lee
Rights of Nature has taken root in the Philippines. Earth Law Center and Philippines Earth Justice Center are exploring how to advance the movement further, specifically how to incorporate the Earth Law Framework for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) into the country’s National System of MPAs.
The Philippines Sea: Unparalleled biodiversity
Located in the Pacific Ocean, 7,100 islands and 36,000 kilometers of coastline make up the country of the Philippines.[i]
Over 2,000 fish species, 22 species of whales and dolphins, 900 species of seaweed and more than 400 species of coral call the Philippine Sea home.[ii] The ocean matters to people too, with over 1 million Filipinos depending on it for their livelihoods (equal to 4 percent of the country’s gross national product).[iii]
Not many people know that the Philippines hosts unique and unparalleled marine biodiversity. Part of the Coral Triangle, the Philippine Sea is often referred to as the “Amazon of the Seas” where 70% of all known coral species in the world are found.[iv] Hence, protecting the biodiversity of the Philippine sea is important not just to the neighboring countries but to the larger marine ecosystem.
Threats to the Philippine Sea
Pollution, fishing practices like dynamite fishing, and climate change threaten the health of the Philippine sea. Oil spills have continually impacted the Philippine sea and local communities. For example, in 2008 a coal spill off the coast of Bolinao caused an estimated 55 million dollars in damage.
As a result, three quarter of the mangroves have disappeared and 54% of the coral reefs are “badly damaged.”[v]
Endangered species in the Philippine sea include: hawksbill sea turtles, giant clams, net coral, false flower coral, sei whales, blue whales, fin whales, loggerhead turtles, humphead wrasse, green turtles, spiny turtles, and frog-faced soft shell turtles among many others.[vi]
Focus on Philippine Rise
Philippine Rise (formerly known as Benham Rise) is a 13 million hectare undersea volcanic ridge region to the east of the Philippines.[vii] An ecologically important and biodiverse marine area, the Rise provides the only spawning ground for Pacific Bluefin Tuna, and the only place in the Philippines with 100% coral cover.[viii] It is considered “one of the Philippines’ last, best chances to protect old-growth coral reefs.”[ix]
The bluefin tuna, endangered for several years, has suffered a catastrophic decline in stocks in the Northern Pacific Ocean, of more than 96%. At current rates, the species will soon be functionally extinct in the Pacific. More than nine out of 10 of the species recently caught were too young to have reproduced, meaning they may have been the last generation of the bluefin tuna.[x]
The Philippines government has taken great strides to protect this area. On May 15, 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte signed a proclamation declaring 50,000 hectares of the Rise as a marine reserve. Approximately one third of this area was also designated as a no-take zone, closed to all human activities besides scientific research. Additionally, 300,000 hectares are managed with a ban against “active fishing gears.”[xi]
Considered a “potentially rich source of natural gas and other resources such as heavy metals,”[xii] the Philippines Rise faces threats from foreign oil extractors. Local groups have organized to protect this area.
Lawsuit for Tanon Strait
Gloria Ramos, (now executive director of Oceana Philippines) and Rose-Liza Eisma-Osorio, created the Philippine Earth Justice Center.
The Philippine Earth Justice Center (PEJC) is a non-stock and non-profit corporation which was established to provide legal assistance to victims of environmental injustice, conduct policy research on the environment, advocate policy reforms, assist in building local capacities for environmental protection and promote sustainability and protection of human rights.
PEJC usually joins private individuals, helping them to assert their rights as a steward in various cases. It is also a duly recognized organization in the pursuit of the right to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature guaranteed under the 1987 Philippine Constitution. PEJC is assisting victims of coal ash disposal in a community near a coal-fired power plant in Naga, Cebu. Other cases have involved indigenous peoples fighting against small-scale mining activities within their ancestral domain in Southern Philippines, coastal communities preventing reclamation activities, and fisherfolks with their communities asserting preferential rights over their municipal waters.
Philippine law permits any citizen to file an action before the courts for violations of environmental law. The Philippines are leaders of crafting environmental laws in the world. “Imagine, in the U.S., you can only go to court if you were already harmed by exploitative activities. In the Philippines, you can sue before you get harmed. It is preventive,” Gloria Ramos, Oceana said.
The Philippines Earth Justice Center sued the government to protect the Tañon Strait from oil exploration and development. The Strait is the largest marine protected area in the Philippine sea.
Titled “Resident Marine Mammals of the Protected Seascape Tañon Strait et. al. V. Secretary Angelo Reyes et al." the marine mammals gained standing in the case. The Philippines Earth Justice Center was dubbed by the media as “guardians of marine mammals” in the case (and the name has followed them since). They contended “that there should be no questions of their right to represent the resident marine mammals since the primary steward, the government, had failed in its duty to protect the environment pursuant to the public trust doctrine.”
The court noted “the right to a balanced and healthful ecology, a right that does not even need to be stated in our Constitution as it is assumed to exist from the inception of humankind, carries with it the correlative duty to refrain from impairing the environment.” Also, due to the Constitution’s mandate to “protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature” the court ruled in favor of nature, and reversed the contract that was granted to the company Japex allowing oil exploration activities, determining “no energy resource exploitation and utilization may be done in the protected seascape.”
This important precedent can help protect Benham Rise, ensuring the government adheres to legal frameworks such as the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992, and that community members adhere to their duties as stewards for the environment.
What’s next for the Philippines Sea?
The country already allows the rights for citizens to sue on behalf of the environment. The next step is to recognize the rights afforded to nature in law.
Communities are pushing for introduction of this legal framework in the country. On World Environment Day (June 5th), a wide caravan of groups called upon “increased protection for the environment and upholding of the rights of nature.”[xiii] Named “Salakyag” the march pushed for “a return to the culture of interconnection and full embrace of nature.”[xiv]
Gloria notes that “What is good for the environment is good for business, so we really need to change the mindset that protecting the environment and business interests are mutually exclusive.” This is what the rights of nature framework provides. It requires us to balance the rights of nature with humans, and ensures that economic benefits are not privileged over the benefits of a healthy environment.
Next steps to secure rights for the Philippines Sea
Rose-Liza Eisma-Osorio is working to “increase advocacy and work with groups calling for the rights of nature in the Philippine legal system.” This includes including rights of nature in future court cases to protect the environment and incorporating the Earth Law Framework into the national system of MPAs.
The current framework is the National Integrated Protected Areas Act (NIPAS) of 1992, recently amended in 2018. This Act creates the system for protected areas in the Philippines and provides for their management. Under the Act, all recognized protected areas must have a management plan within one year, and a management board created for each. These boards must be comprised of government, local community, NGO, indigenous, private sector and academic institution representatives. Per the precedent set in the Tanon Strait case, there exists an opportunity for a representative to assume the role of the Guardian for the protected area. The introduction of guardians who represent the protected area’s interest is one way to incorporate the Earth Law Framework into NIPAS.
Additionally, environmental groups in the Philippines are currently drafting a rights of nature law to present at the National level. This initiative is also being supported by the Catholic Church.
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