MANILA — Almost a month after the grounding of the US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian at the Tubbataha Reef, the extent of the damage continues to increase tremendously as the ship remains on the world’s marine biodiversity hub.
Meanwhile, the Aquino administration has been too lax on the issue, letting the US government get away with yet another violation in Philippine sovereignty.
Beyond the grounding incident, the UP community clamored once again for the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that freely allows US military presence on Philippine territory. Led by the newly-formed organization “UP Alliance to Save the Tubbataha, Junk VFA,” concerned students, faculty, administrators and workers called on the current administration to hold the US Navy accountable while strengthening their call for the repeal of the VFA.
“That the US Navy will only be fined US$300 (P12, 000) for every damaged square meter is unacceptable even if it may be legal. The coral reef is priceless and its damage is made worse by the blatant, arrogant disregard of the US forces of the territorial integrity and Philippine sovereignty,” according to the petition read by Congress of Teachers/Educators for Nationalism and Democracy (CONTEND) secretary general Sarah Raymundo at a mass action held on January 30.
The petition highlighted that the warship “ignored the warning of the Park Rangers” while entering the protected area and that when the ship grounded at the reef, the crew prevented rangers from boarding the ship “by going into a battle formation.”
Beyond the environmental issue
The issue of the Tubbataha grounding incident and the call for repeal of the VFA are two linked issues that could not be separated, according to Samahan ng Nagtataguyod ng Agham at Teknolohiya Para sa Sambayanan (AGHAM) chairperson Dr. Giovanni Tapang said in an interview.
A member of the new alliance, Tapang said, beyond the saving of Tubbataha by exerting “all efforts to take the ship away and minimize the environmental damage” and demanding reparation for its continuous destruction, the Save Tubbataha Junk VFA movement aims to pressure the government to hold the crew of the US Navy ship accountable for entering a prohibited area and to abrogate the VFA.
“The Visiting Forces Agreement led to this situation in the first place. Without the VFA, we call it ‘invasion,’” said Tapang.
The Aquino administration’s response – or rather, the lack of one – is not anymore surprising, according to the physicist. Instead of holding the crew responsible for the damage, the government has let the US take the crew away. Meanwhile, the US government disallowed the country’s direct participation in the salvaging operations.
“This is Philippine territory, so the subservience actually of the government is very apparent in this case. Their inability to confront the US in recovery operations, as well as for demanding for reparation is something that does not surprise us anymore,” said he.
In response to the criticism of sovereignty as something that cannot be “eaten,” Tapang asserted: “Sovereignty here is a gut issue because what they are destroying is a national patrimony that we can use for our food (and) our development. The Americans are destroying it by their mere presence in the area.”
The VFA has been a long-standing controversy in the Philippines, as it allows US troops to use Philippine territory for their military exercises, more commonly known as the Balikatan Exercise. Perhaps the most notable issue concerning VFA and Balikatan was the controversial rape case of “Nicole” in 2005. Perpetrator Lance Corporal Daniel Smith came out almost unscathed in the controversy, even flying back to the US after the case was said to be resolved.
The Center for Environmental Concerns-Philippines (CEC-Phils), under the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, also expressed disappointment in the administration and supports the abrogation of the VFA.
“It’s high time that the Philippine government should make the US military own up and be punished for their continuous transgression in our national sovereignty and national patrimony,” said Frances Quimpo, executive director of CEC-Phils.
The term “impunity,” commonly associated with media and extrajudicial killings, was used by Quimpo to describe the response of the government toward the conduct of the military while in our territory.
“They take cover behind the VFA and the Mutual Defense Treaty. They overstretch the provisions of the agreement. Well, actually, these are more favorable to the US than the Philippine government; these are really unequal treaties,” she said.
Even before the Tubbataha issue, the US government has already violated several environmental laws in the country. Aside from the wastes left behind by the military after their exercises in Subic and Clark, a military drone that drifted to Masbate just last month has brought not only anger, but fear, among the Filipinos leaving nearby.
The most recent violation involved the Glenn Defense Marine Asia, a contractor discovered liable for dumping human wastes, oil and grease from the US ships in Subic seawaters. A Senate investigation recommended to the government to file charges against the company for violating environmental regulations.
“It’s not just the issue of compensation, it’s an issue about justice,” said Quimpo. “Their violation is too heavy; it’s not just a Philippine heritage, but a world heritage. It’s not the amount we’re after. It should trigger a review of our treaties, and US troops should not be allowed to continue staying in our country.”
A well-rounded perspective
A look at the back of the new 1000-peso bill shows how much we value the Tubbataha, according to Tapang. “It’s an issue of asserting what is right and what is correct regarding our national sovereignty, which has implications on our environmental diversity, in the fishing economy of the area.”
Furthermore, Quimpo said there would surely be a domino effect on the food chain with the destruction of the part of the coral triangle, which a big percent of the world’s fish supply inhabit. The livelihood of the Palawan-Sulu Sea fishermen would most likely be affected by the incident.
Tapang suggested that the aside from the alliance leading demonstrations and mass actions, the UP community can do a lot more.
For instance, on Tuesday, professors from the alliance held a flash performance poetry of “Tayo ang Gumuhit” by National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera. It is a showcase on how cultural groups can actually contribute to the understanding of the issue at hand.
“The marine scientists (of the UP Marine Science Institute) are actually willing to give advice on how to go forward with clearing out the ship, how to rehabilitate the reef, and other long-term implications of this destruction,” said Tapang. With the help of the lawyers, political scientists and other social scientists, a “well-rounded perspective” on the issue may be raised