Thursday, April 22, 2004

'Let the healing begin'

Happy Earth Day!

What nationalist Filipino does not know that `Pearls R Us’?

But pearls could be a source of conflict. The Jewelmer Corporation, a Cojuangco-owned operator of a large pearl farm in Palawan has been the subject of complaints there. Recently, 500 members of indigenous groups, some clad in traditional costumes, sailed on their boats to fish in the waters off the islands off Bugsuk and Pandanan in Balabac, Palawan. These areas are currently off limits to fishermen.

Those who dared ``intrude’’ belonged to the Pal’wan and Molbog tribes and were members of the Samahang Tribo sa Dulo ng Timog Palawan (Sambilog). With the help of the Jesuit-influenced PhilDHRRA, they are claiming back their rights to the 57,000 hectares of ancestral land and waters occupied by Jewelmer.

Sambilog head Sanglima Rudy Calo said that Jewelmer ``has prohibited us from fishing in these waters for almost two decades. But these had been traditional fishing grounds for our ancestors. And now we learned that the operation of the pearl farm is illegal. It does not have an environmental compliance certificate from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources nor any clearance from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development. They have not acquired any consent certificate from us either.’’

Those who have ogled at luscious pearls at Jewelmer stores and scanned their expensive coffeetable book would know why these South Sea pearls are very expensive. I was once tempted to buy a pair of champagne-colored dangling earrings there but the price said, go away. I settled for a look-alike, costing about one-tenth, sold by Muslim traders at a mall tiangge.

In some parts of the waters off the islands of Palawan I’ve seen hundreds of these unsightly floating boxes where pearl oysters grow. You could get shot at if you go near, I was warned.

Sambilog, I learned, had tried to dialogue with Jewelmer officials. The first dialogue was held in Malacanang last August. Jewelmer and Balabac Mayor Astani agreed to hold more talks but nothing has happened since.

Sambilog is invoking the indigenous peoples law and demanding a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title for the fishermen as well as a cease and desist order for Jewelmer. The fishermen said they were victims of a land swap between Eduardo Cojuangco and former Pres. Marcos in 1974, and now they want to recover what they had lost.

Who owns the sea?

Blue sea, blue planet. Two US-based groups, each one claiming to have started Earth Day celebrations in 1970, are at odds on the matter of the date of Earth Day. One wants to stick to the March date of the vernal equinox, the other to an April date which is what most people are familiar with now. It seems the April people have prevailed, judging from the expansion of the Earth Day Network.

`Let the healing begin.’ This is the theme of today’s celebrations sponsored by the Earth Day Network Philippines. Today is the launching of the nationwide Movement for Earth Rehab. Kick-off activities will be held at the commencement grounds at UP Diliman.

`Let the healing begin.’ The patient is Mother Earth Philippines and its 7,100 islands. The caregivers are you and me. Individuals and groups are enjoined to join in caregiving.

Last week I quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupery as saying that we often fail to see the cord that binds us to the wells and fountains, the umbilical cord by which we are tied to the womb of the world. This womb contains the waters that sustain life on the planet. Poison these and life dies.

Last year the United Nations declared 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater. The Earth Day Network supported this campaign by launching a two-year Water for Life Campaign till 2004.

We always think of food as a human right. Well, water is also a human right and this is something quite distinct because water, unlike food, is not grown, it is there for everyone, for the taking. Water knows no boundaries. The water in the rivers, seas and lakes goes as far as it can go, it does not stop on geographical boundaries. We dread the day when nations go to war over water supply or when terrorist warfare finds its way into the water supply of this world.

Earth Day Network’s Water for Life campaign hopes to bring global attention to the world’s water crisis. More than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water and more than two billion lack sanitation. According to the World Health Organization, millions of people, most of them children, die from water-related diseases every year.

It’s the government’s responsibility to provide enough water not just for drinking but for crops as well. The current trend toward privatization in water services could weaken public control and threaten ample supply. Private business interests could take precedence over people’s basic human right to access to water. But then, there are many opportunities and challenges too, to help private enterprises prove that sustainability could also mean good business.

Last February World Bank Philippines launched its 2003 Philippines Environment Monitor on Water Quality and highlighted poor water quality and sanitation services.

The government’s monitoring revealed that just over 36 percent of the country’s river systems are classified as sources of public water supply and that up to 58 percent of groundwater sampled is contaminated with coliform and needs treatment. Approximately 31 percent of illnesses monitored over a five-year period were caused by water-borne diseases and many areas are experiencing a shortage of water supply during the dry season.

It’s later than you think. Earth caregivers unite.