Thursday, November 22, 2007

Tempest in Tanon

“The State shall protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature. -Article II, Sec. 16 of the Philippine Constitution

I imagine the Lord of the Sea wading to shore wearing raiment of corals and sea grass and--flotsam surrendered by the sea. Thundering, roaring like the wind in a lost empty city, he seeks the despoilers of his ocean home and the home of gentle sea creatures that inhabit the earth and provide food for its inhabitants.

Where are they. He roars. Who are they, they who laid waste the ocean garden.

This scenario plays like a movie in my mind, it surges in my consciousness like the thoughts and images I had long ago while beholding, somewhere, the sea in its threatening beauty. And I imagine now the threatened Tanon Strait in the Visayan Sea as it waits to be visited by turbulence in the form of exploratory drilling for gas.

The sea is a-boil. A slow, symphonic movement takes a sudden turn and climaxes with a roll of drums and a clash of cymbals. The sea quakes to a crescendo, then hurls itself against the wind. Here before you is a concerto at its most tempestuous peak. Water breaking into a million crystalline pieces. It is pure music and fury. Salt melts in your eyes. Suddenly you are no longer afraid.

A battle royale is set to unfold if Japan Petroleum Exploration Co. (Japex) starts exploring for oil on Tanon Strait without having hearkened to protesting communities, scientists and environmental advocates who are asking that exploration be put on hold while the sea itself is to be explored to find out how much of it will live and how much will die.

Former environment secretary Dr. Angel Alcala, director of Silliman University’s center for marine and environment research in Dumaguete City, and his team have come out with a paper explaining what the drilling will mean. It also proposes a technical survey of the strait as a safeguard against potential adverse effects of the exploration. (Drilling was supposed to start last week.)

What and where is Tanon Strait? The strait is part of the Visayan Sea, that body of water separating the island provinces of Cebu and Negros, and Cebu-Bohol Strait; separating the provinces of Cebu and Bohol, as well as the waters of Antique, Leyte, Palawan, Mindoro Occidental, Albay and Camarines Sur. The Visayan Sea is one of the richest marine habitats of the world.

Tanon Strait is a protected area, having been declared such under Pres. Proc. 1234 during the Estrada presidency.

The drilling is supposed to be done off Aloguinsan and Pinamungajan in Cebu, surely not far from Dumaguete City, the university town in Negros Oriental. According to Alcala, several community-based marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established in both the Cebu and Negros side of the strait and the local government units have been investing funds in the management of these MPAs.

Alcala adds that oil exploration (both the seismic exploration and drilling itself) has been proven in other countries to be detrimental to marine life, the Philippines has yet to come up with findings to back this up. Does this mean we don’t wanna know?

Here is the proposition: “To gather data on marine mammals and fish catch; do oceanographic studies (total suspended solids, oil and grease, current patterns) before the actual drilling is conducted, so that there will be proof that can stand in any court of law later on should there be adverse impacts on the environment because of the drilling. An economic valuation study will also be conducted to prove that NOT drilling for oil and gas is beneficial to the communities in the area and to the country in the long run.”

And, by the way, the strait is one of the few places in the world inhabited by special species of marine mammals, among them, the elusive pygmy sperm whales. But more importantly, the strait is fishing ground for communities in Cebu and Negros.

It is worth noting that 11 congressmen and --women have filed a resolution directing the House Committee on Natural Resources to investigate the impact of offshore mining in the Visayan Sea. This resolution was triggered by gas companies (Japex of Japan and The Forum Exploration Inc of Canada) entering into a seven-year contract with the Philippine government for oil and gas exploration, and another 25 years for the extraction and controlling process.

The province of Cebu did not take this sitting down. The Sangguniang Panlalawigan approved last July a resolution exhorting Congress to proclaim the Visayan Sea as Marine Reservation and Heritage Site, the Visayan Sea “being host to the world’s richest marine biodiversity area.”

The Sulu Sea had been identified as a disposal site for drillings. Alcala howls: “But the Sulu Sea is a prime fishing area and has high biodiversity!”

He adds that the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) was not sufficient and based on old data and “cannot be used as baselines for future monitoring of drilling effects and therefore not acceptable.”

How did Japex gather the data, how are the data and their credibility to be verified? Alcala and his team have discovered holes in the IEE and concluded: “We found the IEE document wanting in the critical survey data and information needed for determining the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the proposed drilling operation of Japex.”

After the tumult is over and the threat gone, we hope to hear in the Tanon Strait only the music of the cathedral waves eternally folding and unfolding.