Thursday, January 8, 2009

Revolutionary SC ruling on Manila Bay (1)

The Supreme Court has spoken.

And so it will hopefully come to pass that the famed but severely polluted Manila Bay will once again come to life, be restored to its former pristine glory and become a shimmering beauty to behold. People will once again taste it pure saltiness and bathe in its azure waters without fear, with only the sense of wonder and awe and the certainty that something, at last, is right.

The SC ruling is a dream come true, a heard-earned one that meant waiting and the never-give-up spirit of true patriotic Filipinos. Like environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa who did his quixotic part to use the law as a weapon to save that historic watery gateway to the heart of the Philippines.

Shortly before Christmas last month, the Supreme Court issued a ruling (penned by Justice Presbitero J. Velasco Jr.) that upheld the previous rulings of the lower courts on the 1999 petition of a group of citizens to compel government agencies and local governments to clean up Manila Bay and restore it to its healthy state. Among the petitioners were Oposa’s students in the UP College of Law and his youngest son who was then a little boy. Include the talaba (oysters), tahong (mussels) and all suffocating marine life of the bay. Oposa acted as counsel, spent time, money and energy to pursue the case even after the petitioners had graduated.

And now, with the Supreme Court justices speaking unanimously and with finality from their high perch, Manila Bay can now claim the care it deserves and those who defy be damned.

Ecstatic, the Harvard-trained Oposa could not contain himself and waxed poetic. “I try to reach for the stars,” he told me. “Often I hit my head on the lamp post. But sometimes I am able to soar into the skies, and maybe, for a moment, touch the face of God.” Arguing before the SC on this case was, to Oposa, his “finest moment” as an environmental lawyer.

The victory is more than symbolic for the ruling is final and executory. You cannot defy the Supreme Court, Oposa said. As of yesterday, a commission was being formed to monitor implementation of the ruling and to relay regular reports to the SC. Oposa has invited members of the Philippine Bar Association and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines and other “green” individuals to be part of the monitoring. He credits the Rotary Club of Manila for its support.

Tasked by the SC to implement are the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as lead agency, the local governments of Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna, Rizal, Bataan, Bulacan and Pampanga that have shores on the bay or have tributaries that flow into the bay.

Also the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage System (MWSS), the Metro Manila Development Authority, the Departments of Education, Health, Agriculture, Public Works and Highways, the Philippine Coast Guard, the Philippine National Police Maritime Group, the Philippine Ports Authority, the Local Water Utilities Authority. Name it.

The SC court said that all of them, “in line with the principle of continuing mandamus, shall, from finality of this Decision, each submit to the Court a quarterly progressive report of the activities undertaken in accordance with this Decision.”

1990s DENR data already showed that Manila Bay had a fecal coliform content of about 1 million UPN. The safe figure should be 200 UPN, Oposa pointed out. “What kind of people are we? In other countries they make a showcase of their bodies of water while here we turn ours into toilet bowls.”

The SC invoked Republic Act 9003 and called it “a sweeping piece of legislation enacted to radically transform and improve waste management. It implements Sec. 16, Art. II of the 1987 Constitution, which explicitly provides that 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.

“So it was that in Oposa v. Factoran, Jr. the Court stated that the right to a balanced and healthful ecology need not even be written in the Constitution for it is assumed, like other civil and political rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, to exist from the inception of mankind and it is an issue of transcendental importance with intergenerational implications. Even assuming the absence of a categorical legal provision specifically prodding petitioners to clean up the bay, they and the men and women representing them cannot escape their obligation to future generations of Filipinos to keep the waters of the Manila Bay clean and clear as humanly as possible. Anything less would be a betrayal of the trust reposed in them.”

A maverick lawyer, Oposa filed a case in the 1980s “on behalf of the children and the future generations” against environment secretary Fulgencio Factoran to cancel all logging concession. He won that landmark case.

Oposa had long given up corporate lawyering and concentrated on the environment and teaching. He has written two big books, “Legal Arsenal for the Philippine Environment” and “The Law of Nature and Other Stories.” He is busy protecting the Visayan Seas, one of the richest marine areas in the world, and holds environment camps in Bantayan Island in Cebu where he built the School of the Seas. (I wrote a cover story on the life journey and vision of this man for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine a couple of years ago.)

As early as 1977, Oposa said, there was P.D. 1152 issued by Pres. Marcos that provided that polluted bodies of water must be cleaned up by the government. Alas, Oposa lamented with a sarcastic laugh, only Marcos, and, later, he seemed to have known about it. Otherwise Manila Bay would not have come to this.

More on Manila Bay next week.