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ENVIRONMENT-PHILIPPINES: Fisherfolk Oppose Government-Backed Cement Plant

Alecks Pabico

AGNO, PANGASINAN, Philippines, Sep 11 2000 (IPS) - The residents of Abagatanen, a tiny fishing village north of Manila, are among the millions of Filipinos who derive sustenance from the country’s 17,000-kilometer long coastline.

But unlike many who are wont to dismiss the sea as just an ordinary fact of life, fisherfolk here have endeavoured to fathom the intricate workings of the delicate coastal environment they call home.

In fact, earlier this year, Abagatanen fisherfolk teamed up with divers and marine biologists and seeded 35 giant clams (Tridacna gigas) in a nearby cove, signalling the setting up of a marine sanctuary in the area.

The clams, which are expected to lay eggs within the next three years, are supposed to help replenish the depleted fishery resources of the Abagatanen waters. Within months of the reseeding, local fisherfolk have already observed small fishes and mollusks flocking to the sanctuary.

But the fisherfolk, as well other groups, are in an uphill battle to convince local officials that the sea and the livelihood it provides are more important than the jobs and profits being promised by a Taiwanese company about to operate in Agno, of which Abagatanen is part.

In truth, the mayor has made it clear he wants their clams out of the cove, because these are in the way of the project.

The Goldsun Cement Corp intends to set up a 13 billion-peso (29 million-dollar) limestone quarrying and cement manufacturing operation in Agno. While the quarrying will be in another part of the town, the cement plant and pier will be in Abagatanen. The pier for shipping out the cement will be located at the very same spot where the marine sanctuary is now.

To be sure, a dust-creating cement plant seems out of place in serene and cenic Abagatanen, which boasts of soaring cliffs and white sand beaches.

Cement kilns are also known to pose threats to the health of workers, surrounding populations and the environment primarily through the impact of sub-micron particles of cement kiln dust (CKD) emitted into the air as pollution. The American Lung Association links CKD to high rates of >respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma.

Moreover, academics have said that the quarry will also disturb Agno’s archaeological and paleontological sites, which the National Museum says are crucial to a better understanding of Philippine and South-east Asian prehistory and archaeology.

But the Goldsun project has found favour in the eyes of almost every overnment entity here. The town council strongly endorsed it, and all but one member of the provincial council agreed to proceed with a project trumpeted as ushering in the “eventual industrialization of Agno”.

The town council also passed an ordinance reclassifying 300 hectares of agricultural land so these could be used for the project.

And when the Abagatanen fisherfolk set up the sanctuary last February, Agno Mayor Adan Rosete was less than pleased. He has since insisted that because Goldsun was granted an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in March 1999, it has prior rights to the area now occupied by the sanctuary.

The mayor has also said that the clam stocking had no permit from his office and was therefore an act of defiance against him.

Von Mark Mendoza, the only provincial council member opposed to the Goldsun project even called it “a blatant mockery of a valid and existing provincial ordinance”.

Mendoza cited the Provincial Land Use Plan of 1996, which had declared Pangasinan’s western coastal area, which includes Agno, as a preserve, to be used only for eco-tourism purposes. The town itself has a 14- year-old Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance declaring the areas now in question for agro-forestry.

Four years ago, then DENR Secretary Victor Ramos cited the Provincial Land Use Plan in his decision to deny an ECC to a cement plant project proposed by another Taiwanese firm in Bolinao town, also in western Pangasinan.

Citing the principle of integrated coastal management, Ramos stressed that cement plant and quarry operations were incompatible with Bolinao’s preferred land and resource use – fishing and eco-tourism activities.

The Goldsun project is now being investigated by the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources chaired by Robert Jaworski. The senator has questioned the indiscriminate grant of permits, licenses and consent by local government units and the DENR to quarry operations and cement plants, especially in environmentally critical areas.

Jaworski’s committee has been swamped by complaints about projects that cause destruction of watersheds, drying up of water wells, flashfloods, and contamination of fishing grounds.

This has prompted the senator to remark, “It is not enough that proponents secure papers that legitimize their operations. We will have to deal with the old question of why mineral rights have always gained the upper hand to the detriment of people’s rights to health, sound ecology and economic welfare.”

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