The Philippines. Let’s Save the ‘Amazon of the Oceans’

“It is not too late to save the ‘Amazon of the oceans’, the appeal of Edwin Gariguez, parish priest and director of Caritas in the island of Mindoro, in the centre of the Philippines, expresses the desires, dreams, hope of thousands of fishermen who want to preserve a marine ecosystem unique in the world, ‘a paradise in danger’.

That paradise, specifies the priest, “is first of all a work of God for the benefit of the people living there, it is the ‘common home’ in which man and creation live in harmony”.

For this reason, Father Edwin Gariguez is leading a campaign aimed at protecting the so-called ‘Verde Island Passage’ (VIP), a marine corridor right in the centre of the ‘Coral Triangle’, in the western Pacific, between the Philippine islands of Mindoro, and central Luzon, Marinduque. The corridor has 36 Marine Protected Areas, and houses over 300 coral species, underwater rock canyons and reef formations, as well as 1,700 species of shore fish.

According to the experts, the VIP has the highest concentration of marine biodiversity on the planet, and for this reason, it has been called ‘the Amazon of the Oceans’.

Father Gariguez explains “This paradise is in danger due to questions of profit, incorrect political choices linked to energy supply, and due to the indifference of local administrators and the international community”.

The very short-sighted choices mainly concern the extraction, storage, and transportation of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the provinces of Oriental Mindoro and Batangas, which overlook the strait. Fossil companies are on track to turn Batangas in the Philippines into an LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) import hub. Together with the Philippine government, they are preparing a massive rollout of LNG terminals and power plants.

To realize their plans, the companies are willing to sacrifice the Philippines’ precious ocean life and the people who depend on it. As the government continues to choose fossil gas as a solution to the energy crisis, increasingly large ships carrying liquefied natural gas will use the Green Passage inlet.

The first alarming sign of this threat, and its consequences, was the serious environmental disaster that occurred last February, when the tanker MT Princess Empress sank precisely in that marine corridor, after it experienced problems with its engine and began to drift due to rough sea. The accident caused the spill of 800 thousand litres of industrial oil: a vast black stain still covers the stretch of sea and has smeared the coasts of the municipalities of Oriental Mindoro.

Father Gariguez explains the consequences of the oil spill: “The accident has caused serious damage to the ecosystem and marine biodiversity of the area, the health of the inhabitants is threatened, the livelihoods of the fishermen have been disrupted, as well as tourism and other commercial undertakings”.  Many associations and civil society groups have come together in the national forum, Eco-Convergence, to help the communities of the area affected by the serious environmental disaster that occurred last February. The funds collected by the Eco-Convergence forum will be used for relief and cleanup operations in Mindoro, in order to meet the needs of the affected population, in particular local fishermen, who have seen their activities and their survival compromised.

At the centre of the forum, in which Gariguez is actively involved, are the teachings of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sì, which prophetically connects environmental, economic, social, cultural, and spiritual issues, which are synthesised in the expression “care for our common home”.

Pope Francis urges society to move away from the myth of perennial progress at the expense of the Earth’s resources and calls on us to recognise that development which fails to respect the Earth is a false economy. The Encyclical Laudato sì underlines that we need a new definition of progress rooted in ‘integral ecology’, recognising that ‘everything is connected’. Father Gariguez reiterates: “Our mission is to take care of mother-Earth, the home where we live”.

As the Philippine government is planning to build another eight gas extraction plants, and seven terminals for the processing and storage of fuel, Father Gariguez, who has also been director of the Philippine national Caritas, has decided to get actively involved in the cause for the safeguard of the ‘Amazon of the oceans’; he is also travelling abroad to meet people and make them aware that this paradise in the Philippines is in danger. “The government of the Philippines is intensifying the development of infrastructure for the supply of natural gas to supplement electricity production.

The aim is to transform the country into a leading LNG hub in Asia, as President Marcos Jr. said, the priest explains. In a political framework that continues to see fossil gas as a solution to the energy crisis, the alliance with multinational oil companies and the financial support of European banking institutions remains fundamental. It is the logic of globalization which, with the two dynamics of exploitation and profit, can affect seriously, and upset the simple and peaceful life of communities, in various parts of the world.

According to a study carried out by the Centre for Environment and Energy Development (CEED), the extraction and transportation of fossil gas will increase water pollution, underwater noise pollution, sedimentation, and the destruction of coral reefs. Furthermore, with hundreds of cargo ships plying the stretch of sea, the possibility of accidents harmful to the environment and to the livelihood of the two million people who rely on the conservation of that ecosystem will rise terribly.

Last May, Father Gariguez arrived in Europe along with members of some NGOs, such as Reclaim Finance, Oxfam France and others, to meet representatives of European banking institutions. He urged them to evaluate more carefully the financing of new projects by multinational oil companies such as the British Shell, that are linked to the construction of plants in the Mindoro region. But Western banks and companies involved in those projects – he reported – did not give satisfactory or encouraging answers.

In particular in Paris, at the BNP Paribas’ Annual General Meeting, Father Gariguez and some other people who, like him, were participating in order to support initiatives aimed at protecting the environment, were targeted with criticism, boos and racist comments from shareholders and were treated extremely unkindly by security personnel.

Lack of respect and aggressive behaviours reflect the tension that occurs when discussing environmental and social issues. “We ask that oil companies make responsible investments that respect environment and people” says Father Gariguez. “We want to save that paradise in danger in the Philippines, where many tourists go to enjoy the beauty of the sea, and which is a source of livelihood for the local population. Our mission is in the spirit of the Encyclical Laudato sì, we want the protection and respect of creation. We can’t stop now. We want to prevent that paradise from becoming hell”. (Paolo Affatato/Credere) – (Photo: Photo Goldman Environmental Prize)

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