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Commentary: How a marine-protected area in the South China Sea is crucial for peace

Marine Protected Areas are declared to protect the existing biodiversity and the integrity of the marine ecosystem in the area. How can the setup help the Philippines deal with the South China Sea issue? An environmental expert explains.

The maritime and territorial tug-of-war between states bordering the South China Sea, beyond what the Philippines has named the West Philippine Sea, has gone on for several decades. For Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, the area is a vital maritime route and, just as importantly, its ground sare rich in natural resources.

Unfortunately for the claimant-states in Southeast Asia, China upped the ante in its claim through its infamous nine-dash line, which covers more than 80 percent of the sea and has been interpreted to delineate that area as Chinese territory. The provocative Chinese actuations to enforce this interpretation, notably at Scarborough Shoal, forced the Philippine government, then led by President Benigno Aquino III, to invoke the provisions of the UNCLOS and initiate a case against China before a neutral court of arbitration.

The effects of enforcement have not only been political or military in nature. One cause of action in filing the said case dealt with the environmental damage caused by Chinese government agents and by Chinese fishermen with government support. Rightly so, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines.

The havoc wreaked by Chinese reclamation and fishing activities have been documented and brought to the public's awareness. There is no equivocating the extent of the damage. As former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario commented at a recent environmental forum, the area that saw coral reef destruction over the last few years is five times the size of Bonifacio Global City.

Thus, the burning question that confronts us is: “What do we do now?” Indeed, considering the irrefutable ruin China caused in the contested waters and the favorable arbitral ruling to the Philippines, what is the way forward for us as a country, as part of a region that seeks peaceful solutions, and as a member of the international community?

Earlier this month, the Stratbase-ADR Institute with its environmental arm the Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship (PBEST), partnered with the De La Salle University to hold the last part of its West Philippine Sea forum series. The forum focused on the harm on the environment that resulted from massive Chinese reclamation and destructive fishing practices by its nationals, all carried out under the protective watch of their coast guard.

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The forum featured scientific, diplomatic, legal, and civil society perspectives on the issues. Promisingly, three speakers, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, biologist and De La Salle Professor Carmen Lagman, and Secretary Del Rosario, all expressed their interest in establishing a marine park in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.

What does it mean to create a marine park or a marine protected area?

Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been defined by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as areas of the oceans or other bodies of water that are protected for conservation purposes. Under Philippine municipal laws, MPAs are managed under the framework of the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act. As defined by NOAA, the main objective of establishing an MPA is to protect the existing biodiversity and the integrity of the marine ecosystem in the area. In the case of the wide-scale reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea, creating a marine park or sanctuary should allow what is left of the coral reefs and the marine species to slowly recuperate and, for the endangered species there, have a fighting chance against extinction.

Employing this environmental management tool, of course, advocates toward not only ecological preservation but, more importantly, how humans can sustainably benefit from the fisheries and other aquatic resources in the area. The South China Sea is notable for being the ‘nursery’ of the region’s fisheries, where fish that feed the world reproduce. This demonstrates the importance of the area to the global marine ecosystem.

The West Philippine Sea is also part of the Coral Triangle Region, touted as the global center for marine biodiversity. If the habitat, spawning, and feeding grounds, of these megadiverse species are severely disrupted, humanity risks losing part of its heritage, a wealth of scientific discoveries, and, most urgently: an important source of food.

By establishing a marine-protected area over this nursery, the overall stocks of fish beyond the MPA’s limits will also increase. Thus, the suggestion for the establishment of an MPA would recognize the resource-rich nature of the disputed areas, and consequently better safeguard the survival and livelihood needs of people from coastal communitiesfor these resources.

This kind of systems thinking is crucial in appreciating the stakes involved, now that a significant area of the region’s coral reef system has practically vanished. Along this line, and as observed by the forum’s speakers, ecological protection should be at the center of the region’s efforts to come to peaceful solutions. Just as importantly, unified efforts to protect the environment can also be a natural foundation for building the trust that the region sorely needs. Trust will also be needed to hold the marine park together. If the claimant states recognize the system, then trust can be founded on realizing that it is in the best interest of each country to join the conservation effort.

How could we implement a marine protected area?

There are many paths to establishing and implementing a marine park in the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea. As Justice Carpio has pointed out, such an initiative could be done bilaterally by the Philippines with any number of claimant states, although it would more easily begin with an agreement with some of our more friendly neighbors. Of course, we can start with implementing it ourselves, in the part of the sea that is now undoubtedly within our exclusive economic zone. If the Philippines were to explore this option, it could set an example for the rest of the region.

Moreover, Dr. Lagman observed that it may be difficult to collaborate on a state level in the short term, but cooperation among scientists can become the foundation of states coming together and taking action.

Perhaps, these approaches can move us forward in setting up the marine park. It is especially helpful for the Philippines that there is an existing legal framework that could allow us to move on this issue more quickly. Most importantly, the establishment of a marine protected area must be founded on what science, not politics, tells us about the health and future of the disputed areas.

Lawyer Lysander Castillo is an environment fellow at the Stratbase-ADR Institute and the secretary-general of Philippine Business for Environmental Stewardship, or PBEST.

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