Protecting marine ecosystem in West Philippine Sea a 'top concern', Palace says

Alexis Romero - Philstar.com
Protecting marine ecosystem in West Philippine Sea a 'top concern', Palace says
Chinese fishermen harvesting giant clams in Scarborough Shoal destroyed coral reefs in the process.

MANILA, Philippines — Protecting the marine ecosystem of the West Philippine Sea has been a "top concern" of the government, Malacañang said, after the Supreme Court ordered the government to protect the environment in the contested area.

The high court has issued a writ of kalikasan for the government to "protect, preserve, rehabilitate and to restore the marine environment" at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in the West Philippine Sea. 

The decision stemmed from a petition filed by the Integrated Bar of the Philippines—the official organization of Filipino lawyers—and by fishermen from Palawan and Zambales who argued that Philippine environmental laws should be enforced in the three areas.

They noted that Ayungin and Panganiban, areas off the province of Palawan, and Panatag, a traditional fishing ground off Zambales, form part of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or Philippine waters over which the country has sovereignty or jurisdiction. 

The petitioners accused the Philippine government of failing to enforce a 2016 arbitral ruling which found that the artificial island-building activities of China in the West Philippine Sea have resulted in "severe environmental damage." They also cited the presence of foreign poachers and of construction and land reclamation entities that caused "massive" environmental damage in Philippine waters and EEZ.

Palace: No issue with writ

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the executive branch does not have any issue with the directive to enforce Philippine laws pursuant to the constitution and international law. He, however, denied that the Duterte administration did not act on the environmental concerns caused by China's activities. 

"We have always respected the orders and decisions of the Judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, subject to the availment of possible legal remedies. We take exception, however, to the contention that there has been inaction on the part of the administration with regard to the environmental concerns brought about by Chinese activities in the contested areas," Panelo said in a statement.  

RELATED: Filipino scientists planted Scarborough clams harvested by Chinese — expert

"We stress that the essence of such writ of kalikasan, which is the protection of the marine ecosystem of the West Philippine Sea is already a top concern and agenda of the government," he added. 

Panelo said the coast guard and other agencies are performing their tasks in securing the areas mentioned in the writ. He said the administration has also been asserting the Philippines' rights through diplomatic protests but remains careful to prevent hostilities. 

"There have been concerns made with respect to security of the marine environment with allegations of certain unwanted incursions that have brought damage thereto, but we must remember that they have been made in contested areas," the presidential spokesman said.  

"While we promptly made a series of diplomatic protests using the mechanism of diplomacy to assert our rights, we also undertook protective measures even as we are consciously cautious not to perform provocative acts that may trigger armed hostilities between the contesting countries which may risk the lives of our countrymen and cost irreparable damage to our land," he added.

Next move up to solicitor general

Panelo said Malacañang is leaving it to the Office of the Solicitor General to defend and explain the actions of the executive branch before the Supreme Court. 

"Whatever the outcome of the petition, we assure the nation that this administration is committed to protect the sovereignty of our country and the protection of our marine environment against any and all who will attempt to assault or violate them," the presidential spokesman said.

Panelo said the Office of the President has yet to receive a copy of the Supreme Court's order. 

President Duterte, who has tapped Chinese loans for his infrastructure projects, has been accused of being too soft on China over the South China Sea row. Duterte has vowed not to surrender even "a single inch" of Philippine territory to foreigners and to bring up the maritime dispute with Chinese leaders before he steps down in 2022. 

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