House panel OKs bill protecting waters off Kalayaan islands

Delon Porcalla - The Philippine Star
House panel OKs bill protecting waters off Kalayaan islands
This Oct. 3, 2019 satellite photo shows the repair of the runway and the construction of a new beaching ramp on Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.
CSIS / AMTI via Maxar Technologies

MANILA, Philippines — The natural resources committee of the House of Representatives has approved a measure that aims to protect and preserve the country’s waters off the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the West Philippine Sea.

The panel headed by Rep. Elpidio Barzaga Jr. of Cavite’s fourth district approved House Bill 6373, authored by Palawan Rep. Edward Hagedorn for the “environmental protection” of Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal (KIGSS) in the disputed seas.

HB 6373 is officially more known as the KIGSS – Marine Protected Area Bill. It will “prohibit and penalize” certain acts and activities within the waters of the three-nautical mile area to guarantee protection of marine habitat.

However, traditional fishing will still be allowed as it is considered generally harmless to the marine ecosystem.

With this latest development, the Barzaga committee will now be preparing its report before transmitting such proposed measure to the House plenary for deliberation and debate.

The measure aims to declare all low-tide elevations and high-tide features, and an area of three nautical miles around the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal as a “Marine Protected Area.”

“It is my sincerest belief that pushing for environmental protection for the KIG and Scarborough Shoal is a common ground that every Filipino could rally behind,” the Palawan congressman, who also once served as mayor of its capital Puerto Princesa, said.

“We do hope that this environmental lens would be likewise used by other coastal states surrounding the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea to promote cooperation and environmental protection for greater peace, stability and prosperity for the entire region,” he said.

Rep. Eduardo Villanueva of party-list Citizens Battle Against Corruption, who sponsored the bill and presented it in Hagedorn’s behalf, said it is “focused on the protection of the marine environment” of the KIGSS, and not “disputes” in the WPS.

“We cannot afford not to act because the habitat of marine life in our waters, which benefits not only the Philippines but also adjacent countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, is being destroyed,” he said.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines also expressed its full support for HB 6373.

Hagedorn was grateful for the “strong support” given by Speaker Martin Romualdez, Barzaga for “ably leading the hearing and pushing for its approval” as well as fellow Palawan Rep. Jose Alvarez of the second district who “also showed his support.”

“But a most special thanks should be given to CIBAC Representative (Brother Eddie) Villanueva who, in my absence during the hearing, stood in my behalf as the sponsor of the bill. He brilliantly presented and explained to the body the very essence of the bill,” Hagedorn said.

“His (Villanueva’s) inclusion of biblical passages highlighted the overarching and transcendental importance of protecting our natural resources in the KIG and Scarborough Shoal,” Hagedorn added.

Villanueva cited a study by the UP-Marine Science Institute in 2019 which found out that coral reefs in Kalayaan Islands – particularly in the Pag-asa Island, Panata Island and Sabina Shoal – were damaged by alleged illegal activities such as blast fishing.

The bill is an operationalization of proposals from local and international marine experts to declare the surrounding waters of the KIG and Scarborough Shoal as protected areas.

A 2014 study by the Asian Development Bank showed that the Kalayaan Islands comprise 30 percent of the country’s total coral reefs and serve as breeding ground of fishes and marine species in the country.


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