A sustainable future for the West Philippine Sea

THE CORNER ORACLE - Andrew J. Masigan (The Philippine Star) - September 9, 2020 - 12:00am

It takes a foreigner to sound the alarm on the devastation occurring in the West Philippine Sea.

For years, the Chinese Communist Party and the Philippine government have downplayed the wreckage happening to the fragile underwater ecosystems in the West Philippine Sea. Due to China’s dredging and reclamation activities, thousands of hectares of coral reefs are now damaged beyond repair. Bear in mind that the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia rely on these aquatic resources as their primary source of seafood.

Trevor Neilson is an advocate for climate change, the environment and a thought leader in Philippine-American relations. Neilson recommends a solution to this environmental catastrophe in the form of a Sustainable Fishing Accord. It is a solution that can be adopted while the claimants of the disputed waters sort out their territorial differences.

Neilson’s recommendation deserves due consideration of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Malacañang itself. I am quoting Neilson’s note to me in full for context and a better appreciation.

“Last week, four medium-range missiles launched by the Chinese military from the country’s mainland were fired into the waters between the disputed Paracel Islands and the southern island province of Hainan, according to United States Defense Department authorities. The Chinese call this area the South China Sea.

“It’s not entirely clear why the Chinese began firing missiles into one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world. Millions of people depend upon this ecosystem as their primary source of protein – and millions more depend upon it for their livelihoods.

This destructive treatment of that ecosystem is unfortunately not new for the Chinese.

“A wide body of research has shown that China’s efforts to build islands – often in Philippines’ waters – has devastated marine life.

“A recent report from James Cook University in Australia showed the damage is even more severe than previously thought. According to the lead author, Professor Eric Wolanski, Chinese dredging to construct man-made islands has permanently destroyed the reefs. This is on top of massive overfishing. There are typically between 100 and 150 Chinese fishing boats working each reef that China controls. For comparison, the Great Barrier Reef – which is managed sustainably – has between 0.1 and 0.5 fishing boats working per reef.

“Reefs degraded or killed by island-building and overfishing produce less fish and coral larvae for those downstream. The levels vary, but in the most extreme cases there are no more new coral and fish larvae getting through, due to all its sources of larvae being destroyed.

“Let’s face it. China’s effort to expand its control of the West Philippine Sea has come at a time when the United States hasn’t been paying attention. United States Ambassador Sung Kim is one of America’s most talented diplomats but back in Washington the Trump Administration until recently has ignored the problem. While Secretary of State Pompeo’s recent speech re-affirming the Philippine-US relationship was a positive step, the reality is that it is too little and too late.

“Much has changed since General MacArthur’s return to the Philippines in 1944 after the devastation of the Japanese occupation. In partnership with Filipino leaders, the United States’ efforts to rebuild the nation established the Philippines as the first truly independent democracy in Asia.

“But since that proud era the relationship hasn’t had the attention it deserves. Although many Filipinos feel abandoned by their once-closest ally, the majority are not in favor of a Chinese-centered future. Filipinos understand that Chinese investments might lead to short-term benefit, very often they come at a terrible economic and environmental cost.

“How can the United States help?

“By investing in a sustainable future through a new partnership with the people of the Philippines that addresses the most pressing issues they face.

One of the first priorities in this partnership should be the creation of a Sustainable Fisheries Strategy for the region. Countries who depend upon this fragile ecosystem – including Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia – should be a part of this partnership and all participating countries should agree to certain principles, including respecting the July 2016 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal ruling and respecting the sovereign territories of the other countries involved. China should be welcomed into the partnership – as long as it agrees to abide by international law.

“This new sustainable fisheries partnership should be grounded in science with marine biologists and sustainable fisheries experts guiding its planning.

“There is no time to waste. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the waters accounted for 12 percent of global fish catch in 2015, and more than half of the fishing vessels in the world operate there.  Fishing in the region employs over 3.7 million people.

“But the South China Sea has been dangerously overfished. Fishing stocks have been depleted by 70-95 percent since the 1950s and catch rates have declined by 66-75 percent over the last 20 years.

“There is still time to build a sustainable future for the West Philippine Sea and for the millions of people who depend upon it. If he is elected president, Joe Biden can begin a new era in the proud Philippine-United States partnership with the protection of one of the Philippines’ most important natural resources as its primary goal.”

*      *      *

Trevor Neilson’s first exposure to the Philippines was back in 1995 when he attended the APEC Summit as part of former US President Bill Clinton’s entourage. Subsequently, Neilson worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and was the president of G2 Investment and the Global Philanthropy Group.

Neilson married Filipina Wall Street executive Evelin Weber and together, established the California-based Philippines Foundation. The foundation was created to assist disadvantaged communities in the realms of poverty alleviation, healthcare and sustainable development. Established in 2014, the foundation has so far assisted hundreds of communities by way of disaster relief, skills development, livelihood programs and assistance in environmental protection. It is presently spearheading programs to bring relief to the families of slain Filipino medical frontliners in America.

Neilson co-founded the i(x) Investment Group where he is presently its chief executive officer. i(x) Investment is part of consortium that is undertaking a game-changing project in the Philippine energy sector.

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