Whatever happened to US obligations in Tubbataha reef disaster? Fisherfolk group asks
January 2, 2014 10:46 AM
The online news portal of TV5
MANILA, Philippines – Whatever happened to the United States obligations after its Navy ship USS Guardian ran aground in Tubbataha Reef, a protected and World Heritage site, January 17 last year? The fisherfolk alliance Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) on Thursday urged the Aquino administration to push the US government to honor its obligations arising from the national environmental disaster the incident caused.
The group, one of the petitioners in the writ of kalikasan filed before the Supreme Court last year, lamented that the United States government continues to snub the high tribunal’s request for Washington to respond to the petition that named Scott Swift, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, and Mark Rice, commanding officer of the American minesweeper, as among those responsible for the disaster.
“The US government must respond to and account for their crimes against the people and the environment. That is simple as ABC, nothing more, nothing less. The incident merits the filing of criminal and other appropriate charges against officials and the 79 other crew of USS Guardian and the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty between Manila and Washington,” said Salvador France, Pamalakaya vice chairman, in a news release.
Last year, a multi-sectoral group led by Bishop Pedro Arigo of Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Bishop Deogracias Iniguez Jr., Bishop-Emeritus of Caloocan; Frances Quimpo, Clemente Bautista Jr. of Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment; Maria Carolina Araullo and Renato Reyes Jr. of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan); Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares; Roland Simbulan of Junk VFA Movement; Teresita Perez; Kabataan party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino; Peter Gonzales of Pamalakaya; Giovanni Tapang, Agham; Elmer Labog, Kilusang Mayo Uno; Joan May Salvador, Gabriela; Jose Enrique Africa; Theresa Concepcion; Mary Joan Guan; Nestor Baguinon; and public interest lawyer Edsel Tupaz.
In a 90-page petition filed last April 17, 2013, the groups asked the SC to assess the damage caused to the reef by the incident. And apart from issuance of the writ and TEPO, they also sought the criminal prosecution of the USS Guardian officers and the determination of how much fine should be imposed on the US Navy.
The petitioners are also asking the SC to order a stop to US war games and port calls by US ships in the absence of clear guidelines on environmental protection under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
US Pacific Fleet findings
Admiral Cecil Haney, commanding officer of the US Pacific Fleet, in a 160-page document said lack of leadership and faulty navigational equipment led to the grounding, which could have been prevented if the officers and members of the American minesweeper adhered to prudent, safe, and sound navigation principles.
The US military official said the watch team’s observations of visual cues in the hours leading up to the grounding, combined with electronic cues and alarms, should have triggered immediate steps to resolve warnings and reconcile discrepancies.
Haney said the January 17 incident was a “tragic mishap” which was wholly preventable and was the product of poor voyage planning, poor execution, and unfortunate circumstances. The US report said the investigation uncovers no single point of failure; instead, there were numerous links in the error chain leading up to the grounding. Had any one of which been appropriately addressed, the grounding would have been prevented.
The US report, however, recommended “further administrative action against the commanding general of the ex-Guardian, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice, the executive officer and navigator Lt. Daniel Tyler, the assistant navigator and the officer of the deck at the time of the grounding.”
However, “the US report on Tubbataha environmental disaster exonerated Washington DC and reduced the highly questionable incident to a drama of unfortunate event and plain and simple human error,” Pamalakaya noted.
The Philippine government previously reported that USS Guardian damaged 2,345.67 square meters of the marine protected area and had asked the US government to pay the Manila government a fine of P58 million for the damage.
The USS Guardian has since been cut into pieces before their removal from the Tubbataha Reef. It was later decommissioned and struck from the Naval Vessel Register.
Where is DOJ action?
At the same time, Pamalakaya followed up its request to Department of Justice (DoJ) Secretary Leila de Lima to file criminal and other appropriate charges against officials and 79 other crew members of USS Guardian. It said it was wondering why until now there is no progress on their request letter to the justice chief filed last February 5.
The group said Secretary de Lima appears to have abandoned her job in relation to this case.
“It appears to us that Secretary de Lima is not keen to charge the rapists of the UNESCO declared heritage park. In the first place, she did not do anything to stop the US prime time rapists of Tubbataha from leaving the country,” said Pamalakaya.
Pamalakaya said it seems to them that Secretary de Lima carries the sentiment of Malacanang and US Embassy in Manila.
“All they want is to call it quits with Washington DC for the sum of P 58 million,” it said.
“The DoJ Secretary is a willing hostage of this political tale of blockbuster puppetry of President Benigno Simeon Aquino III to US government. How can we rely on her? The future of the letter of complaint we filed at DoJ urging Secretary de Lima to extradite the officials and crews of the American minesweeper has no future and will forever remain in oblivion,” said Pamalakaya.
Pamalakaya leaders also strongly recommended to the DoJ to endorse the termination of the VFA and the Mutual Defense Treaty and the urgent pullout of all US troops, warships, and aircraft in the Philippine territory to prevent a repeat of an environmental disaster similar to the Tubbataha tragedy.
They insisted that Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice and Lt. Daniel Tyler, officials of the USS Guardian, along with two other Navy officials and 79 crew members of the American minesweeper, are liable for violating Republic Act 10067 that declared Tubbataha a protected area, and that individuals who violated the law may be punished with up to six years’ imprisonment and may be slapped with fines of up to P 300,000.
“The damage caused by the grounding of USS Guardian on Tubbataha Natural Reef Park is bigger, far more reaching and strategically fatal to the livelihood of Filipino fishermen and to the fishing environment directly link to the protected reef park. It will take one year for a millimeter of mostly hard corals in Tubbataha’s South Section to go back to its sound condition and it will take 250 years for a meter of coral to mature,” the group said.
Home of many corals
According to Pamalakaya, Tubbataha Reef is a home to 360 species of corals or about half of all coral species in the world and it is also the breeding ground of 1,500 fish species in the country out of the 2,400 total fish species found across the archipelago.
The Tubbataha Reef Park also plays an important role in maintaining the average annual production of 800,000 metric tons of fish in the West Palawan Sea and Sulu-Celebes Sea, two of the country’s major fishing grounds which are connected with Tubbataha.
The productive network of corals of Tubbataha had helped fish generation and production in nearby fishing areas that extend to major fishing grounds such as Panay and Guimaras islands, Negros island, Cebu and Bohol Islands, and the rest of Visayan Sea.
The damage created by the USS grounding on Tubbataha will have a strategic negative impact on fish production and livelihood of not less than 100,000 fisherfolk and fish workers in commercial fishing vessels in West Palawan Sea and Sulu-Celebes Sea and adjacent fishing waters in the Visayas and Mindanao.