The undemocratic and unscientific SMC Aerotropolis project

Fernando “Ka Pando” Hicap, Chairperson, Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA-Pilipinas), Former Representative, Anakpawis Party-list

As the co-conspirators Duterte administration and San Miguel Corporation’s President Ramon Ang drum beat the 2,500-hectare Aerotropolis project in Bulacan province, the directly affected fisherfolk communities, the national fisherfolk movement and multi-sectoral groups that uphold the Manila Bay rehabilitation stand firm on its opposition and claim that it is undemocratic, unscientific and detrimental to the marine environment of Manila Bay.
SMC comprador Ramon Ang and bureaucrat-capitalist Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade.

Pamalakaya questioned the melodramatic pronouncement of the Department of Transportation (DOTr) that construction of the P735-billion New Manila International Airport (NMIA, the centerpiece of the Aerotropolis project) project could commence at the end of the year, when clearly it had no environmental compliance and SMC even disguises itself to the directly affected sectors. Instead, it utilized a dummy corporation named Silvertides Holdings Corporation. This enigmatic firm was reported to be contracted by SMC for the 2,500-hectare “land development”-reclamation project which they attempt to disassociate with reclaiming Manila Bay. Though every material pertaining to Barangay Taliptip of Bulacan town, the ground zero of the project screams of being at the coast of Manila Bay, which in 2008, the Supreme Court ordered to be cleaned up, rehabilitated and preserved, and its waters to be restored and maintained. The Duterte administration knows very well that the Aerotropolis project is a reclamation project, as exposed of its moves of justifying the environmental compliance to the Silvertides Holdings project.

The “benevolent” and “strong” SMC

SMC comprador Ramong Ang at a feeding program. Photo by GMA News.

SMC’s Ramon Ang, a big comprador even attempted to demystify himself, in an attempt to associate its corporate persona to the poor, even showed up at a photo opportunity activity of his feeding center in Tondo, Manila. He now presents himself as a former working student coming out victorious as a nation builder, almost a similar script with his co-richest in the Forbes list, who was a former seafood vendor, but is now at the apex of the country’s social inequality pyramid. Ang also expressed his “concern” and offered SMC’s unused Angat water quota to ease the shortage in Manila, though it was is actually brought about by privatization, the very framework his firm sources its giant profit. He even proposed an “elevated EDSA” as concern to the chronic traffic congestion. Visibly, he attempts to project SMC as benevolent or a monopoly corporation that upholds social responsibility, though its history is associated with the plunder of the coconut levy fund, systematic busting of the workers’ union in the 1990s, profiteering from endless oil price hikes and destruction of the environment. He is mimicking the populist approach that catapulted President Rodrigo Duterte, who promised heaven to the poor during the campaign period, but raised hell when he sat in power, instead.

SMC Stock Prices, July – October 2019. By Bloomberg.

Ang speculates on his firm that it will shoulder the NMIA project with no cost to the government nor subsidies, and that its construction is to commence at the end of the year, amid no environmental compliance. Superimposing this to the fact that SMC’s net income dropped by 18% in 2018, and by 5% in the first half of 2019, would only sound like pre-selling hotcakes. SMC may be one of the biggest monopoly corporations in the country, but it was hounded by plunging stock prices in the past years. In the first half under the Benigno Aquino administration (2011-2013), its annual average high stock prices was at around P119, but at the second half (2014-2016), it dove to around P74. However, it pulled up with a vengeance under the Duterte regime (2017 – September 2019), averaging around P149. But recently, it even plunged from P180 on September 25, to P163 on October 3. It is even farther from its P195.50 level on May 9. It is apparent that the Ang-Tugade stand up act failed to lure investors to their target drama-to-demand on SMC’s stocks ratio.

The unscientific project

In May 2011, a study conducted by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) submitted its report to the Aquino government that there was an urgent need for a new gateway airport for the Greater Manila Area as the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) was already almost saturated. In October 2013, it concluded that the two potential sites were Sangley Point and Laguna Bay, basing on the cost and viability. It excluded the Manila Bay part of Bulacan. In June 2014, it finally recommended Sangley Point as the site and it commenced with its full feasibility study with 2025 as target date for its opening. In August 2015, the then-Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC) received the New Manila Sangley Airport feasibility study report from the JICA.

Coinciding these, in May 2014, SMC even proposed a $10-billion airport project along the Manila-Cavite Expressway on a reclaimed 1,600-hectare land on Manila Bay, but the Aquino government committed to pursue the project studied meticulously by the JICA. This simply proves that SMC does not care about whether its proposal involves reclamation or destroying the marine environment of Manila Bay.

SMC could not publish any feasibility study but only an advertising-like video presentation of computer-aided design of NMIA obviously to generate popular support. By Manila Bulletin.

In contrast, the New Manila Sangley Airport proposal had the JICA feasibility study as scientific basis, while the SMC’s New Manila International Airport project only had an environmental compliance certificate for a “separate” “land development” project of its dummy firm Silvertides Holdings. The ECC has also appeared dubious as it is kept hidden, protected from public scrutiny, amid the obvious environmental peculiarity of the Bulacan coastal area. SMC also failed to publish its own feasibility study, if it does exist and only presented the media with a presentation of computer-aided designs of NMIA, obviously to wow the public and lure their prospected investors.

Moreover, almost all of the Bulacan provincial hazard and flood maps negate the NMIA project. The Bulakan town is classified as flood-prone area, vulnerable to coastal flooding due to storm surges and high tides as high as 4 meters. While adjacent towns Meycauayan, Marilao, Bocaue and Sta. Maria are vulnerable to river flooding from upstream sources. Bulakan, Bocaue and Marilao towns are even vulnerable to flooding due to ponding, while some parts of Meycauayan are prone to flashfloods that trigger landslides. Moreover, its vulnerability to an intensity 8 earthquake, is classified as “very destructive to devastating groundshaking.” It has also high susceptibility to liquefaction or loss of strength of the soil.

To date, there are no scientific justification or publications for the SMC NMIA aside from the piling up press statements of Ramon Ang and Tugade, and of course, that slide show of the CAD.

The undemocratic project

Brgy. Taliptip, Bulakan town.

Fisherfolk and residents of Brgy. Taliptip in Bulakan town, earliest heard of a project in 2008, around the same time Silvertides Holdings went on a buying spree of fishponds totaling about 3,000 hectares. In the past years, SMC never showed its face to the affected population, but local officials told them that would be soon relocated. Without any prior meetings or consultations or venues to present their opinions, they are deemed to be displaced from their homes and sources of livelihood.

In April 2018, the affected fisherfolk and residents reached out the office of former Bulakan Mayor Patrick Meneses and presented their petition against the project. But when they massed up for a supposedly legal and democratic protest action, they were met by harassment from the police forces. With only the aim to present their petition and air their grievances to the public, they were brought to the police station. They were even threatened with forfeiture of their 4Ps benefits. These were amid the local government has yet to acquire the pertinent details of the project. Consequently, Silvertides Holdings carried out cutting of 600 mangrove trees in Sitio Bunutan. The affected residents questioned this move and the operators claimed that it was sanctioned by the mayor.

In August 2018, during a dialogue by the affected residents with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region III office, it was disclosed that the subjected lands in Brgy. Taliptip are classified as “non-alienable and non-disposable,” or of public domain, thus, Silvertides Holding acquisition was put into question. Then in February 2019, SMC’s contracted firm Silvertides Holdings contracted another consultancy firm, Philkairos, Inc. to craft the “Environment Impact Assessment” that was presented to the affected residents for the “land development” project. The personnel of Silvertides announced that they will “back-fill” the 2,375 hectares of fishponds by at least 3 meters, which requires 205 million cubic meters of fill materials that they may source from Pampanga. This was also the same period when the DENR has drum beated its Manila Bay Rehabilitation program, commencing on its first phase which is clean up. Briefly, while the public was distracted on witnessing the “Battle for Manila Bay” clean up in Manila, a reclamation project is in the offing in the Bulacan part of Manila Bay.

Moreover, the Duterte administration pivoted from its earlier pronouncement in December 2016 to redevelop the naval base at Sangley Point by November 2017 to help decongest NAIA. As early as July 2016, it was considering the projects located in Sangley Point and Laguna Bay, as recommended by the JICA study.

In October 2016, the SM Investments Corporation (SMIC) announced its interest to invest in All-Asia Resources and Reclamation Corporation (ARRC) which is proposing the $20-billion airport and seaport facility in Sangley Point. In February 2017 that SMC submitted its $14-billion, 1,168-hectare airport complex which is part of the larger 2,500-hectare “aerotropolis” project, located in Bulakan town. A month after, the ARRC-SMIC partnership submitted its $12-billion airport project called Philippine Sangley International Airport.

Amid the JICA feasibility study for the New Manila Sangley Airport, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) approved the concession agreement between the DOTr and SMC. In April 2019, the DOTr launched a “swiss challenge” for the NMIA located in Bulakan and four months later approved SMC’s project unchallenged. The objectivity of this move is questionable or reeks of bias towards the SMC project, given that JICA even took five years to complete its feasibility study and recommendation, but this so-called challenge ended only in less than a year.

In an apparent haste, in July 2019, the ECC for the Silvertides Holdings “land development” project was approved by the DENR III – Environment Management Bureau (EMB).

Fisherfolk and residents of Brgy. Taliptip join the protest at the DENR office against Manila Bay Reclamation.

Amid opposition of the directly affected fisherfolk and residents, of a Barangay Taliptip Councilor and Chairperson of the Agriculture and Fisheries Committee, and fear of the Chairperson of Municipal Agriculture and Fisheries Council, protest of the provincial, regional and national fisherfolk movement, environmental defenders and Manila Bay rehabilitation and heritage advocates, the Duterte government and SMC appear to continue its speculative moves to generate popular support and investments.

The people’s demand

The directly affected sectors and Manila Bay rehabilitation advocates assert opposition to the project. It is beyond any doubt that the NMIA project is a reclamation project. It will displace communities and sources of livelihood, destroy the marine environment and transform the shoreline features of Manila Bay. The proponents of the project, from President Rodrigo Duterte, to Tugade, to the local government officials who thumbed it up, risk themselves of being charged of violating the Supreme Court mandamus to “clean up, rehabilitate and protect” Manila Bay, and “restore and maintain its waters.” They are also risking their approval from their constituents, especially when the project threatens of environmental disaster such as flooding, and destruction of private properties. The bureaucrats who chose to uphold the interest of the comprador should seriously weigh their decisions, which is actually gambling on their political careers. They are betting their future on a promise of one of the Forbes’ listed richest whose proposal is blatantly illegal, detrimental to the environment and welfare of their constituents.

Again, the people’s demand is clear and the point of no return is coming to these bureaucrats who betray public trust and public welfare. ###

Fisherfolk affected by reclamation projects in Manila Bay protest in Manila.
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