Politics of reclamation

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Reclaiming land from the sea almost always is vulnerable to the game of high politics. The current reclaiming of land from Manila Bay will suffer the same fate too if only for the fact the bay had already been embroiled in just such a game some 28 years ago.

“Moreover, the PEA-Amari scam also best serves as an important cautionary tale for people in this administration.

In all probability, Mr. Duterte had this game of reclamation and high politics in mind when he placed directly under his office this week all planned or ongoing massive reclamation projects in the bay and elsewhere, surprising everyone.

Mr. Duterte, in an Executive Order, said he was putting “all reclamation projects, including those initiated by local government units and all other agencies, government-owned or — controlled corporations or any government entity allowed under existing laws to reclaim land, for which there are no contracts/agreements yet executed.”

Besides yanking control over reclamation projects from the National Economic Development Authority to the Philippine Reclamation Authority, Mr. Duterte also made it clear he would be “hands on” in any bay reclamation project.

Offhand, politics is immediately evident here as the 43 land filling projects slated for the bay involve the interests of scores of local government kingpins and hotshot businessmen.

The more than 32,000 hectares set to be reclaimed from the bay involve such personalities as Manila Mayor Joseph “Erap” Estrada and Chinese investors, with one of three projects set to start this August.

It will be very interesting how things pan out politically with such personalities around, how local government kingpins and influential businessmen maneuver or manage their relationship with the tenant in Malacañang.

Interesting as this type of politicking is, it nonetheless will have to compete for attention as the reclamation projects are also expected to entangle powerful personalities of the national government itself.

As it is now, Malacañang argues “there is a need to rationalize the approval process of reclamation projects towards an economically and environmentally sustainable resource development.”

Concern for the environment is a sound justification as any more reclamation projects in the heavily-polluted bay, now undergoing a massive clean-up, means additional pollutants to the bay’s already precarious ecology.

On the economic side, while the projects promise jobs for thousands, it also displaces thousands of fisherfolk, the main contention of the Makabayan bloc in Congress in seeking the suspension of all bay projects.

Vocal critics, meanwhile, are wary about Mr. Duterte’s control over reclamation projects. The uneasiness, however, has not yet been fully articulated. Even so, the uneasiness can be attributed to a previous bay reclamation scandal, the Public Estates Authority (PEA)-Amari scam.

A throwback, as the millennials fondly say, of the PEA-Amari scam, dubbed “the grandmother of all scams,” is worthwhile. Knowing what went before will anchor us on how to approach what is at stake when reclaiming portions of the bay.

The PEA-Amari land scam was about a 1995 billion-peso joint venture between the PEA, the government agency then in charge of public lands, and the Italian-Thai firm Amari for the development of some 77,344 hectares of still submerged areas in Manila Bay.

It was not at all an innocent project. Soon enough, ugly revelations about the project vomited lurid tales of crooked deals, massive bribes, illicit commissions and shameless, sweet-talking wheeler dealers. The scam eventually put at political risk high officials of the Ramos administration.

Writing about the scam, investigative journalist Sheila Coronel wrote then, “That from 1995 to 1997, as much as P3 billion in bribes and commissions were paid by Amari to a cast of brokers, government bureaucrats and politicians, making this the single biggest scam in memory, dwarfing the amounts made in single transactions by the most avaricious of Marcos’s cronies.”

After a series of riveting Senate investigations, court cases were filed and by 2002, the Supreme Court declared the PEA-Amari land deal violated constitutional provisions expressly prohibiting the sale of foreshore and submerged areas of Manila Bay for being “inalienable lands of the public domain.”

“It is now time to write finis to this grandmother of all scams,” the High Court dramatically said of its decision.

The PEA-Amari scam eventually clouded the reputations and legacies of both Fidel V. Ramos and former House Speaker Jose de Venecia.

While the PEA-Amari scam can be argued away as having little or no relationship with present reclamation projects, it does give a general framework on what we are to look for should just one of 43 reclamation projects go haywire.

An instance of this is how the PEA-Amari scam was sold to the public. Amari wanted to build the “Centennial City,” a “new city complete with skyscrapers, parks, a marina, a golf course and casinos that would rise out of Manila Bay.”

Eerily, the “Centennial City” marketing idea is practically the same marketing idea of the “New Manila Bay — City of Pearl” which Estrada approved last year.

Moreover, the PEA-Amari scam also best serves as an important cautionary tale for people in this administration, a warning to handle with extreme care all the planned reclamation projects as all are political powder kegs.

Email: nevqjr@yahoo.com.ph

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