IN spite of vocal opposition from a number of environmental groups, the Bureau of Corrections (BuCor) has said that it is determined to push through with a plan to construct a new administration facility and employee housing on a property in Tanay, Rizal located within the Masungi Georeserve. The natural area has faced numerous threats over the years, and so concerns over the potential harmful impact of BuCor's plan is justified.
However, while it may be preferable to everyone but BuCor that its planned facility be built somewhere else, the issue is not that simple.
Acting BuCor Director General Gregorio Catapang said on Friday that the bureau is intent on carrying out its five-year development plan, the key parts of which are housing for BuCor employees and “the development and implementation of land use development plans and policies of the BuCor for the sustainment of its basic institutional food requirements.” Details of the plan were not disclosed, but would also include administrative offices and related facilities. Catapang also clarified in an earlier statement that the development would not include any prison or detention facilities.
The reason the property in the Masungi Georeserve was selected is quite simple; the 270-hectare parcel straddling the villages of Kuyumbay, Layban, San Andres and Tinucan in Tanay already belongs to BuCor. The land was originally set aside as a site for a replacement for the New Bilibid Prison by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2006; the title for the land was officially transferred to BuCor last September, presumably when the working version of the land-use plan was completed.
Thus, there are two equally valid objectives that have been put into conflict. BuCor needs new facilities for employee housing and food production, and has the land to construct them; using that land, rather than seeking a different site that would have to be purchased, or perhaps traded with another government agency, is the most efficient and cost-effective option. That property, however, lies with a protected area where, by definition, any sort of development should be prohibited in order to preserve the natural environment.
We believe there is a way to achieve both objectives, but it will require both BuCor and the Department of Environment and Natural Resource1s (DENR) to exercise a great deal of diligent environmental management. In fact, the concerned agencies should look at the development of the project as an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and responsibility in sustainable development.
First, that will require BuCor and DENR to work together to develop the detailed project plan in strict accordance with existing environmental regulations, and implementing “green” features in the various buildings and infrastructure to be constructed. Particular attention must be paid to the most potentially damaging facilities and services that will be needed, such as roads, water supply and disposal, and solid waste management. The description by BuCor director Catapang of the area's use to meet the bureau's “basic food requirements” also implies that some farming activity and food production will take place; these facilities must also be environmentally sound.
Most importantly, it must be realized that the development plan does not end with the construction of the BuCor project, but will require constant monitoring and management for as long as it exists. For example, strict zoning and construction rules must be put in place for the housing area, to ensure that residents' activities to upgrade and expand their homes or create small businesses — efforts that are pursued in communities anywhere, and should be otherwise welcomed — do not pose environmental or safety risks. Likewise, activity that spills outside the boundaries of the BuCor property must be prevented, or strictly controlled if it is unavoidable.
Finally, allowing BuCor to pursue its development project on its own property within the Georeserve must not be used to justify development elsewhere in the protected area, especially commercial development. The BuCor, as a government agency, should be regarded as an exception, and one whose privilege to build in the area will depend on it doing so responsibly. If it does so, however, it will not only have the facilities it needs, but will set a standard for development anywhere in the country.
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