The pros and cons of reclamation

IF one visits Dumaguete City, one is likely to notice campaign-style banners posted here and there among the leftovers from the recent elections bearing the terse message, “No to 174.” The signs are evidence of a most remarkable public campaign, a well-organized, popular and evidently successful resistance to a proposed reclamation project that would bury 174 hectares of Dumaguete's waterfront under a P23-billion upscale “smart city” development.

The project was an unsolicited proposal to the city by the Quezon City-based construction firm E.M. Cuerpo Inc. in mid-2021, and was enthusiastically embraced by Dumaguete City Mayor Felipe Antonio Remollo. Remollo prevailed upon the city council to pass a resolution authorizing him to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the firm for development of the project.

The move set off a firestorm of protest among the public, business groups, environmental advocates and even some government agencies. By September, Mayor Remollo was under such pressure that he “suspended” the MoU, ostensibly to seek a fresh mandate for it in the election. While he was easily reelected for a third term, the endorsement he was hoping to receive to continue with the controversial development was withheld with a vengeance: seven city council seats, a clear majority, went to candidates who had organized themselves to run on a specific platform of preventing the “174.” The project is now considered dead, at least for the foreseeable future, and as that was the clear wish of a majority of the citizens of Dumaguete, that is as it should be.

Reclamation, like mining, is fraught with controversy here in the Philippines. Like mining, discussions about reclamation often suffer from being subject to absolutes in points of view; that is, it is either considered completely bad and should never be allowed, or that not allowing it is wrong and unfairly retards economic growth.

It is exceedingly rare for either extreme in perspective to be completely correct, yet they are the two perspectives most often adopted, which makes disputes over proposed reclamation projects unproductive and unlikely to lead to rational and beneficial solutions. There are uses for reclamation, and areas where it can be done in such a way that environmental and social consequences can be avoided or adequately mitigated. And there are places where reclamation should be avoided. From our perspective, the New Manila International Airport project in Bulacan, despite resistance to the project from some quarters, is an example of the former; the aborted Dumaguete project is an example of the latter.

There should be three questions asked and decisively answered when any reclamation project is proposed. First, is there a compelling economic and social need for the project, or does it offer economic and social opportunities that are so compelling that they cannot be ignored? Second, is reclamation the best or only option for meeting that need or providing those opportunities? And finally, does the project have the clear support of the community or communities that will be directly affected by it?

If the answer to all of these questions is an unarguable yes, then reclamation is likely a good idea, provided of course that environmental impacts and the impact on any populations that may be displaced from their homes or livelihoods are thoroughly addressed from the outset. If any of those questions has a negative answer, then reclamation should be prohibited.

In the case of Dumaguete, for example, the proposed project would have extended into a marine protected area, and for this and other reasons it was overwhelmingly rejected by the community. In the case of the new airport, which is critically needed, placing it on reclaimed land is the most practical solution, and while there are some disruptions to the local environment and community, these have been appropriately addressed. Not everyone is happy with it, but the balance of public opinion clearly favors the project, so it should proceed. These examples both for and against reclamation should serve as guidance to planners and policymakers when new projects are presented for consideration.

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