For environmentalists, the deal between the Philippines and China to search for oil in the vast waters surrounding the Spratlys stinks like a dead fish.
Marine environmentalists on Monday expressed wariness over the joint cooperation between the two countries to explore for oil and gas in the disputed Spratlys chain of islands in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The deal was part of the agreements that were hammered out during President Aquino’s state visit to China last week.
Dr. Perry Aliño, a professor at the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute, said there should be proper environmental management in the Spratlys because the rich marine life there had been under stress due to maritime activities.
“Regardless of any joint exploration, environmental safety should be considered. It’s the biggest coral assemblage in the region. It has 20 percent of the coral reefs in the country. That is very helpful in sustaining Palawan and the northwest Luzon area,” he said.
Aliño noted that there was a proposal to make the Spratlys an international marine-protected area to be overseen by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
But that idea, he said, was killed by China. “They claim it (chain) as their own,” he said.
The Spratlys, a group of islands believed to hold oil and gas deposits, is claimed in whole or in part by China, the Philippines and four other countries.
Over the years, the claimants’ military forces had made forays into the islands and had built naval facilities there.
Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, chief executive officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Philippines, expressed disappointment over the joint cooperation, saying it appeared that the area had been “sold.”
Tan noted that there had been efforts to protect the marine archipelago, but “it only exists on paper.”
Last week, Trade Undersecretary Cristino Panlilio said the Philippine government had allowed Chinese government-owned firm Sino Petroleum Corp. to conduct an oil exploration in the disputed waters.
According to WWF, the Spratlys islands are a rich eco-region that contains over 600 coral reefs, atolls, rocks, banks and cays. It is a major habitat for various seabirds as well as green and hawksbill turtles.
Aliño said it was crucial that the Spratlys’ waters should be protected because of the threat against the sea species of the reef.
The area’s biodiversity has suffered changes over the years due to maritime forays and poaching, he said.
“In the past, you could see sharks there every day. But now, when you dive, you would hardly see them anymore,” Aliño said.
The Kalikasan–People’s Network for the Environment also assailed the government’s plan to mine the area for oil with China, saying this would be a blow to the region’s biodiversity.
“The proposed oil exploration will bring much damage to this biodiversity-rich area. Spratlys islands are home to the few remaining intact coral reefs in Southeast Asia,” the group said in a statement.