The House Committee on Natural Resources approved on Wednesday, January 25, Palawan Third District Representative Edward Hagedorn’s bill on the environmental protection and preservation of the waters surrounding the Kalayaan Island Group and the West Philippine Sea.
House Bill No. 6373 aims to declare all low-tide elevations and high-tide features, and an area of three nautical miles around the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal as a Marine Protected Area.
With this, the committee will now be preparing its report before transmitting proposed measure to the House Plenary for deliberation and debate.
CIBAC Partylist Representative Eduardo “Brother Eddie” Villanueva, who sponsored the bill and presented it to the committee on behalf of Cong. Hagedorn, stressed that the bill is focused on the protection of the marine environment of the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal and not on the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
“We cannot afford not to act because the habitat of marine life in our waters, which benefits not only the Philippines but also adjacent countries like China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, is being destroyed,” he said.
Known West Philippine Sea advocate and retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio gave his full support to the bill, saying that it was “long overdue.”
The Armed Forces of the Philippines also expressed its full support for H.B. 6373.
In an official statement, Cong. Hagedorn reiterated his belief that environmental protection will serve as a common ground and shared interest among Filipinos and even other regions
“It is my sincerest belief that pushing for environmental protection for the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal is a common ground that every Filipino could rally behind,” he said.
“We do hope that this environmental lens would be likewise used by other coastal states surrounding the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea to promote cooperation and environmental protection for greater peace, stability and prosperity for the entire region,” he added.
He also thanked Cong. Villanueva for presenting the bill in his behalf.
“He brilliantly presented and explained to the body the very essence of the bill. His inclusion of biblical passages highlighted the overarching and transcendental importance of protecting our natural resources in the Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal,” he said.
Cong. Hagedorn also thanked House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez; Chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources and Cavite 4th District Representative Elpidio F. Barzaga Jr.; Palawan 2nd District Representative Jose Alvarez; and retired Supreme Court Justice Carpio for their insights and support for the bill.
Cong. Villanueva cited a study by the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute in 2019 which found out that coral reefs in Kalayaan Islands–particularly in the Pag-asa Island, Panata Island and Sabina Shoal–were damaged by alleged illegal activities such as blast fishing.
The bill is an operationalization of proposals from local and international marine experts to declare the surrounding waters of the KIG and Scarborough Shoal as protected areas.
A 2014 study by the Asian Development Bank showed that the Kalayaan Islands comprise 30 percent of the country’s total coral reefs and serve as a breeding ground of fishes and marine species in the country.
H.B. 6373 will prohibit and penalize certain acts and activities within the waters of the 3-nautical mile area to guarantee protection of marine habitat.
However, traditional fishing will still be allowed as it is considered generally harmless to the marine ecosystem.
The bill will also create a Kalayaan Island Group and Scarborough Shoal Protected Area Management Office (KIGSS-PAMO) and a Joint Congressional Oversight Committee to ensure effective implementation of the provisions of the proposed measure.