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Potential bets start advertising on Facebook as 2022 campaign shifts to social media

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, former senator Antonio Trillanes IV, and many local politicians are top ad spenders on Facebook a year before the polls. The Commission on Elections is drafting rules to govern online campaigning.

BY CHERRY SALAZAR/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Potential candidates have started advertising on Facebook more than a year before the May 2022 elections, spending several thousand to a few million pesos since August 2020, data from the social media platform showed.

A significant shift to online campaigning is expected during the 2022 elections, especially with mobility restrictions imposed during the pandemic, although in-person activities will remain a staple of the campaign, according to Eric Alvia, secretary general of poll watchdog National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (Namfrel).

“Less people now read newspapers, and with the shutdown of ABS-CBN, there are less media outlets covering the news. People are gravitating towards social media,”  Alvia told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian has spent P4.5 million boosting more than 600 Facebook posts over the past eight months, while former senator Antonio Trillanes IV and his supporters spent more than P1 million to promote a total of 45 posts.

They are the two biggest ad spenders so far on the social media platform among potential national candidates. It’s an average of P562,250 in ad spending a month for Gatchalian and about P130,000 a month for Trillanes.

Gatchalian’s Facebook ads were mostly about his stand on issues, particularly on the education and energy sectors. These were pushed through Gatchalian’s official Facebook page “Sen. Win Gatchalian,” which has more than two million likes and followers, as of this writing.

Trillanes advertised his page and his posts accusing President Duterte of corruption. One of the pages supporting the senator — “We support Trillanes 2022” — also showed bills he authored and sponsored. In some posts, both pages used the same graphics.

Other potential candidates have also started advertising on television and radio. Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano ran an ad that called for the passage of House Bill No. 8597, which seeks to provide each family with P10,000 in cash assistance.

Several ground activities have also been arranged nationwide, including gatherings in support of the presidential candidacy of the survey frontrunner, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter. On Facebook, a few supporters paid for ads to promote her, too.

All these advertisements outside the official campaign period, which begins three months before the polls for national candidates, are not considered premature campaigning. They are not covered by election rules limiting campaign spending based on a 2009 Supreme Court ruling on a petition that sought to ban these early advertisements.

Many local pols

Other early advertisers on Facebook among potential national candidates included Antique Rep. and former senator Loren Legarda, who spent over P400,000; and Sen. Juan Edgardo Angara, who spent more than P200,000 although his second term in the Senate will not end until 2025. 

Supporters of Sen. Imee Marcos, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles also paid for ads to promote themselves. Marcos’s term also ends in 2025.

Among members of the House of Representatives, Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte, Jr. spent nearly P1 million and Buhay party-list Rep. Lito Atienza spent over P700,000.

The Digital 2021: Global Overview report showed that Filipinos spent more time than any country in the world on the internet, particularly on social media. The report was conducted by creative agency We Are Social and social media management platform Hootsuite. 

The report also showed that Filipino netizens used social media more than four hours on average daily or nearly double the global daily average of two hours and 25 minutes.

More candidates will be relying on social media for advertising, said Rona Caritos, executive director of the Legal Network for Truthful Elections (Lente). She noted how online campaigning, which was previously only used by national candidates during the 2016 polls, has been tapped by local candidates beginning the 2019 midterm polls.

“[Political advertising] will no longer be concentrated at the national level, especially as most Filipinos are scrolling down their Facebook feeds and are on their phone screens because of the pandemic,” she said. 

Indeed, many local politicians have paid for Facebook ads. Camarines Sur Gov. Migz Villafuerte spent nearly P1 million while Gatchalian’s brother, Mayor Rex Gatchalian of Valenzuela City, and Cebu Rep. Pablo John “PJ” Garcia both spent less than P200,000. 

PCIJ image

Facebook Ad Library

These are data available to the public through Facebook’s Ad Library, a searchable database of ads across Facebook and Instagram, showing the posts that were boosted on the social media platforms and who paid for them. 

There are 4,000 ads in the Facebook database so far, although product placements such as those by Chowking PH, the World Food Programme, and Spotify were included in the database. 

Clare Amador, Head of Public Policy of Facebook Philippines, said the tool is intended to make advertisers accountable. (READ: Q&A: ‘Facebook tool to mitigate foreign interference, make 2022 polls transparent)

It is also intended to mitigate foreign interference in elections. “We’ve been involved in more than 200 elections around the world since 2017. We know that every election is different,  so we take this experience and work closely with local experts to learn what’s most useful to mitigate risks and prevent interference,” Amador told PCIJ. 

Facebook uses artificial intelligence to review all ads before they are shown on Facebook and Instagram. 

“In certain cases, if an ad is already running and it’s about elections or politics, it can be flagged by automated systems or reported by our community. These ads will be reviewed again and if found to be violating our policy by missing a disclaimer, we will also take it down and require they complete authorizations to continue running it,” Amador said. 

James Jimenez, Commission on Elections spokesperson and director for education and information, said he welcomed the activation of the monitoring tool in the Philippines. 

“It’s very important,” he told PCIJ. It will be useful in monitoring election advertising online and make sure candidates will follow spending limits, he said.

“It’s inescapable that Facebook will be a major factor [during the campaign], but hopefully it’s not the only social media platform that people will use,” said Jimenez. 

Amador said Facebook will work with Comelec to “find ways to support them in their efforts to hold political advertisers  more accountable.”

Comelec Resolution No. 10488, detailing rules and regulations implementing the Fair Elections Act, provides rules to govern online campaign spending. 

Candidates are mandated to register their web sites and social media pages, including those that endorse the candidates, and report how much they have spent on advertising. However, monitoring was impossible in previous elections and candidates did not report it, said Lente’s Caritos. 

Jimenez said Comelec would release more guidelines for online campaigning before the start of the official campaign period in February 2022. 

While the Facebook Ad Library shows how much the candidates spend on the social media platform, it is not clear yet how Comelec will treat the ads paid for by their supporters. 

“That’s the challenge. What happens if you are a supporter and you boost your blog post that’s promoting someone’s candidacy? We’re still making the rules for that,” Jimenez said. 

Monitoring YouTube, too

Beyond monitoring the candidates’ spending, Jimenez, Alvia, and Caritos expressed concerns about misinformation and disinformation spreading online during the campaign. 

Other than Facebook, Caritos sees the need to also monitor YouTube as she expects candidates turning to the “largely unregulated” platform for unscrupulous activities. 

Facebook is only next to YouTube as the most popular social media platform among Filipino netizens.

“They will be uploading YouTube videos that spread disinformation, change the narrative, and show ‘alternate realities’. That’s something we will see,” Caritos said. 

Namfrel’s Alvia said even short video formats, like those on TikTok and Instagram, would likely be used in online campaigning to boost engagement and recall.

He said the 2022 campaign might particularly see a lot of discourse on Covid-19-related assistance from politicians, including, but not limited to, social amelioration, access to vaccines, and livelihood support.

“Social media is more accessible to a lot of people and the content is easier to digest but not necessarily correct,” Alvia said. “Kanya-kanyang version ng katotohanan (People will be coming in with various stories of their own).” #

7M hectares of Philippine land are forested — and that’s bad news

The country has been vulnerable to massive flooding linked to deforestation. The coronavirus pandemic is also a catastrophe that arose from populations occupying wild animal habitats.

By Karol Ilagan/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Key findings:

  • Forest loss persists in the Philippines even with a log ban and protection laws in place.
  • Forest cover has remained the same since the first Aquino administration as losses in some parts of the country have eclipsed gains in others. 
  • The Mimaropa region – covering Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon and Palawan – has seen the worst deforestation in recent years.
  • The Duterte government excluded reforestation efforts among its commitments to mitigate climate change under the 2016 Paris Agreement.
  • Bills that are meant to address legal gaps in protecting forests are languishing in Congress. 

Mindoro is the seventh largest island of the Philippines. It sits at the bottom of Luzon, where the country’s capital is located, and stretches toward the northern tip of Sulu Sea. Large ships pass through its unpredictable waters, and on its seabed lie the wreckage of vessels that didn’t survive it. 

On land, a spine of mountains runs across its center. Its forests are home to the tamaraw, dwarf buffalos whose images once graced once-peso coins. They used to be widespread, but are now critically endangered.  

Land conversion has wiped out most of the habitat of the tamaraws. The lush expanse of forests where they liked to wallow in mud pits undisturbed have been flattened to make way for human settlements.

The same fate has befallen a species of pigeons called Mindoro bleeding-heart, named so because their breasts resemble a puncture wound with a blotch of orange at the center that deepens to dark red.

The rate of deforestation, which in turn drives the endangerment of species on the island, has been alarming, said ecologist Neil Aldrin Mallari, who studies the Mindoro bleeding-heart as president of the Center for Conservation Innovations.

The birds are also found on the islands of Negros, Panay, and Mindanao but the lowland forests where they used to live — the temperature there is right and fruits are aplenty — have drastically thinned through the years.

Mallari said the few remaining pigeons try to adapt, retreating to high altitudes where there are still trees to offer refuge. Those trees are their last stand. 

Mindoro lost more than 200,000 hectares of forest cover from 2003 to 2015. That’s about the size of land that 3,000 SM Mall of Asia complexes would cover if they stood side by side. The neighboring tourist haven of Palawan also lost nearly 30,000 hectares of forest land during the same period, based on government data. 

The losses of Mindoro and Palawan in terms of forest cover make Mimaropa the most deforested region in the Philippines, even if other islands in it such as Marinduque and Romblon had recorded some gains.

Mimaropa is also a microcosm of the state of forests in the country. Some provinces have successfully expanded their forest cover, but the gains were erased by consistent losses in others. 

A log ban and a number of laws have been in place for decades to restore the forests, but the absence of a coherent policy on forest management has resulted in various forms of land conversion that continue to drive deforestation at an alarming rate. 

The country’s forest cover is only about seven million hectares or 23% of the country’s total land area, based on official numbers, although experts are afraid that this number is overestimated. 

That’s a lot of forest lost from the early years of the Spanish colonial period, when forest cover was over 90%. The first Christian missionaries saw trees extending from the shores to the mountaintops, and likened the country to a paradise.

Abuses of the countrys’ forests eventually harmed the population. The massive floods brought by typhoons “Uring” (international name “Thema”) in Ormoc in 1991 and “Ondoy” (“Ketsana”) in Metro Manila in 2009 were just two of the disasters blamed on massive deforestation. Lush forests and watersheds could have held large amounts of rainwater that otherwise flowed into the communities, experts said.

The coronavirus pandemic that is taking its toll on the world — rich and poor countries alike — is also a stark reminder of a catastrophe that happens when populations occupy the habitats of wild animals. Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease that experts said likely jumped from a bat, then to another host species, before it infected humans.

It’s a cycle of tragedies where humans are both the culprits and the victims.

Mallari predicted that Mindoro’s bleeding-hearts would soon vanish. It’s time to think seriously about the impacts of human activities on nature, he said. 

“Extinction of species is not just about the cuddly animals,” he said. “We care because they are the building blocks of our ecosystem. ‘Pag nawala sila, wala rin tayo (If they are gone, so are we).”

The Philippines is one of the world’s very few mega-biodiverse countries and one of the most vulnerable to climate impacts. The stakes are higher for the country.

The vanishing Philippine forests: Extent of forest cover loss in the last century
Source: Dolom, 2006; Adopted from Environmental Science for Social Change (1999)
Courtesy of Dr. Neil Aldrin Mallari, Center for Conservation Innovations
Threatened and endemic species are retreating to mountains where forests offer refuge.
Source: Dr. Neil Aldrin Mallari, Center for Conservation Innovations

Dwindling forests

Forests made up 27.5 million hectares or 92% of the country’s total land area in the 16th century, when Spanish colonizers arrived. Forest cover dropped to 15.8 million hectares during the last years of the American occupation and to 10.6 million hectares just before the declaration of Martial Law.

It further shrank to 6.4 million hectares just after the 1986 People Power Revolution. Since then the country’s forest cover hovered at just under 7 million hectares on average.

The Americans systematized logging, which worsened during Martial Law when dictator Ferdinand Marcos rewarded relatives and cronies with Timber License Agreements (TLA). The country recorded one of the worst deforestation rates in the Asia and Pacific region during those years, losing 316,000 hectares of forest annually on average. The TLA holders did not adopt selective logging, a sustainable way of harvesting timber. They cleared forests, did not replant, and even went beyond their concession areas. 

Each administration drew up policies and programs to restore forests. Rehabilitation efforts have been in place since the 1910s, and there’s a long list of acronyms and agreements between and among national and local governments, communities living within and near forests, as well as the private sector. 

But these efforts were mired in allegations of mismanagement, corruption and power play.

Following the fall of the Marcos regime, the Cory Aquino government prioritized reforestation with support from bilateral partners and multilateral institutions. Timber exports were banned in 1992 and community-based approaches were introduced following the devastation brought by Typhoon “Uring,” whose heavy rains submerged Ormoc City and killed over 5,000 Filipinos. 

Jose Andres Canivel, executive director of the Forest Foundation, said massive deforestation stopped when the government halted the issuance of TLAs. No conclusive data was available, but the shift to Community-Based Forestry Management Agreements might have helped ease the pressure on forests, he said. It’s a tenurial instrument that allows qualified upland communities and people’s organizations to develop, utilize and manage portions of forest lands and resources. 

Forests recover if left alone, and conversion to agricultural land, timber poaching, and forest fires are stopped. They regenerate with the help of bats, birds, and other animals that disperse seeds, Canivel said. 

He cited areas in the Sierra Madre and Apayao, which were once logged over but now have closed-canopy forests. “Nag-logging d’yan, natigil (They used to log there), now the forest has taken it back,” he said.

The second Aquino government also embarked on a massive reforestation program, the National Greening Program, which aimed to double the country’s forest cover by 2028. Funded by taxpayers’ money, it sought to rehabilitate 7.1 million hectares of unproductive, denuded, and degraded forest lands. 

President Benigno Aquino III also banned logging across the country entirely, in the wake of severe floodings that also claimed many lives. Prior to the executive order, the impacts of Tropical Storm “Sendong” (“Washi”) in December 2010 and Typhoon “Ondoy” (“Ketsana”) in September 2009 were linked to deforestation. 

Despite these efforts, however, the country’s forest cover has not grown from 7 million hectares since the first Aquino administration. It hit a plateau because gains from restoration efforts in some parts of the country were erased by losses in others. 

The steady numbers betray the alarming rate of deforestation in many parts of the country, according to experts. The geographical breakdown of 12 years’ worth of data showed that half of all provinces registered losses totaling more than 154,000 hectares, based on the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority’s satellite survey.

The real situation is probably worse. Canivel said satellite imagery should be verified on the ground because plantations might have also been scanned. Many forests had been cleared to make way for plantations, which did not count as forests, he said. For instance, forests in the Caraga region had been planted with timber, and in Palawan, oil palm.
Samson Pedragosa, Haribon Foundation advocacy officer, also questioned liberal definitions of forests adopted by the Philippines. A half-hectare land with a tree canopy cover of more than 10% is considered a forest, according to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

Mallari said this global definition did not quite match the characteristics of tropical rainforests, which should be dense and diverse. An increase in forest cover might not necessarily be due to growing trees, but because of the way forests were redefined, he said.

Philippine forests are also defined by their physical attributes – more than 1,000 meters above sea level and/or with an 18% slope – rather than their ecological function, Mallari said.

PCIJ requested an interview with the Forest Management Bureau (FMB) to verify the data it had provided as well as understand the country’s forest management strategy. The FMB acknowledged PCIJ’s letter, but could not respond to questions as of writing.

Global Forest Watch (GFW), a US-based monitor of global forests, has an alternate barometer of annual forest loss showing that more than 7,700 hectares of forest cover, equivalent to nearly 20 basketball courts, were lost every hour in the Philippines last year.

This adds up to an area the size of Iloilo City in over a year. The loss was 2% higher in 2020, mirroring the global trend. Last year, forest destruction increased 12% worldwide. 

GFW also uses satellite imagery to measure deforestation, but its data cannot be compared with FMB’s. The former monitors not just forest loss, but all other indicators of deforestation, like tree loss, tree gain, and fire alerts.

From 2002 to 2020, the country recorded 150,813 hectares of primary forest loss, GFW data also showed.

Alarming rates of deforestation are happening worldwide. GFW recorded 4.2 million hectares of forest loss, an area the size of the Netherlands, occurring within tropical primary forests around the globe. Some progress, however, has been recorded in Southeast Asia as forest losses in Indonesia and Malaysia have declined for the fourth year in a row in 2020.

Read about Malaysia’s declining forest loss by Rainforest Investigations Network fellow Yao Hua Law of Macaranga.

Greening Program

The Duterte government continued Aquino’s reforestation program. The Enhanced National Greening Program (E-NGP) seeks to rehabilitate 1.2 million hectares of denuded forest lands before President Rodrigo Duterte’s term ends in 2022. 

More than 1.74 billion seedlings have been planted from 2011 to 2020 in more than 2 million hectares of land area, FMB records showed. The program likewise generated more than five million jobs.

The E-NGP is among the programs designed to achieve the country’s REDD+ objective – results-based climate change mitigation strategy – under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). “REDD” stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.” The plus sign represents the expansion of its focus to the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries.

The Philippines drew up its National REDD+ Strategy in 2010 but an update published by the FMB in June 2017 showed that the country was still in the “readiness phase” and taking “readiness steps” to establish demonstration sites, as well as  undertaking studies to implement it. 

FAO’s 2015 Global Forest Resources Assessment ranked the Philippines as fifth among 234 countries with the greatest reported gain in forest area annually from 2010 to 2015. The FMB attributed it to the then four-year-old National Greening Program.

Researchers have raised red flags on the implementation of the program. In 2019, the Commission on Audit (COA) found several issues with the DENR’s fast-tracking of the program as it led to the imposition of targets beyond the capacities of officials; the lack of survey, mapping, and planning; and the inclusion of far untenured areas, which will be abandoned after the term of the maintenance and protection contract, among others.

“Instead of increasing forest cover, fast-tracking reforestation activities only increased the incidences of wastage,” the COA said.

State think-tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies found that the survival rate of the trees planted under the NGP stood at just 61% in 2016 or below the 85% goal.

Moreover, University of the Philippines researchers found that forest cover loss in three sites in the Sierra Madre mountain range declined from 2011 to 2015 but increased from 2016 to 2018. Using satellite data, the study found that the net effect was a balance of reforestation and deforestation, or no significant gain.

Mallari, Canivel, Pedragosa and former environment undersecretary Antonio La Viña all raised concerns over the implementation of the NGP and the E-NGP. They said the efforts to protect the seedlings, the kinds of trees planted, and where the trees were planted needed to be scrutinized. 

GFW data from 2002 to 2020 even showed that forest loss in the Philippines had reached a record high during the Duterte administration. The country lost more than 10,000 hectares of primary forest on average every year during his term. This was higher than the annual averages during the terms of Gloria Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III. 

In a span of 18 years, forest loss reached its peak in 2017 during Duterte’s second year in office. The decline continued in the following years although the figures remained within the annual average of about 8,000 hectares.

Pockets of success, however, can be found in rehabilitation efforts done by nongovernment organizations, community groups and the private sector in areas such as the Ipo Watershed, Upper Marikina Watershed, and the Masungi Georeserve. At the center of these efforts are the communities that live in or near the forests.

Forests and climate change

The Duterte government excluded reforestation efforts from its list of commitments under the 2016 Paris Agreement to mitigate climate change. Instead, it was included among adaptation measures, in which Manila pledged to “pursue forest protection, forest restoration and reforestation, and access to results-based finance in forest conservation.”

Mitigation is aimed at addressing and minimizing the causes of climate change, while adaptation is focused on reducing its impacts. 

This was curious, according to La Viña, also a former climate change negotiator for the Philippines, and Ian Rivera, coordinator of the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice.

La Viña said he was still studying why the government did not include forests to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in its list of commitments. The sectors included in the country’s mitigation efforts are “agriculture, wastes, industry, transport, and energy.”

Loss of forests is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. At least 20% of global emissions come from deforestation. Addressing the problem is crucial to avoiding the dangerous impacts of climate change.

“We should be looking at enhancement so we can go back to at least 10 million (hectares), for instance,” said La Viña.

Neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia are good examples as they have placed forests front and center to mitigate emissions. Indonesia imposed a moratorium on the clearing of primary forests, prohibited the conversion of remaining forests, and adopted sustainable forest management measures. Malaysia committed to conserve its Central Forest Spine, which supplies 90% of its water, and the 220,000-square-kilometer “Heart of Borneo,” said to be Asia’s last great rainforest.
The Paris Agreement is an international treaty that aims to avert climate catastrophe. A total of 196 parties were expected to submit action plans last year.  The commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are detailed in documents called nationally determined contributions or NDC.

financial mechanism was also established, in which high-emitting developed countries provide funds to less industrialized countries. This will help developing countries like the Philippines, which emitted an average of 1.98 metric tons of carbon dioxide per capita in 2020 or about half of the global average of four metric tons, bear the brunt of climate change.

Duterte initially aired his misgivings about the Paris climate agreement, questioning how developed countries had dictated the terms of the collective fund that would be used to help developing countries achieve climate goals. He eventually signed it in March 2017.

Based on the NDC it submitted to the UNFCCC on April 15, 2021, the Philippines is targeting to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 75% by 2030. Accomplishing 72.29% of this goal depended on funding and assistance from the international community, based on its report to the UNFCCC on April 15, 2021. 

No greenlight for the ‘green bills’

Just maintaining the country’s forest cover is not enough, said La Viña, who is now executive director of the Manila Observatory, a scientific research center. “[There’s] no major initiative or nothing significantly negative comes to mind,” he said.  

He said proper management of the country’s forests is key, but laws that seek to do this have been languishing in Congress. 

The country’s primary forest code is a Martial Law-era presidential decree that essentially promotes commercial logging, La Viña said. Although P.D. 705 has since been modified with the passage of the National Integrated Protected Area System in 1992 and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act in 1997, a different law is needed to set the criteria on how forest resources should be managed and utilized, he said. 

“There’s no criteria when you can cut or not because we’re still using the old forestry code,” La Viña said. 

Canivel said P.D. 705 promised an industrialization scheme where forests would contribute to the economy, but this didn’t happen. He made the same call to pass “green bills” pending in Congress. The log ban that Aquino issued in 2011 is only an executive order.

Experts have identified at least three urgent “green” bills – the National Land Use Act (NLUA), the Sustainable Forest Management Act (SMFA), and the Alternative Minerals Management Act (AMMA). 

Passage of the NLUA is needed to delineate forest boundaries and protect them. Land conversions are the main threats to forests, said Haribon’s Pedragosa. 

“Hindi pwedeng gamitin sa agriculture. Hindi pwede gamitin sa iba pang uses kung hindi forest lang talaga (It cannot be used for agriculture. It cannot be used for other purposes but it’s supposed to be just for forests),” he said. 

The SMFA is needed to set criteria for allowing logging, and settle debates on whether or not the government should allow selective logging or commercial logging. It should not be preoccupied with issuing timber-cutting or tree-cutting permits, and should set aside areas for conservation and management, restoration, and sustainable use, Canivel said.

“The new law has to be mindful of what we need to protect, what we need to restore and what we need to allow,” he said. 

Intended to replace the Mining Act of 1995, the AMMA seeks to ban extraction in environmentally critical areas such as small-island ecosystems and primary and secondary forests and watersheds. It also seeks to prohibit dumping of mine wastes into water systems.

All these laws are urgent, said Canivel. “We are faced with different realities. We understand forests better now. We certainly need a new policy framework.” FIN


This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center’s Rainforest Investigations Network (RIN). 
To learn more about forest stories across the globe, visit the RIN fellows’ page here.
Infographics: Joseph Luigi Almuena

Art festival amid a pandemic? Baguio creatives disagree over how to spend city financial support

Baguio was named to the Unesco Creative Cities Network in 2017. The city’s artists evaluate their performance four years later as the UN body is set to review the designation.

BY MARIA ELENA CATAJAN/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

How essential is art during a pandemic? In November 2020 Baguio City pushed through with the “Ibagiw 3rd Baguio Creative Festival” to showcase local arts, craft, and performances. 

“Ibag iw” is a vernacular term that means someone who came from or something made in Baguio. The festival kicked off at the Baguio Convention Center and was livestreamed for all of the internet to see. 

Cultural performers grounded for months performed again, wowing audiences as they entered the stage mounted on horses and sashaying to the beat of gongs – a ritual  offering to the mountain gods.

Artisans were able to sell their wares again. Crowds trooped to the University of the Philippines-Baguio and Sunshine Park – ushered in batches to maintain physical distancing – to buy bags, clothes and wraps, wood and silver craft, small art décor, and basketry. 

There were new items on display: face masks made of local textiles.

It was a month-long activity that sought to revive the sector shut down by the pandemic. It carried the theme: “Angat Baguio: Rising together through Creative Resiliency, Sustainability and Innovation.”

Artist Karlo Marko Altomonte, director and performance artist, said some 600 Baguio artists were rendered jobless when tourism was shut down by the pandemic. 

The tourist drawer Panagbenga was among the first victims of the coronavirus pandemic. The city canceled the festival in February 2020 to avoid a super-spreading event. The flower festival that closes off Baguio’s Session Road for floral floats, street dancing, and a big trade fair has always been the busiest time for many of the city’s creatives. 

The pandemic cost Baguio’s tourism industry an estimated P7 billion in revenues last year, based on earlier projections of over 1.5 million tourist arrivals. A tourist usually spends about P2,500 for a half-day stay in the city.

As the pandemic hit artists hard, private groups staged small activities – performances, auctions, and barter events – during the early months of the pandemic in an effort to help the struggling creatives. 

Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong also called a meeting with the artists to facilitate discussions on support for the city’s creatives during the pandemic.

Funding for the Ibagiw festival came from a P5-million allocation from the city government. Other activities included the online exhibit Binnadang Cordillera and the Mandeko Kito trade fair, but the festival proper received the bulk of the funding. 

Organized by the Baguio Arts and Crafts Collective, Inc. (BACCI), the festival also had the backing of the Department of Tourism. As the country’s coronavirus infections showed signs of ebbing, the group launched efforts to revive tourism and support the economic recovery. 

But Baguio’s creatives are split over how the money was spent. 

An image from one of the performances at the Ibagiw Creative Festival held in November 2020. File photo: Courtesy of SunStar Baguio
‘Give artists financial aid’

The festival was “generally well-staged” but some events were “overly lavish” and “tone-deaf” considering the pandemic, said Altomonte, creative director of the festival in 2018. It would have been more helpful if some funding was given to artists in need, he said. 

“How many artists got compensated in the festival?” Altomonte asked. 

“Much of the funds that went to elaborate lights, sound and multimedia equipment, fancy catering to wine and dine a chosen few, could’ve been saved if they did away or at least toned down the staging of certain events. These funds could’ve been allotted instead for more commissioned works for displaced artists, or even direct aid to those who got infected by Covid or to families of artists who passed during the pandemic,” he said.  

Luchie Maranan, writer, poet and convener of the group LODI (Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity) in Baguio, said the creatives should be trusted to manage funds that would benefit the community.

City hall has the say on how the funds are spent, she pointed out. “There should be a strong organization of artists, creatives, writers, musicians that will stand up for their rights and welfare,” she said.

Aside from ensuring transparency and accountability, this will avoid a situation in which other stakeholders feel left out, Maranan said.

BACCI president Adelaida Lim confirmed that no assistance was given to the sick and those who passed away during the pandemic as well as artists, saying the plan to give the creative sector a “social safety net” was for the long term. 

The Mandeko Kito trade fair – which championed arts and crafts made of textile and silver – raked in P1.75 million in sales. The Ibagiw festival exhibits featuring the works of 70 veteran and up-and-coming artists recorded gross sales of P878,000. BACCI, which handpicked the artists after an open call for participation – received a percentage of the sales from both income-generating activities to parry expenses. 

BACCI said it didn’t keep a record of sales from the online exhibit Binnadang because the inquiries were directed to the artists. 

Something unfortunate also happened: Baguio’s renowned filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik and his wife Katrin tested positive for Covid-19 after the Ibagiw festival. They have since recovered.

“It wasn’t just a finance issue. It was also a safety issue,” said Altomonte. “Only the case of Kidlat Tahimik was made public. We will never know the actual health and safety impact of the events where a considerable mass gathered. [These were] social events that were more of a luxury than a necessity.”

Altomonte referred to photos of opening and closing galas where health protocols, he claimed, were largely ignored. “I found them to be quite risky and irresponsible and, again, ones that the festival could’ve done without. Resources could’ve been directed to artists directly instead,” he said. 

Delayed payments to artists
Painted by artist Venazir Martinez, this artwork titled ‘Hila-bana’ shows the 13 indigenous peoples in the Cordillera. Photograph: Lauren Alimondo

The festival was also marred by complaints over delayed payments to artists and artisans and prizes to contest  winners. The events, staged to uplift the spirits, have instead caused stress, Altomonte said. 

Erlyn Ruth Alcantara, curator of the Interlinked exhibit, said that as of March 20, full payment had yet to be released, as the process was excruciatingly slow. 

Alcantara said she was told to submit missing requirements, such as registration with the government procurement portal Philippine Government Electronic Procurement System (PhilGEPS), four months after the festival.

Lim pointed to the auditors at Baguio City Hall. 

“While it is true that we have encountered delays and some glitches in the release of payments due to the accounting and auditing protocols implemented by all government agencies, majority of the services provided have already been settled,” she said.

BACCI said about P2.4 million had yet to be paid for various services rendered for the 2020 event.

BACCI: Ibagiw Festival gave artists hope
National Artist for Film Kidlat Tahimik. File photo: Courtesy of SunStar Baguio

Despite the hitches, Lim said the festival gave artists hope. “[The year] 2020 was different. Beyond financial benefits, though significantly important especially in a time of economic uncertainty, the Creative City Festival gave the creative community the benefit [of] hope, that things are getting better and will get better,” she said.

But Altomonte said BACCI “failed to go beyond the organization it has promised to become.”

“It should go beyond one to two weeks of economic activity [and] commissioned works. What happens after? BACCI has to be more than a producer. When an artist is hospitalized or dies, we do fund-raising among ourselves, there is no support system. They (BACCCI) have been silent in the pandemic, there is no collective voice,” he said. 

Lim said BACCI has other programs such as Advanced Skills and Innovation Training for Crafters, branding seminars, an artisans’ fair, competitions, and art exhibits. BACCI is also in discussions to formalize the local creative sector and legitimize professional transactions, which will maximize their economic potential.

Unesco review this year

Baguio City became part of the Unesco Creative Cities Network (UCCN) in 2017, joining 63 other cities from 44 countries. Former Cordillera tourism office chief Venus Tan, backed by University of the Philippines-Baguio Chancellor Raymundo Rovillos, spearheaded the effort.

The network aims to facilitate cooperation among cities and support United Nations frameworks, particularly the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A first for the country, Baguio City was recognized for the “crafts and folk arts” of the Cordillera region as seen in architecture, parks, textile, fabrics, furniture, fashion accessories, paintings, and sculpture comprising its “creative economy.”

Kidlat Tahimik acknowledged the impact of the Unesco recognition, but said: “Para sa akin with or without Unesco or city hall, artists have been alive and kicking. Kahit maliit support sa artists, they (government) give us crumbs for festivals, we (the artists) put Baguio on the map, not the Panagbenga.” 

Artistic works have weathered time and neglect, but the artists have remained true to the call of their muses, the filmmaker said.

Kidlat Tahimik is happy with the attention given by Magalong, the Baguio mayor, but hopes for better times when the contributions of artists are fully recognized and given importance. 

“We (artists) cannot be quantified. ‘Di nabibilang ang contributions namin kaya invisible kami (Our contributions are not counted, that’s why we’re invisible). ‘Di kami registered na artists (We’re not registered as artists), we are the smallest tax payers, we are the smallest number of votes, but crafts are the biggest contributor to the creative economy – it’s the weavers, painters, sculptors.”

Unesco will review creative cities designations this year. Lim said she was hopeful the city would be given the title anew.

“We would like to believe that Baguio has a great chance of being considered again after the time of its evaluation, but there are many more [things] to be done especially in creating policies and protocols for creative projects,” she said. 

But Altomonte said the city failed to fulfill the goals of the network. He thinks the city’s creative sector needs better leaders who can do more than hold festivals and give away cash prizes.

“What has happened to us? What Unesco wants is for us to develop [and] improve. We have the potential to become a real driver,” Altomonte said. #

‘They treated me like I murdered someone’: Lockdown arrests mark 1st year of PH pandemic response

Fines from lockdown arrests have bled poor Filipinos dry while the rich and famous get wrist slaps for similar offenses. Calls for a different approach grow louder as the pandemic lockdown enters its second year.

BY AIE BALAGTAS SEE/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Hunger pains hit Erwin Macahig, 30, at an inconvenient time on a hot and humid evening in the slums of Navotas. 

It was 9 p.m. on April 8, 2020, an hour past the city-imposed curfew that took effect roughly two weeks after the country’s Covid-19 infections began to rise and the Philippine capital was put on lockdown. The city streets turned into a ghost town manned by cops and soldiers in camouflage uniforms. The poorly lit alleys where Macahig lived seemed even darker in the silence of the night.

He was walking toward a sari-sari store when someone grabbed his wrist from behind. A cop. Three of his neighbors – out on the streets like him – were rounded up as well. 

The cops were accompanied by barangay officials who were jittery about Covid-19 spreading in the village and wouldn’t tolerate excuses that night from residents who violated the curfew ordinance. 

After getting a swab test at a public hospital, Macahig and the three other men were taken to a school where they were to be detained for the next 30 days for “simple disobedience” – unless they could post bail worth P3,000. For someone who had just been retrenched, the amount was a fortune that was impossible to raise in the middle of a pandemic.

“We did not receive financial aid from the government. Our food supply was only a few canned goods and three kilos of rice for a month. And they want us to pay a P3,000 fine? Where are we going to get that money? Frankly, they just made our difficult situation tougher,” Macahig told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in Filipino. 

Getting a criminal record for a mere attempt to buy food was beyond Macahig’s imagination.

“I don’t deny committing violations but why did they have to treat me like I just murdered someone?” he said.

Punitive pandemic response

Lockdown arrests marked the early months of the Philippines’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Police Task Force Covid Shield has not released the total number of Filipinos arrested, detained, or fined one year since the lockdown began on March 15, but it was already at 100,000 as of September 2020. 

Police Major General Marni Marcos, chief of the Directorate for Investigation and Detection Management, has yet to respond to PCIJ’s requests for data. 

The punitive response has drawn a lot of controversies. In Santa Cruz town, capital of Laguna province, curfew violators, including children, were locked up in a dog cage. In Dasmariñas Village in Makati City, a Spanish national was declared an “undesirable alien” who could no longer return to the country, after an altercation with cops over mask rules. In Quezon City, a former soldier with mental illness was killed by cops after a commotion near a quarantine control point.

Many ended up in packed detention centers, which health and jail experts said were among the worst places to find one’s self in during the pandemic. They called them “breeding grounds” for Covid-19, where detainees were at risk of being exposed to the disease that the government has been trying to protect them from. 

In Navotas, about 1,000 people were cramped in the school where Macahig was detained. Fifty violators shared one classroom, he said. At night, they slept on cartons on cold floors. There were no provisions for food, soap, alcohol and potable water, he said. 

“I was more afraid of contracting the virus there because we didn’t comply with health protocols in the school at all. Detainees only wore face masks and followed social distancing rules when a high police official arrived for inspection,” Macahig said.

They were later transferred to an open space – a covered court behind the school building – after the school was converted into a quarantine site for suspected Covid-19 cases.

His friends and family – all of whom were financially knocked out by business closures themselves – eventually raised funds for his bail. “They did it out of pity. Some donated P20; others P100,” he said. 

Macahig was released on April 23 after he paid the fine. He pled guilty before a municipal trial court.

Relatives of quarantine violators wait outside the Navotas Metropolitan Trial Court to get their kin out of detention. There was a narrow window for the processing of release documents, 8 a.m. to noon, as working periods were shortened because of the pandemic. Photograph: Vincent Go
‘My family thought I was dead’

Other than imposing curfews, local governments also issued travel passes to limit the number of people allowed to go out even during day time. Those who didn’t have passes were arrested, too.

But Caloocan fish vendor Joseph Jimeda, known to many social media users as “Mang Dodong,” said he was arrested despite having a travel pass.

He was travelling to neighboring Navotas with friends to buy fish that they could sell in the market when the police took them on suspicion they didn’t have travel passes. Jimeda said he begged the cops for compassion because he had a four-year old at home and his wife had a cataract and could barely see.

“We kept explaining that we have them (about the travel passes), but the cops never listened to us. They just wanted to arrest people,” Jimeda said in an interview.

At the detention center, Jimeda received smacks and punches from authorities, instead of food and help. He could not inform his family of his whereabouts because he did not have a mobile phone at that time. The police did not help him. “All the while my family thought I was dead,” he said.

Jimeda was detained in the same covered court in Navotas several weeks after Macahig was released. Again, there was not enough food for the growing number of detainees. Those who didn’t receive visitors often suffered from hunger, he said. 

‘Yung iba akala mo patay-gutom (You’d think the others were destitutes),” Macahig said. “Some of them will join you in your meals uninvited. It’s embarrassing to shoo them away.”

Jimeda was released onMay 19 after 12 days in detention.

Photo shows Mang Dodong in detention  at the enclosed Navotas Sports Complex on May 14, 2020. The sports complex served as a detention center for quarantine violators. Photograph: Vincent Go
No money to pay fines

Those who couldn’t pay the fines had to stay longer in detention. 

Randy delos Santos, a coordinator of the church group Paghilom led by Fr. Flavie Villanueva, said several people from the slums have sought financial assistance from their office in Manila since April of last year. 

They had similar complaints: Being fined and arrested for violating quarantine rules.

The penalties ranged from P250 to P50,000, depending on the type of violation alleged and the city where it was committed.

Delos Santos said the calls for help usually came from people in Navotas, Manila and Caloocan. 

Delos Santos said there should be a shift in policies because fines imposed by ordinances that were passed to address the health crisis were bleeding the poor dry and sending them into deeper debt.

“It’s an additional burden to the poor,” delos Santos said. “Local governments should channel their energies toward educating the people and teaching the community how to follow proper health protocols,” delos Santos said.

While the poor suffered fines and long days in detention centers for finding ways to fend off their hunger, the past year has shown that the rich and powerful can hold parties and receive token wrist slaps for their violations. 

In January, events organizer and host Tim Yap organized a party in Baguio City, attended by guests who didn’t wear masks, among them contact-tracing czar and Baguio mayor Benjamin Magalong. Another celebrity, Raymond Gutierrez, threw a birthday party at trendy Bonifacio Global City Taguig the same month. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Makati Medical Center castigated Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III for breaching quarantine protocols when he brought his pregnant wife to the hospital while he was waiting for the results of his test for Covid-19. 

Philippine National Police chief Debold Sinas was caught holding a birthday party inside Camp Aguinaldo, while the president’s spokesperson, Harry Roque, visited a marine park in Subic. There were no repercussions for the two despite the ban on mass gatherings and unessential travel.

A different approach is needed

Carlos Conde, researcher for Human Rights Watch in Asia, said local governments must rethink “anti-poor policies” such as sending people to jail for breaking health protocols and fining violators who are obviously penniless.

“No one should spend a night in jail for violating quarantine rules. That’s inhumane,” Conde told PCIJ.

Conde said that instead of arrests and fines, the local government should channel their efforts into a massive information drive for the public to better understand the dangers of the virus that has so far killed two million people worldwide.

Political science professor Maria Ela Atienza said the government should train its sights on harnessing “bayanihan” or community spirit among Filipinos instead of imposing a culture of crime and punishment to address the pandemic. The public needed to be encouraged to take care of themselves in order to take care of one another, she said.

Atienza said the government’s message was “people should just follow rules” instead of  “the government is doing its best to make sure we have enough resources for public health and we are tying our best to support those who were economically dislocated as a result of the lockdown and we need the help of everyone to help each other.”

“The language is not focused on the cooperation of people, it’s more about getting them to follow. Otherwise, you’ll be meted with punishment. It’s (the government narrative) not for a country that’s supposed to be democratic,” she said.

To encourage better public participation, Atienza said efforts must be exerted to ensure that the law applied equally to the rich and the poor.

“The pandemic and the response of the government… exposed the inequality not only in Philipine politics but in Philippine society where you have senators and other officials, even police personnel, who violate the lockdown restrictions but at the same time they are not penalized,” she said

“But you have fish, vegetable vendors and jeepney drivers trying to find alternative sources of income penalized heavily. So you also see inequality in terms of enforcement of lockdown rules and accountability on the part of government officials,” she added.

Mang Dodong finally on his way home, late in the afternoon of May 19, 2020. Photograph: Vincent Go

One year after the Philippines went into lockdown, data from the World Health Organization showed the country as having the worst coronavirus performance in the Western Pacific Region, with a total of 611,618 infections and 12,694 deaths as of March 14. 

Infections are rising again, hovering between over 2,000 to nearly 4,000 new cases a day in recent days after months of recording less than 2,000 daily new infections on average. Metro Manila mayors have again imposed uniform curfew hours, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., beginning March 15. 

The punitive response cannot continue, said Macahig. “The government should find better solutions. It needs to stop imposing fines that only makes the poor poorer. We’re in the middle of a pandemic yet they keep milking us for money.” #

Marilao’s poultry processing plants fail lab tests

Reporting fellows of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) collected water samples from the waste pipes of plants along the Marilao River. Laboratory tests show they failed to meet DENR standards.

BY ANNIE RUTH SABANGAN, ROBERT JA BASILIO JR., BERNARD TESTA AND RIC PUOD

Part 4 of 4

Part 1: The Bulacan town where chickens are slaughtered and the river is dead

Part 2: ‘The wastewater looked like mud’: EMB goes after Vitarich Corp. 

Part 3: Marilao River polluters get away with small fines

What you need to know about Part 4:

  • The PCIJ collected water samples from the poultry processing plants in Marilao and laboratory tests showed they failed to meet the standards of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
  • To help police pollution, a lawyer-environmentalist suggests that non-government organizations help the government evaluate the SMRs of business establishments.  

It was low tide when the PCIJ team made a second trip to Sapang Alat or Salty Creek on Oct. 2, 2019, a week after the first. Renting another outrigger was out of the question as it couldn’t sail through the shallow waters. The team rented a rickety canoe instead, and asked the help of a boatman to paddle towards Vitarich Corporation’s outfall pipes.

PCIJ set out to take more samples of wastewater that the company released to the creek, a tributary of the Marilao River, to bring them to a laboratory accredited by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). 

In the succeeding weeks the team also trekked to Brgy. Loma de Gato, home to the biggest number of poultry dressing plants, to do the same. 

Results of the laboratory tests confirmed what residents already knew. The plants had been releasing wastewater that did not meet DENR’s standards. 

Water sample: PCIJ follows instructions from experts

The samples were brought to the laboratory of the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) in Quezon City. 

The PCIJ team made sure to follow instructions from SRA chemists on how to take samples, how much should be taken, where to put the specimens, and by what time the samples must reach the laboratory for testing. 

To ensure that the samples were representative of the conditions of the area, PCIJ also followed the guidelines set by the EMB in its 2008 Water Quality Monitoring Manual, which said samples should not be collected when (1) it’s raining; (2) it’s within 24 hours after a heavy downpour; and (3) the water level is high. 

Wastewater from poultry processing contains high biochemical oxygen demand or BOD and four other oxygen-depleting and fish-killing pollutants: total suspended solids (TSS), ammonia, nitrate and phosphate. 

Based on DENR standards, the BOD of wastewater produced by slaughtering and meat packing businesses like chicken dressing plants should not exceed 50 milligrams per liter (mg/l). 

A high BOD indicates that the wastewater is untreated or undertreated, and thus polluted. A low BOD suggests that the contaminants had been removed from the wastewater and would have less environmental impact when released to a water body. 

TSS are solid materials such as silt, sewage, and decaying animal matter. In poultry processing plants, these may include the buildup of feathers, fat and lard, offal, viscera, blood, and fecal matter in the wastewater. 

The release of liquid waste with too much TSS will block the sunlight from reaching the vegetation in a water body, causing the plants to die and stop producing dissolved oxygen needed by fish to survive.

Ammonia in the form of ammoniacal nitrogen (NH3-N), a colorless chemical gas compound highly soluble in water, can be found in the liquid manure of chickens and other livestock. This type of ammonia can “cross from water to fish” and is said to be the “the most toxic form to aquatic life.”

Chemical compounds nitrate and phosphate, commonly used as fertilizers, can be present in fecal matter expelled by poultry before the birds undergo scalding. 

Wastewater containing too much nitrate and phosphate can hasten the process called eutrophication, or the increase of nutrients that induces the overgrowth of algae. This can cause the water body to turn green and reduce its oxygen content to levels that can also lead to fish kills.   

Other than these five parameters, the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) measures three others – oil and grease, acidity or pH, and temperature – to test the quality of wastewater discharges of these establishments. 

The chicken dressing industry in Marilao River –– a Class C freshwater resource meant for fish propagation, agricultural use, fishing, and boating –– is required to follow all eight parameters, based on DENR Administrative Order (DAO) 2016-08 or the Water Quality Guidelines and General Effluent Standards of 2016.

The regulations are strict on paper but they are not always implemented, based on PCIJ’s experiment.

Vitarich Corp. fails tests

The laboratory results were out five days after PCIJ submitted the water samples from Sapang Alat. 

The lab results of Vitarich Corp. showed mixed results. The level of pollution in the water sample collected from the mouth of the dressing plant’s former outfall was lower than the effluent limits set by the EMB in terms of BOD, TSS, nitrate, and color. 

The water samples were collected nine months since the EMB cemented off a canal where the dressing plant’s effluents used to flow.  

However, samples from the effluent outfall from the rendering plant that Vitarich operates jointly with PSP Aqua yielded BOD and TSS levels that were 346 percent and 15 percent higher than the EMB-set effluent limits, respectively.

These results were based on water samples that the PCIJ team collected on Oct. 2, 2019.

The PCIJ learned from the Legal Section of the EMB’s Clearance and Permitting Division that as of Oct. 28, 2019, the violation notice and cease-and-desist order against the rendering plant had been temporarily lifted so that the facility could release its wastewater for sampling purposes. 

PCIJ also obtained samples from the part of the creek between Marilao’s Municipal Health Office and the Vitarich dressing plant to determine the ambient water quality of Sapang Alat. They were tested for five parameters, namely BOD, DO, TSS, nitrate, and color. 

The area was within the mouth of the creek that emptied into the Marilao River. Upstream, along Brgy. Patubig, the creek meandered through a host of other industrial and commercial establishments, which could also be possible sources of pollution. 

Water quality failed in all parameters, indicating that because of very high pollution levels, it could no longer receive wastewater and still be able to breathe and cleanse itself.

A chemist at the Sugar Regulatory Administration laboratory on North Avenue in Quezon City checks on Oct. 2, 2019 the bottles containing water samples from a tributary creek of the Marilao River in Bulacan and effluent samples from the outfalls of Vitarich’s chicken dressing and rendering plants. Photograph: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Even if industrial establishments like Vitarich discharged wastewater into Sapang Alat within the effluent limits, the creek would no longer be able to take it in because it has already stagnated, said EMB Region 3’s Glenn Aguilar, who monitors the Marilao River.

Sapang Alat’s BOD was over 3,600 times higher than its 7 mg/l capacity, causing the creek’s DO concentration to fall to the “hypoxic” or oxygen-deprived level of 1.13 mg/l.

Based on an undated report on hypoxia by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), conducted in the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island Sound, bottom fishes start to leave water bodies when oxygen levels reach about 3 mg/l. Fish and crustaceans that cannot leave the area may die when it goes below 2 mg/l, and then begin to die in large numbers when it goes below 1 mg/l.

In the Philippines, there is yet no comprehensive study about hypoxia, or the depletion or reduction of oxygen in water bodies, particularly on how aquatic species react under low-oxygen conditions.

Follow the stench: PCIJ checks other plants in Loma de Gato

EMB’s Aguilar said other chicken dressing plants in Marilao were inaccessible to inspectors. Sometimes, the pathway is dangerous.

To verify this claim, the PCIJ team trekked to Loma de Gato, Marilao’s most populated barangay and home to the biggest number of poultry dressing plants accredited by the Department of Agriculture’s National Meat Inspection Service (NMIS). 

While data from the NMIS showed that there were four dressing facilities in Loma de Gato, mostly tucked away in an area called Pook Looban 1, the information was hard to validate via on-site investigation even though the stench was all over the place. 

Most of what appeared to be industrial or commercial premises in Looban 1 didn’t have outdoor signages. Some establishments were enclosed by walls higher than roofs and trees, while others were smack in the middle of sprawling lots buffered from roadways.  

The PCIJ also failed to pinpoint dressing plants within Looban 1 via Google’s web and mobile apps. 

Asked by PCIJ during an interview in October 2019 if not having business signages was legal, Marilao BPLO chief Martin Armando C. Cruz said, “Hindi naman din (It isn’t).”

There should be an ordinance from the municipal council prohibiting the lack of signages, he said.  

Cruz also claimed that some establishments had opted not to install outdoor signages to avoid unwanted solicitations for money.

Much harder to locate were the dressing plants’ wastewater outfalls. Several times, the PCIJ team waded through the boggy and mosquito-infested edges of Marilao River’s tributaries to look for point-source pipes and drains.

POLLUTION HUNT: The PCIJ team had to wade through turbid and mosquito-infested creeks to look for direct wastewater sources in Brgy. Loma de Gato, Marilao, Bulacan. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

In one field visit, the group walked by the roadside and saw a stream where the water was cascading, indicating that direct pollution sources could be farther upstream. 

But it was impossible to walk on the narrow banks of the stream sandwiched between an expansive walled property and a row of houses. 

Taking instructions from a resident, the PCIJ team tried to find another path toward the water body through an inner road that led to a cemetery. 

At the back of the graveyard, the team saw the stretch of the stream beside a nameless, walled establishment that appeared to be the extension of a property earlier seen by the team from the roadside. 

From the side of the establishment, the PCIJ team saw at least three outfalls protruding from the streambank that appeared to be connected to the walled property, which residents claimed was a poultry processing plant. 

Staggering on mossy rocks that stuck out of the streambed, the group inspected the muddy water body that was filled with strands of what looked like chicken feathers. 

The team also saw water  ̶  brown, orange, to reddish in color  ̶  gushing out of the three outfalls and into the stream. 

Too much phosphate 

Early morning on Oct. 25, 2019, the team returned to the area to get wastewater samples from two of the outfalls. The PCIJ had these tested again by the SRA lab for BOD, TSS, nitrate, phosphate, and color.

NO, NOT CHOCO DRINK, ORANGE JUICE, OR VINEGAR. The bottles containing wastewater samples from Pook Looban 1, Brgy. Loma de Gato in Marilao, Bulacan that the PCIJ brought to the laboratory of the Sugar Regulatory Administration in Quezon City on Oct. 25, 2019. Photograph: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Lab results showed that effluents from both outfalls failed in three of the five parameters’ effluent limits, namely BOD, TSS, and phosphate. 

Results indicated that the wastewater did not undergo treatment and had a very high degree of pollution, as BOD concentrations from the first and second outfalls were 5,584 percent and 4,850 percent higher than the government-set 50 mg/l-effluent limit, respectively. 

Also, phosphate concentrations in the effluents were markedly high. The phosphate content of the wastewater in the first outfall was over 8,000 times higher than the 1 mg/l limit set by the EMB, while in the second, the phosphate level was nearly 7,000 times greater than the cap.

Phosphate is used as a poultry product enhancer. The injection of water with phosphate salts into chicken meat is among the steps in poultry processing. This is done to help the protein in the meat bind more water and retain moisture and flavor.  

Researchers had found that the phosphorous-protein content of enhanced meat and poultry products was 28 percent higher than in the same types of product that didn’t use phosphate additives. 

This was according to a 2009 study titled “Phosphorous and Potassium Content of Enhanced Meat and Poultry Products: Implications for Patients Who Receive Dialysis,” by nephrologists Richard Sherman and Ojas Mehta of the New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. 

In water bodies, too much phosphate is known to hasten eutrophication or the buildup of nutrients, causing microscopic plant-like organisms called phytoplankton to reproduce rapidly. 

This results in the overproduction of that slimy stuff called algae that can make water bodies appear green, brown, red or blue; and form foam, scum or oily films on their surfaces.

More algae mean higher consumption of dissolved oxygen in water, depriving aquatic life such as fish of the life-sustaining gas, leading to the latter’s death. 

The PCIJ team also had the ambient water quality of another Marilao River tributary in Looban 1 tested by the SRA laboratory. 

The group took samples after observing that the outflow of water into the creek, which was near high-walled establishments, was like a flood of frothy latte continuously pouring from a giant coffee machine. 

FROTHY LIKE CAFFE LATTE. The oxygen-depleted creek in Pook Looban 1, Brgy. Loma de Gato, Marilao, Bulacan. Image taken on Oct. 25, 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Like Sapang Alat, the river tributary in Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1 earlier tested by the SRA, this creek in Brgy. Loma de Gato also failed the water quality standards set by the EMB on BOD, DO, TSS, nitrate, phosphate, and color.

But the pollution in this creek was much worse. Its demand for oxygen  ̶ 1,279 mg/l  ̶  was over 18,000 times higher than the EMB standard of 7 mg/l. Inversely, its oxygen concentration was extremely low at 1.16 mg/l.

Also, the phosphate level in the creek was way too high at 48 mg/l, or 9,500 times more than the limit of 0.5 mg/l for Class C water bodies or those, according to the EMB, that should be fit for aquatic resource propagation, fishing, boating, agriculture, irrigation, and livestock watering. 

Effective, lasting solutions needed 

Because of years of abuses by private companies amid weak environmental governance and the failure of regulation, Marilao River is dead and blackened by pollution.

Narrowed and shallowed by volumes of harmful contaminants, the barren and pernicious river can no longer repair itself. During high tide and heavy rains, it often threw up the wastes it could no longer absorb, submerging communities in toxic, persistent floods. 

More lasting and effective solutions are not in sight. Could it be time for a third-party entity to intervene and help fill the gap? 

Lawyer and environmentalist Galahad Pe Benito thinks so, and says the non-profit sector should take the lead. 

Benito, who used to practice in California and is now campaigning for the rehabilitation of the Manila Bay and the tributaries surrounding it, said environmental self-policing worked in other countries because people’s organizations were ready to “pounce on” pollutive business establishments. 

The SMR system is ineffective because compliance is weak and there are no nongovernment organizations (NGO) to countercheck the SMRs, he said.

Walang mga NGOs dito to do the counterchecking and everything…Dito mahina ang compliance natin, so medyo may problema onhow to implement that,” said Benito, who specializes in hazardous and toxic waste regulation, marine pollution, and pollution control. 

The responsibility of monitoring pollution point sources and evaluating SMRs can be assigned by the government to NGOs or to “respectable and independent auditors,” Benito said. 

NGOs’ access to SMRs should not be a problem because under the law, these reports are considered public documents. 

The procedural manual of DAO No. 2007-23 states that, “Upon completion of EMB’s evaluation, the SMRs are considered as public documents.” 

“As such, access [to] these documents by written request of the general public shall be allowed in accordance with applicable rules and regulations.”

The manual further noted that, “The SMR was designed in such a way that there is no need for confidential business information to be included in the submission.” — PCIJ, February 2021


This series was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines.— PCIJ

Marilao River polluters get away with small fines

The Clean Water Act of 2004 orders plants to pay discharge fees based on the volume of wastewater and pollutants that they release into water bodies. A self-monitoring mechanism in place allows polluters to report unreliable laboratory results, however.

BY ANNIE RUTH SABANGAN, ROBERT JA BASILIO JR., BERNARD TESTA AND RIC PUOD/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Part 3 of 4

Part 1: The Bulacan town where chickens are slaughtered and the river is dead

Part 2: ‘The wastewater looked like mud’: EMB goes after Vitarich Corp.

What you need to know about Part 3: 

  • Many pollutive business establishments, including chicken dressing plants releasing their wastewater into the Meycauayan-Marilao-Obando River System (MMORS), pay the government paltry wastewater discharge fees ranging from P5 to P500. 
  • From February 2016 to August 2018, the DENR collected only P1.4 million worth of wastewater discharge fees from these establishments for the rehabilitation of the MMORS, a drop in the ocean compared with the P11.5-billion fund needed to help revive the long-dead river system. 
  • Regulators have identified 49 mostly toxic substances dumped by polluters into the river system. But environment officers admit they’re unable to detect the presence of these pollutants in water bodies, let alone make erring establishments pay fines. 
  • The Environmental Management Bureau in Region 3 lacks the manpower to check the accuracy of the environmental self-monitoring reports (SMR) being submitted to it by business establishments in Central Luzon.
  • A review of the SMRs submitted by seven poultry and meat processing and livestock establishments operating in Marilao, Bulacan showed that these had many glaring errors and inconsistencies — a proof of the bureau’s failure to vet the SMRs.

In 2019, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) issued violation notices to all but one of Marilao’s 11 chicken processing plants. They were punished not for polluting the Marilao River, however, but for technical violations related to their permits or failure to submit various reports.

Four plants in barangays Santa Rosa I, Santa Rosa II, and Patubig –– including two operating inside the compound of Vitarich Corporation –– had no wastewater discharge permits. 

The other plants in Brgy. Loma De Gato either didn’t have Environmental Compliance Certificates (ECC), violated their ECCs, expanded operations without permits, were late in renewing permits, or failed to submit wastewater lab results.

This was how the regional environment office was able to get around its lack of capability to catch and punish which plants were responsible for polluting the Marilao River, part of a river system in Bulacan province that dumps wastes into the Manila Bay.

“Ang ginagawa ho namin is bina-violate namin sila sa mga permit nila. Tapos…pagka hindi pa rin po sila nakakapasa…sa mga permit nila na ‘yon, tuloy-tuloy po ‘yong violation…nila (What we do is charge them with violations through their permits. If they fail to secure permits, their violations continue),” said Glenn Aguilar, a staff member of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) in Region 3.

Infographic: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ

Environmental regulators said it had been a challenge to get water samples. “’Yung possible na ma-sampling-an, doon lang kami nagsa-sampling (We only conduct sampling in establishments where it’s possible to get wastewater samples),”Aguilar said. 

The chicken dressing plant of Vitarich Corp. was one of the few that EMB was able to inspect, and it was because its waste outfall was accessible, said Aguilar. “Sila (Vitarich) ang visible, talagang sila lang ang na-implicate (They’re the ones visible, thus they’re the only ones that got implicated),” he said.

Aguilar also accused the plants of making it hard for pollution inspectors to do their jobs. He said they would secretly turn off wastewater discharge when the inspectors arrived to inspect, preventing them from getting effluent samples in real time. It was also difficult for them to locate sewer pipes and waste outfalls especially inside residential compounds.  

Minsan hindi talaga umaamoy. Hindi sila nag-o-operate pagka napapadaan kami (They don’t smell [when inspectors go to check] because they make sure to shut down their operations when they know we are dropping by),” Aguilar said.

Lara Ibañez, Philippine country director of international non-profit environmental watchdog  Pure Earth, said it’s not enough to punish polluters over permits and other technicalities.

She called for the strict enforcement of the 2004 Clean Water Act, passed by Congress to make sure that a thorough accounting of industrial wastewater pollutants and their toll on the environment is conducted regularly. 

She said it’s important to be able to assess direct contributions of pollutive establishments and make them pay for the environmental and economic impacts of their discharges.

“We don’t see how much it (polluting water bodies) is really costing us,” Ibañez said in an interview in August 2019. She said the government should realize that implementing the Clean Water Act makes for sound economic policy because it will prevent environmental issues that have actually been costing the local government more. 

Pure Earth is the new name of Blacksmith Institute, the watchdog that has put a spotlight on the pollution of the Meycauayan-Marilao-Obando River System (MMORS). In 2007, the watchdog named Marilao in its list of 30 “dirtiest” places on earth.

Poultry farms such as this one in Barangay Loma de Gato in Marilao, Bulacan are required to treat their wastewater to curb water pollution in rivers. But several have been known to ignore regulations. Image taken on Sept. 14, 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

P5 to P500 wastewater discharge fees

The Clean Water Act imposes wastewater discharge fees, a fund intended to pay for the costs of government efforts to manage and clean up water bodies that absorb wastewater from industrial and commercial establishments. 

However, Ibañez said the fee turned out to be “self-defeating” and the amounts that establishments had been paying did not reflect the true cost of the pollution that they had caused.

From February 2016 to August 2018, EMB Region 3 only collected P1.4 million of wastewater discharge fees from 388 establishments along the entire MMORS, based on documents that EMB Region 3’s senior environmental management specialist Ramjay Dizon showed to PCIJ. 

It’s not commensurate with the P11.5 billion needed to rehabilitate the MMORS, based on experts’ estimates.

PCIJ’s analysis of the payments showed that almost half of them –– 167 establishments –– only paid between P5 and P500 in wastewater discharge fees. Only one establishment paid more than P50,000.

Infographic: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo-Pago

The wastewater discharge fees are computed based on the volume and the pollution levels of wastewater that plants release. Each establishment is made to pay P5 for every kilo of pollutants multiplied by its annual net biological oxygen demand (BOD) and total suspended fluids (TSS) waste loads in kilos, or the difference between waste load in the untreated water and the final effluent. 

Ibañez said the formula is problematic. It only takes into account two out of 49 water quality parameters set by the EMB –– which include ammonia, boron, and chloride, arsenic, lead, and fecal coliform among others.

The wastewater discharge fee was intended to be a disincentive that would encourage the plants to modify their production practices and invest in pollution control technologies. The paltry fees accomplished the opposite, said Ibañez.

Isipin mo, it’s even more profitable to just pay. I can just pollute and pay kasi mas affordable ‘yon, kaysa maglagay ako ng pollution control (Come to think of it, it’s even more profitable to just pay. I can just pollute and pay because that’s more affordable than putting up pollution control facilities),” she said.

In Marilao, four chicken dressing plants paid wastewater discharge fees during the time period.

Central Luzon Poultry Growers Marketing Cooperative in Brgy. Loma de Gato paid P7,540 in November 2016, P10,675 in March 2017, and P9,486 in March 2018. 

Kaizen Food Enterprises, which operates under or with the Marilao Bulacan Processing Plant in Brgy. Patubig, paid P3,220 in July 2016. RG Dressed Chicken Processing Plant in Brgy. Loma de Gato shelled out P3,577 in the same month.

Vitarich Corp. and Alt Trading in Brgy. Sta Rosa I paid P39,715 in March 2017. 

Self-monitoring reports

The problem is more than the formula, however. Computations for wastewater discharge fees are based on the plants’ declarations in Self-Monitoring Reports (SMRs) that they are required to submit quarterly under the law. 

These SMRs have proven to be unreliable at best and manipulated at worst, according to regulators.

Wilma Uyaco, chief of the Clearance Permitting Division of the EMB’s National Capital Region (NCR) office, said the SMRs were intended to ease the burden of environmental regulators. “’Yung SMR, ‘yan ‘yung self-regulation na tinatawag. Kung ’yan ay magagampanan ng tama ng industries, e ’yun sana ang pinakamaganda kasi ang gobyerno hindi mahihirapan (That SMR is what is called self-regulation. It would be best if industries carried it out correctly so the government would no longer be burdened),” she said in an interview in October 2019. 

However, enforcement has been far from effective, Uyaco said. “E kaso ‘yong self-regulation, hindi pa ready. Kino-comply pero tingin namin hindi 100% totoo (But they’re not ready yet in terms of self-regulation. It is being complied with but compliance is not 100% truthful).”

The EMB’s NCR office co-chairs the governing board of the MMORS Water Quality Management Area with EMB Region 3.

Enforced since 2004, the SMR system has two objectives under DENR Administrative Order (DAO) No. 2003-27: (1) allow establishments to demonstrate compliance with environmental laws; and (2) allow the EMB to confirm or validate that these firms comply with these laws. 

Submitted every quarter, the SMRs are filled up by pollution control officers accredited by the DENR to report production capacities, actual outputs, number of operating hours in a day, number of workdays in a week, and quarterly water and electricity consumption. 

It also reports the volume, types, and names of industry-specific wastes generated, emitted, or discharged, and how establishments dealt with the environmental impacts of their byproducts.

For poultry processing plants, this means disclosing the total number of chickens dressed, volume of water consumed per day and per quarter, chemical wastes generated from processing chicken, and how these wastes were stored, transported, treated or recycled, and disposed of.

The report also includes the cost of treating wastewater, investments made in the water treatment plant, the location of the facility’s wastewater discharge, and the water body where the wastewater was discharged. 

Establishments must have their wastewater tested quarterly by a DENR-accredited third-party laboratory and report in their SMRs the concentrations of BOD, TSS, phosphate, acidity or pH, oil and grease, and nitrate, among others.

Sample copy of the first two pages of the 16-page SMR. Source: Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Sample copy of the portion of the 16-page SMR that asks establishments to provide data about the sources and treatment of their wastewater. Source: Department of Environment and Natural Resources

Wrong math, old lab tests, expired discharge permits

Uyaco said plants have cited unreliable lab tests in their SMRs, however, showing low oxygen demand in effluents to show that the treatment facilities of the establishments were effective in cleansing their wastewater. 

[S]ino ba naman ang maniniwala, septic tank lamang ang treatment facility nila pero ang result ng analysis na sina-submit sa SMR super mababa ’yung BOD?…Hindi ganoon katotoo ang result (Who would believe the results of the lab analysis in the SMR showing a very low BOD in wastewater, when an establishment’s treatment facility is just a septic tank? The results are not reliable),” she said.

About 50% of the submissions were inaccurate, said Mario Bangloy of the EMB-NCR’s Water and Air Quality Management Section in an interview with PCIJ in October 2019. 

(K)ung ‘yung sinasabi mo na hindi tama itong nire-report…medyo malayo sa (katotohanan), siguro kalahati (If you’re  asking about incorrect reports… those that are a bit far from the truth, maybe it’s half),” said Bangloy.

The PCIJ requested Uyaco to review 2018 SMRs of seven poultry and meat processing and livestock establishments operating in Marilao. She found at least three glaring errors –– wrong math, old lab tests, and expired discharge permits.

She found discrepancies between per quarter declarations of total water consumption and the breakdown of water usage in six SMRs. Uyaco cited at least one chicken dressing facility declaring to have consumed a total of 25,000 cubic meters (m3) of water during the third quarter of 2018, but the sum of its reported daily consumption of domestic water, cooling water, and process water showed it consumed more. Its total water usage for one quarter was 28,440 m3 or 3,440 m3 more than what it declared.

Saan nanggaling ang ibang tubig nila (Where did the rest of the water come from)?” Uyaco asked. 

While Uyaco didn’t want to second-guess the reasons behind the discrepancy, she said the mathematical errors resulted in lower fees for the plants. “(B)ababa ‘yong masisingil sa kanilang bayarin, ‘yung wastewater charges… kasi hindi nare-report ng tama (Collections from their wastewater charges would decrease because it’s not being reported correctly),” she said. 

Establishments have submitted old laboratory tests results, too. Uyaco spotted one chicken dressing establishment that used lab test results dated March 2018 for its SMR submitted for the third quarter.

Mali na itong date ng (lab) analysis n’yaDapat hahanapan ‘yan o dapat hindi ‘yan tinanggap. Bakit ‘yan ang report mo? (The date of the lab analysis is already wrong…They should have asked for a new lab test result or they should not have accepted the SMR. They should have asked the establishment why its report was like that),” said Uyaco, irked by her discovery. 

Like Vitarich Corp., many establishments were found to be using expired wastewater discharge permits. 

The establishments are required to write on the first page of their SMRs the wastewater discharge permit reference numbers, date the permit was issued, and the date it will expire. One poultry processing facility used a 2016 permit for its third-quarter filing in 2018. 

Of the seven Marilao-based poultry and meat processing and livestock establishments that Uyaco reviewed, six had expired wastewater discharge permits. Three had permits that expired as early as 2015 and 2016.  

Clearly, Uyaco said, these establishments must not only be compelled to correct their SMRs but also be made answerable for their violations. 

A “substantive evaluation” of the SMRs as mandated under DAO 2003-27 should have been done before the issuance of notices of deficiency against the erring establishments, she said.

If they were given time to address their deficiencies but were unable to solve the problem, the establishments should have been slapped with notices of violation, said Uyaco. 

Poultry processors tampering with wastewater samples?

There are allegations that plants have been tampering with their wastewater samples.

Kung ang treatment facility mo ay ganito tapos magsa-submit ng result ng analysis na ganoon kalinis, na ganoon kababa ang BOD, so makakapag-isip ka na something is wrong, or something has happened di ba? Ganoon ‘yun (So if your treatment facility is like this and then you submit results of water analysis as clean as that, with a very low BOD, then you make one think that something is wrong, or something has happened, isn’t it? It’s like that),” said Uyaco.

She said several cases have been reported to her by pollution inspectors.

(M)ay nagsasabi rin sa amin pag nag-i-inspect na ganito raw ang ginagawa ng third-party laboratory, dinadagdagan na ng chemicals ‘yung container…kaya pagdating doon mababa ang result (There were those who told us that upon inspection they would find out that this was what third-party laboratories do, they put chemicals into the container…that’s why when it reaches the lab, the result is low),” the EMB official said. 

Dinadaya talaga kasi intentional ‘yung ganoon. Kaya ’yun kung may mga info silang nakukuha, inilalagay ko ’yan sa reports (It’s being tampered with because those things are intentional. That’s why when they get pieces of information like that, I include them in the reports),” she added, referring to reports she writes in relation to the evaluation of SMRs.  

A DENR-accredited third-party laboratory housed at Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City also confirmed the allegations. “It can [be tampered with]. That’s true,” Armando Guidote, director of the Philippine Institute of Pure and Applied Chemistry (Pipac), told the PCIJ in 2019.

Guidote, professor at the Ateneo’s Department of Chemistry, was quick to add that while tampering was possible, it did not necessarily mean that it was the result of collusion between a business establishment and a third-party lab, especially when the latter did not know where and how the wastewater samples were taken. 

“Our analysis is based on the samples that they (establishments) bring,” Guidote said.

At the EMB office in Region 3, Elisa Dimaliwat, chief of the bureau’s Environmental Monitoring and Enforcement Division at the time of her interview with PCIJ in 2019, said she would rather trust in the capability of establishments to do honest-to-goodness self-monitoring with the assistance of accredited third-party testing firms. 

She said the laboratories that analyzed the effluent samples of establishments went thorough screening by the DENR. “Naka-accredit ‘yan… kasi ang third-party lab hindi n’ya p’wedeng lokohin ‘yong resulta n’ya, masisira s’ya, ‘di ba po? (They’re accredited…Third-party labs can’t tamper with the results or they would ruin themselves, won’t they?)” Dimaliwat told the PCIJ. 

It would also be hard for companies to fabricate information in their SMRs as they would risk being shut down, she said.

Bangloy said not all inaccuracies were a result of deliberate moves to fake SMRs and cover up pollution.

SMRs require 200 pieces of information spread over six modules, he said. Incompetent pollution control officers or PCOs my be responsible for the errors.

“The [SMR] is so technical. Saan ka makakakita ng engineer [na PCO] sa isang gasolinahan? Mga cashier lang, mga ganoon… (The SMR is so technical. Where can you find an engineer working as a PCO in a gasoline station? Usually, cashiers and the like act as PCOs in these kinds of establishments),” he said.

DENR guidelines require establishments classified as big generators of pollution to hire licensed engineers or chemists with at least two years of relevant experience in environmental management. Small generators of pollution may hire graduates of technical courses related to the job, or they must have reached at least third-year college.

The PCOs may also be a professional in the fields of engineering or physical and natural sciences, with at least three years of relevant experience in environmental management, or a different field but with at least five years of experience. 

Too many reports, too few people, too little time

The EMB is supposed to exercise oversight of the self-monitoring process, validating their declarations and checking that they have complied with environmental requirements. 

SMRs found to be incomplete are supposed to be returned to the companies, which would have 30 days to revise and correct their reports.

But the bureau rarely returned incorrect SMRs. “Hindi madalas (Not often),” said Dizon of the EMB Region 3’s Environmental Monitoring and Enforcement Division, when the PCIJ asked him in late 2019.

Hindi nare-review lahat ng SMRs…Additional burden sa amin. Sa dami ng firms baka di namin kayanin (Not all SMRs can be reviewed…It’s an additional burden to us. We may not be able to review everything because there are so many firms),” added Vicente dela Cruz, chief of the division’s Chemicals and Hazardous Waste Management Section, in a phone interview in early 2019.

In 2018, a total of 3,816 business establishments from seven provinces submitted SMRs to the EMB office in Central Luzon, based on data culled by the PCIJ from the bureau’s Management Information System Unit.

If each establishment submitted four 16-page SMRs in a year, that meant that in 2018, a total of 15,264 SMRs consisting of 244,224 pages needed to be reviewed.

The Environmental Monitoring and Enforcement Division only had 15 staffers, according to Dizon. Each staffer would have needed to evaluate 1,018 reports — nearly 16,300 pages — if they were to review all of the reports.

What makes the work harder, said Dizon, is the limited time allowed under DAO 2003-27 — only 30 days — to act on problematic SMRs. The division also has other responsibilities.

After the 30-day period, the incorrect reports can no longer be reviewed and the deficiencies cited in the documents can no longer become the basis for the issuance of violation notices. 

The establishments can then go scot-free. — PCIJ, February 2021


Next: PCIJ brings water samples from Marilao River to a laboratory for testing

This series was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia-Philippines.— PCIJ

‘The wastewater looked like mud’: EMB goes after Vitarich Corp.

Four reporting fellows of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) took a motorized boat to Marilao River to search for the outfall pipes of the town’s biggest chicken dressing plant. It wasn’t easy.

BY ANNIE RUTH SABANGAN, BERNARDINO TESTA, ROBERT JA BASILIO JR. AND RIC PUOD

Part 2 of 4

Read Part 1: The Bulacan town where chickens are slaughtered and the river is dead

What you need to know about Part 2:

  • A PCIJ team sails into Sapang Alat, a creek where Marilao’s biggest chicken dressing plant releases wastewater, and discovers how the water has turned into a garbage dump.
  • While the Municipal Health Office has the mandate to go after pollutive industries, it has not been able to exercise its powers.
  • A closure order from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’  Environmental Management Bureau finally prompted the operators of the dressing and rendering facilities of Vitarich Corporation to take action, but an environmental officer thinks the solution is unsustainable.

It was a rainy Tuesday and it was high tide at the Marilao River. On Sept. 24, 2019, when the coronavirus pandemic was still months away, a PCIJ team took a motorized outrigger boat into the river and embarked on a search for the waste pipe of a poultry processing plant.

The brown liquid waste that flowed from pipes jutting from the compound of Vitarich Corp., one of the country’s biggest poultry and feed firms, was visible from a window of the Municipal Health Office (MHO) of Marilao. Getting to its location in Sapang Alat (Salty Creek) wasn’t so easy, however. 

It was near impossible to wade through the sludge on the river bed. The team rented a boat in Brgy. Poblacion and sailed to the creek, a tributary of the Marilao River, and waited for high tide because otherwise the boat would be stuck in the shallow and rocky parts of the waterway. 

Marlo (not his real name), a fisherman who served as guide, knew the river like the palm of his hands; but the search would still turn out to be arduous. The waters were still, but the boat had to stop at least five times. Occasionally, Marlo had to reach into the putrid water with his bare hands to weed out the trash caught by the boat’s propeller. 

Baka hindi sa lunod ako mamamatay nito, baka sa dumi at baho (I will not die here because of drowning, but because of filth and stink),” quipped one of the team members.

It was almost one hour of this before the team reached the bridge at the mouth of the creek, where the water turned visibly foamy from the viscous effluents coming from drain pipes lining the riverside. The water body had been abused like this by residents and businesses alike, although some are more responsible for its death than others. 

It should have been a warning of what awaited the PCIJ team inside Sapang Alat, but the members were not prepared for what they saw when Marlo shut down the motor of the boat and turned the outrigger towards an inlet that leads to the creek. 

It was a garbage dump. The water turned a darker color, thicker, and filthier from a mix of solid and liquid waste. Marlo had to use a bamboo pole to propel the boat, which often got stuck in mounds of trash.

The fetid and filthy inlet in the Marilao River in Bulacan leading to a creek called Sapang Alat. Image taken in September 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Dead fish floated on the water. A rotting tilapia was discolored and its eyes were missing. A disfigured janitor fish –– bloodied, bloated and burnt –– looked monstrous with its teeth exposed. 

Siguro napadpad sila dito, inanod noong nag-high tide. Patay na ‘tong sapa na ‘to e, wala nang mabubuhay na isda rito (Maybe they were carried here by the waters when it was high tide. This stream is dead. No fish will survive here),” Marlo said.

Glenn Aguilar, who monitors the river as staff of the Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) Region 3 office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), linked the fish’s death to the absence of oxygen in the waters. 

“It’s an indication na patay na ‘yung tubigAng isda hindi siya mabubuhay kung walang oxygen (It’s an indication that the river is dead…. The fish can’t survive without oxygen),” Aguilar said in an interview later.

While the janitor fish is known to live and multiply even in polluted waters, Aguilar said it’s not capable of surviving in dead waters for a long time.

DEAD FISH IN A DEAD CREEK. A distended janitor fish found in Sapang Alat beside a chicken dressing plant in Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1, Marilao, Bulacan. Image taken in September 2019. Photograph: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ
REEKING CREEK. Poultry feces and innards floating in Sapang Alat, a tributary of Marilao River in Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1. Image taken in September 2019. Photographs: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

The team also found a big plastic bag filled with creamy matter floating on the water. A stomach-turning smell was released when the receptacle was opened. It contained decaying chicken entrails. 

This part of the creek was flecked with a brownish and yellowish substance smelling like poultry feces, too.

The boat continued to follow the creek’s meandering course upstream, towards Vitarich Corporation’s outfall pipes. There was a place where trees grew and wild weeds crawled on the banks of the creek. One large tree was bedecked with dirty plastic trash. Here, where there was thick vegetation, bubbles of air rose from the water and made for an eerie atmosphere. 

TREE OF TRASH. The PCIJ team passes by a garbage-bearing tree as they sail upstream to look for more pollution point sources. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Finally, the sound of water rushing like a waterfall was heard. There it was –– the outfall pipe from the compound of Vitarich Corp. The team collected water samples.

The PCIJ team would later learn from the EMB and the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) that the pipe wasn’t from the dressing plant itself, but from the feather rendering facility that converts feathers of slaughtered poultry into animal feed ingredients. It was operated by PSP Aqua Resources, a business partner of Vitarich Corp. 

The PCIJ team would take another boat trip the following month, in October 2019, to Sapang Alat to collect more water samples. The team also set off to search for the drain pipes of other poultry processing plants in Brgy. Loma De Gato.

SHORT BUT ARDUOUS SAIL. Google satellite view of the area in Marilao, Bulacan where the PCIJ team boated and looked for pollution point sources in September and October 2019. Landmark icons by Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ
Screenshot of a Google satellite map showing the proximity of Vitarich’s dressing and rendering facilities to the Marilao River, its tributary creek Sapang Alat, and the health office and municipal hall of Marilao, Bulacan. Landmark icons by Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Cease-and-desist order

Eight months earlier, on Jan. 24, 2019, the EMB Region 3 office ordered two plants inside the compound of  Vitarich Corporation to “cease and desist” from releasing wastewater into Sapang Alat. 

EMB said the dressing and rendering plants –– operated by Alt Trading and PSP Aqua Resources, respectively –– did not have discharge permits. 

In two separate but identical violation notices, then EMB Region 3 Director Lormelyn Claudio said their treatment facilities were “not properly operated and [were] therefore discharging untreated wastewater,” which was a violation of the Clean Water Act. 

File photo of the waste outfall of Vitarich/ALT Trading’s chicken dressing plant in the margins of a creek in Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1, Marilao, Bulacan. Sapang Alat creek had solidified due to the unabated discharge of untreated effluents into the river tributary. Image taken in January 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Three days after the cease and desist order was issued, on Jan. 27, Marilao’s environment officer Reynaldo Buenaventura accompanied EMB pollution inspectors to Sapang Alat to seal a canal that dumped wastewater from one of the Vitarich plants into the Marilao River. 

It was part of the national government’s efforts to clean up Manila Bay. On the same day, DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu declared from the Baywalk in the country’s capital the start of the rehabilitation of the bay. 

Marilao River is part of Meycuayan-Marilao-Obando River System that dumps wastes into the bay.

Ang tubig parang hindi na liquid e Parang lupa na. Ibig sabihin hindi na umaagos…. Nagso-solid na e (The water no longer looked like it was liquid. It looked like mud. It means it’s no longer flowing…it has solidified),” Buenaventura told PCIJ. 

Water sampling analyses conducted by the EMB showed that the plants’ wastewater discharges exceeded effluent limits. The polishing ponds –– which were supposed to improve the quality of the effluents before it was released into the river–– were no longer capable of cleansing wastewater at that time, according to Climaco Jurado of EMB Region 3’s Environment Monitoring and Enforcement Division.

The violation notices barred the plants from resuming operations until the issues were rectified.

Viscous liquid and solid wastes were clogging this polishing pond of Vitarich’s chicken dressing plant in Brgy. Sta Rosa 1, Marilao, Bulacan when pollution inspectors from the EMB in Region 3 went to the facility on Jan. 18, 2019. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/PCIJ

Vitarich sought to distance itself from the violation notices issued against the dressing and rendering plants inside its compound. While the company owned the two plants in question, Vitarich lawyer Mary Christine Dabu-Pepito told PCIJ that the plants were operated by its business partners.

“They are in the best position to answer whether these violations indeed occur and what were the steps they undertook to address the issues raised in the NOVs,” she said in a May 12, 2020 e-mail responding to PCIJ’s questions. 

“At any rate, Vitarich requires its business partners to operate within the bounds of law, including compliance with environmental laws and regulations,” she said.

Ramiro Osorio, officer in charge of the EMB’s legal office, disagreed. In an interview on Aug. 8, 2020, Osorio said Vitarich also bore responsibility because the company is the project proponent and holder of the environmental compliance certificates (ECC), issued to the rendering facility in October 1997 and the dressing plant in October 2008. 

The ECC “is a project-specific permit” that makes the proponent directly responsible for the project, he said.

Copies of the two 2019 stop orders obtained by the PCIJ from EMB-Region 3 showed that they were addressed to the president of Vitarich Corp., the operations manager of PSP Aqua, and the manager of Alt Trading. 

Wala pong pakialam ang DENR do’n kung sino ang nag-o-operate ng rendering plant. Kung sino ang nakapangalan sa ECC, sila ang ire-regulate namin (The DENR isn’t concerned with who operates the rendering plant. Whoever is named in the ECC is the entity we will regulate),” said Osorio.

Source of wastewater discharge

Eduardo Lazo –– an executive at both the chicken dressing and rendering plants –– said they did not secure a permit to discharge because the rendering facility was not supposed to have effluents. 

What happened was that wastewater from the dressing facility overflowed, he said, carrying chicken feathers from the rendering plant into a drainpipe. He maintained that the rendering plant did not release wastewater. To address this problem, he said PSP Aqua installed a separate pipe to catch raw feather materials and redirect them to a digestive chamber.

“The feathers must first be filtered out of water. Then the wastewater from it will pass through the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment facility. So wala na kaming discharge (So we no longer have a discharge),” he said.

Lazo said the discharge that PCIJ found gushing at the back of the Vitarich compound in September 2019 did not come from the rendering plant but from the ice plant that was also located within the premises. 

Does the ice plant need a discharge permit from the EMB? “I don’t think so…Ano ito e, tubig na malinis na galing sa pinagtabasan ng yelo (It’s just clean water that comes from ice cuttings),” said Lazo, referring to the effluent.

The wastewater samples collected by the PCIJ were warm. 

EMB-Region 3’s Jurado, who inspected the rendering facility in January 2019, rejected Lazo’s claim. In an interview on Oct. 14, 2019, Jurado said PSP Aqua was issued a CDO because it was “discharging without discharge permit.”

Kasi ang claim nila wala silang discharge kasi naka-line lang sila sa dressing plant. E noong pag-inspection namin, meron silang sariling wastewater discharge. Nakita talaga namin (ang) pipe galing sa kanila (Their claim was that they didn’t have a discharge because they were linked to the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment system. But when we inspected the facility, we found out that they had their own wastewater discharge. We really saw that they had their own pipe),” Jurado said.

Wala silang polishing pond (They didn’t have a polishing pond),” he added, referring to PSP Aqua’s lack of treatment facility for its own wastewater. 

MENRO’s environmental management specialist Dan Ezekiel Martin, who also inspected the rendering plant before the CDO was issued, also said that PSP Aqua had its own wastewater discharge.

Jurado said PSP Aqua fixed the problem after it  “re-channeled” its pipe to the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment facility.

Dressing plant’s wastewater treatment system overhauled

In October 2019, the EMB’s Environment Monitoring and Enforcement Division recommended the lifting of the CDO after the dressing and rendering plants rectified issues raised. 

It was around the time the PCIJ team made its second visit to Sapang Alat and, by then, the effluents were no longer spilling out as a result of the CDO.

Records from the Marilao government showed that the improvements coincided with the entry of a new business partner –– Barbatos Ventures Corp. –– to replace Alt Trading as Vitarich’s business partner to operate the dressing plant. Barbatos was granted a government sanitary permit on July 12, 2019.

The EMB also recognized the efforts to fix the treatment facility of the dressing plant, according to Glenn Aguilar of EMB-Region 3. “[I]naayos muna nila ‘yong treatment facility…. Pabalik-balik sila dito sa amin, pinapakita ‘yung [lab] results ng [wastewater] sampling nila (They fixed the treatment facility first…. They were here several times to show the lab results of their wastewater samples),” Aguilar told the PCIJ in an interview on Oct. 28, 2019. 

Lazo said Alt Trading complied with the EMB requirements. “The CDO was given to Alt Trading and they were able to fully comply,” Lazo told PCIJ during a July 21, 2020 interview. He was referring to the conditions set by the EMB, which included treating the effluent from the chicken dressing facility so that it could conform to the government’s wastewater quality standards.

Lazo said Barbatos also started a P6.1-million project, composed of a three-phase process, to overhaul the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment system. He said Barbatos knew that treating the facility’s wastewater wouldn’t be enough and an overhaul was needed as grass had grown on the pond and one could walk on the hardened scum., Phase 1, worth P2.3 million, included the installation of polyethylene liners on all five of the dressing plant’s treatment ponds to prevent the seepage of wastewater.  

Phase 2 involved the placement of floating aerators on three of the five ponds, which was worth P2 million.

Phase 3, which was in the pipeline at the time of Lazo’s interview with PCIJ in July 2020, would be the installation of a water clarifier and filtration system that would cost P1.8 million.

“When the system is in place, only clear water will come out of the last two ponds,” Lazo said. 

In a June 2, 2020 report, the Marilao government’s Joint Inspection Team (JIT) noted improvements in the dressing plant’s wastewater treatment facility. The discharge was clean and no longer smelly, according to the report signed by Buenaventura and business licensing head Martin Armando Cruz.

Lazo welcomed the results of the JIT inspection and said the “ultimate objective” of Barbatos was “to no longer need a permit from the DENR to discharge wastewater.”

“That’s because we will no longer generate wastewater. We will be able to recycle all the water we use,” he said. 

This remains to be seen, however. Dan Ezekiel Martin, the MENRO’s environmental management specialist who inspected Vitarich’s dressing facility with EMB staffers in 2019, saw a bigger sustainability challenge.

Production in the dressing plant kept increasing, but the size of the area for wastewater treatment remained the same, he said.

Kasi normally, sa gano’n kalaking dressing plant…dapat hectares ang usapan ng laki ng area ng [wastewater treatment] pond (Because normally in a dressing plant as big as that…we should be talking in terms of hectares of wastewater treatment pond),” Martin told the PCIJ in an interview in September 2019, noting that there were only five waste stabilization ponds in the facility.

As of 2018, the production capacity of the dressing plant was 50,000 a day or 1.2 million birds a month, based on the self-monitoring report (SMR) submitted by Alt Trading. It was over three times its production capacity a decade earlier, in 2008, when it had an output of only 15,000 birds a day.

Stench lingers

Despite the interventions, however, Lazo admitted the facility would continue to stink.

Kasi…hindi mo puwedeng sabihin na 100% mawawala ang amoy, kasi you’re dealing here with waste. Iyong raw feathers may malansang amoy na ‘yan kasi (You can’t say that the odor will be gone 100% because you are dealing here with waste. The raw feathers already have a fishy smell),” Lazo said.

Lazo claimed that the rendering plant was necessary because it solved Marilao’s waste disposal problem. 

“If, say, Marilao dresses 300,000 chickens a day, that means producing 30 tons of feather waste daily if you don’t have a rendering plant…. No dumpsite will accept that huge volume of waste. It’s a high-maintenance waste. You have to bury it and address the odor. Decaying feathers smell like dead humans,” he said.

Like hair, chicken feathers are made up of fibrous protein called keratin that is resistant to being biodegraded or decomposed by bacteria, he explained.

The Business Permits and Licensing Office (BPLO) shared Lazo’s position. BPLO chief Amado Cruz said Vitarich’s rendering plant also collected chicken feathers from other dressing plants in the town and helped address poultry waste disposal in Marilao and the entire Bulacan province. 

Kasi…kung itatapon mo itong feather sa basurahan or sa isang sanitary land facility, mapupuno tayo sa dami ng residual feather…kung walang centralized na rendering plant dito sa Vitarich (We would all be swamped with feathers if you threw these in the trash can or in a sanitary land facility and…if there’s no centralized rendering plant in Vitarich),” he said, stressing that feathers don’t decompose easily in a landfill. 

Sanay na ang mga tao dito sa amoy…. Alam nila ‘yung nature ng business kaya alam din nila pag ‘yun pinasara, mawawalan ng workers (The residents are used to the smell…. They know the nature of the business that’s why they also know that if it would be closed, there would be no more workers),” he added. — PCIJ, February 2021

This series was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia — Philippines.

Next: Poultry processing plants responsible for the pollution of Marilao River have gotten away with small fines.— PCIJ

The Bulacan town where chickens are slaughtered and the river is dead

In this four-part investigative report, PCIJ shows how poultry processing plants in the town of Marilao in Bulacan have dumped untreated or undertreated wastewater into the dead Marilao River.

BY ANNIE RUTH SABANGAN, ROBERT JA BASILIO JR., BERNARD TESTA AND RIC PUOD/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

Part 1 of 4

What you need to know about Part 1:

  • The town of Marilao in Bulacan province has the biggest number of chicken dressing plants nationwide, slaughtering more than 24 million chickens yearly.
  • The annual operations of chicken dressing plants in Marilao produce an estimated 169,000 cubic meters of wastewater or enough to fill up 68 Olympic-size pools.
  • This huge volume of wastewater is regularly released into the Marilao River, a major tributary of the Manila Bay, which was declared biologically dead in 1989.
  • Lack of resources and personnel prevents municipal government offices from gathering sufficient evidence to establish the extent that the dressing plants are responsible for the pollution of the river.
  • There were efforts to revive the river, but so far failed. 

You know you’ve reached Marilao, a booming municipality in Bulacan province that’s usually less than an hour’s drive from Manila, when a putrid smell of some biological degradation invades your nostrils. Here you will find a cluster of chicken dressing and rendering plants, which have become undesirable landmarks for the town in Central Luzon. 

Kapag sumasakay ako ng jeep galing Muzon, kahit nakapikit alam kong nasa Marilao na ako dahil sa amoy (When I ride a jeep from Muzon, I can tell that I’m already in Marilao even when my eyes are closed because of the smell),” said a female resident, referring to her regular commute to Brgy. Sta. Rosa 1 in Marilao from Brgy. Muzon in nearby San Jose del Monte City.

Marilao’s foul odors, coming from the Marilao River and its tributaries, are so notorious that it is the occasional subject of contempt on social media. The culprit, according to residents, are the poultry processing plants in the adjacent barangays of Santa Rosa I, Santa Rosa II, Patubig, and Loma de Gato that release wastewater to the river.

The smell is worse during dry season, residents said, when there’s no rainwater to dilute and dull the odor of the polluted water.

Bata pa ako naaamoy ko na ‘yan. Ang anak ko, may asthma. Sabi ng pedia huwag siyang i-expose sa amoy at huwag paglaruin sa daan. Mahina raw kasi ang baga niya (I’ve been smelling that foul odor since I was young. My child has asthma. The pediatrician said he should not be exposed to the smell and should not play on the street because his lungs are weak),” said another resident operating a carinderia or eatery in the same barangay.

Marilao has the country’s biggest number of poultry processing facilities, slaughtering tens of millions of chickens annually to supply fresh and freshly frozen food to consumers nationwide.

Of the 149 poultry dressing plants accredited by the Department of Agriculture’s National Meat Inspection Service as of November 2019, almost one-fourth or 34 facilities are in Region 3 or Central Luzon. (See infographic 1)

Twenty are operating in Bulacan province and 11 of them are in Marilao. The industry was among the top employers in the town, according to the Business Permit and Licensing Office, with each plant providing jobs to about 300 residents. (See infographic 2)

It’s a thriving industry that has helped turn Marilao into the richest town in the province, tripling its revenue in the last decade to P793 million in 2018.

Like many industrial towns in the country, however, Marilao has struggled to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.

Infographic 1: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Infographic 2: Annie Ruth Sabangan/PCIJ

Poultry processing uses water to turn broilers into meat products that are safe for human consumption. In Marilao, wastewater from the establishments flow into waterways connected to the Marilao River.

Seven of the 11 poultry processing facilities in the town discharge their effluents to a creek, either from the “rear end of the last pond,” “compartment,” or “tank” of their wastewater treatment plants, based on self-monitoring reports (SMR) that the plants filed with the DENR in 2018. (There is no data available to PCIJ on the other four dressing plants.)

The same seven dressing plants reported using nearly 169,000 cubic meters of water annually to slaughter 24 million chickens. That’s enough wastewater to fill up 68 Olympic-size swimming pools. (See infographic 3.)

Infographic 3: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ

Water is a huge requirement for poultry processing plants. Workers dip the heads of the chickens into electrified water to put them to sleep, and use hot water to loosen and pluck the feathers. They need chlorinated water to wash equipment for removing the chicken’s internal organs and thoroughly rinsing their carcasses. They also use chilled water to protect poultry meat from bacteria. 

Foodnorthwest.org, a trade association in the U.S., estimates that approximately 3.5 to 7.0 gallons of water is required to dress each chicken with an average slaughter weight of four pounds. Using this ratio, PCIJ computation shows that between 10 billion and 19 billion liters of water were used to slaughter 763 million heads of chicken killed for food in the Philippines in 2019, based on figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).

If untreated or undertreated, wastewater from the plants releases oxygen-depleting and fish-killing pollutants such as ammonia, nitrate, phosphate, and total suspended solids.

The succeeding parts of this investigative series will show evidence that this was the case in Marilao. 

Infographic 4: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ
Infographic 5: Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ

Residents’ complaints

Residents have long complained about the operations of the poultry processing plants, believing that their constant exposure to the foul odors has aggravated their illnesses.

Diyan nanggagaling. Abot ang amoy hanggang doon sa bahay namin sa Patubig (That’s where it comes from. The smell reaches our house in Brgy. Patubig),” complained an aging female tuberculosis patient. She particularly blamed a big poultry processing plant in Brgy. Santa Rosa 1 near the Marilao exit of the North Luzon Expressway, for the reeking smell of Sapang Alat (Salty Creek), a clogged and heavily polluted creek adjoining the Marilao River.

The Municipal Health Office (MHO) is aware of the residents’ complaints and their concerns about the possible dangers to their health, according to Evelyn San Miguel, one of only two sanitation inspectors at the MHO.

She also has a good view of the outfall from the compound of one of the poultry processing plants –– where the liquid waste from its plants falls out from its pipe –– from a window of the MHO building. “Brown ‘yung inilalabas (The discharge is colored brown),” San Miguel said in an interview in September 2019, the same month that PCIJ sailed into Sapang Alat.

The fetid and filthy inlet in the Marilao River in Bulacan leading to a creek called Sapang Alat. Image taken in September 2019. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

San Miguel said they forwarded these complaints to the Business Permit and Licensing Office (BPLO) and the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO). 

The chief of the BPLO, Martin Armando Cruz, downplayed the residents’ complaints, however. While the poultry business was the most “water-intensive” of all industries in Marilao, he told PCIJ he didn’t think the poultry business was among the most pollutive.

Cruz said the poultry processing plants were releasing chlorinated but clear water, a claim that was contradicted by other interviewees for this report and PCIJ’s own findings.

“‘Yung wastewater naman nun puti…. Madaling i-clear [kasi] walang chemicals e. Chlorine lang. Kayang-kayang linisin (The wastewater they release is white…. It can easily be treated because there are no chemicals. It’s just chlorine. It’s easy),” Cruz told PCIJ in an interview in October 2019, referring to the effluents discharged by the dressing plants. 

Cruz conceded that the fetid odor from the plants, particularly from the town’s biggest plant along Sapang Alat, were a nuisance. But he didn’t think it was the cause of the illnesses of Marilao residents. 

“Yes, [it’s a] nuisance. But is it pollutive? Nakamamatay (Is it deadly)? Nakakasakit (Does it cause illnesses)? Sa aming observation, hindi naman (Based on our observation, it’s not),” Cruz said. 

Cruz was inclined to believe that domestic wastes caused more harm to the river than the wastewater from Marilao’s industries, although he admitted that the LGU had made no assessment of the chicken dressing industry’s wastewater.

Hindi kasi kami nagtse-check no’n, wala kaming testing ng water…ang DENR ang [in-charge] do’n (We don’t check that, we don’t conduct water testing…the DENR is the one in-charge of that),” said Cruz.

The residents interviewed for this story requested to hide their names out of fear that the business establishments would go after them for their comments.

A dead river

The Marilao River, a tributary of Manila Bay, has been biologically dead since 1989. It can no longer sustain any life form. 

For fish and other aquatic species to survive and thrive in a freshwater resource like the Marilao River, the water body needs to contain 5 milligrams of dissolved oxygen (DO) per liter of water (mg/l), according to DENR standards.

But the DO levels in the river have not even reached 3 mg/l in the last decade, based on tests conducted by the Region 3 office of the DENR’s Environmental Management Bureau (EMB), which conducts ambient water quality tests on the river. 

Meycauayan River is already likely to be low in oxygen levels, causing several marine animals — including fish — to die. Photograph: Bernard Testa/PCIJ

Scientists call this condition “hypoxia,” a depletion or reduction of oxygen in water bodies that turn them into “biological deserts” or “aquatic cemeteries.” 

The river’s biological oxygen demand (BOD), which represents the amount of oxygen consumed by bacteria while they decompose organic matter in the water, has been rising, too. 

The river’s BOD should not exceed 7 mg/l under better circumstances because, above that level, bacteria will use more oxygen to decompose wastes and thus rob fish and other aquatic animals of survival gas. However, EMB tests showed that the recorded BOD level of Marilao River was a high of 44.52 mg/l in 2018 or four times its level of 11.09 mg/l in 2008. It was an indication that pollution had worsened throughout the last decade.

This is a shared challenge among the industrial towns in Bulacan. The Marilao River is part of the Meycauyan-Marilao-Obando River System (MMORS), a heavily polluted river system that is considered the second top pollution source of Manila Bay.

MMORS is responsible for about a third of the organic matter going into the historic natural harbor in the country’s capital, next only to Pasig River, which accounts for 60%, according to a study by the Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme.

Infographic 6:  Annie Ruth Sabangan and Angelica Carballo Pago/PCIJ

Other industries are polluters, too

While residents point to the responsibility of the poultry processing industry for the pollution of Marilao River, the local government doesn’t have the capacity to gather sufficient evidence to establish the extent that the industry is at fault.

The poultry processing facilities are certainly not the only polluters of the river, which is host to households and other types of industries that produce different types of waste. There are metal and textile factories, manufacturers of plastic products, biscuit and bread makers, and soap and detergent businesses, among others.

Which of these entities contribute the most pollutants to the river? What businesses or industry sectors have effluents with the highest BOD or ammonia? Which ones discharge the most volume of sludge laden with toxic and non-biodegradable heavy metals like lead, arsenic, and mercury? 

Along or near the Marilao River’s Expressway Bridge alone — one of three water sampling stations in the river — there are almost 2,000 commercial entities spread in nine Marilao barangays. Tabing Ilog, Patubig, Sta. Rosa I, Sta. Rosa II, Saog, Lambakin, Loma de Gato, Prenza I, and Prenza II are the town’s business hubs.

The Region 3 office of the EMB also earlier identified 433 establishments in the entire Central Luzon whose wastewater flows into the MMORS.

Which ones among them don’t have wastewater treatment plants or have inefficient effluent cleansing facilities? What businesses are the worst river and fish killers? It would take special types of tests to determine all this.

In an interview in September 2019, when PCIJ was starting this investigation, Marilao Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) chief Reynaldo Buenaventura admitted they still couldn’t measure the extent of pollution from particular plants or industry sectors because of lack of resources and personnel. 

Marilao is only capable of employing “end-of-pipe” pollution solutions, which requires cleaning up wastes when these have already polluted the river, he said.

May river patrol boat kami, dalawa, galing sa DENR. Araw-araw silang nagpa-patrol pero ‘yung solid waste lang ang nakukuha (We have two river patrol boats from the DENR. The boats patrol every day but they only collect solid waste),” Buenaventura said.

EMB’s usual ambient water quality tests, which gather “primary parameters” such as dissolved oxygen, biological oxygen demand, and other conventional pollutants, don’t trace the sources of pollution, either.

These tests can only give hints and symptoms of the water pollution problem in the Marilao River, but not its direct causes, said Glenn Aguilar, among the EMB staffers in Region 3 who monitor the river.

Failed efforts to revive the river

Several administrations attempted to revive the Marilao River, but efforts have failed to reverse its DO and BOD levels.

The Marilao River was among the 19 priority rivers monitored by the DENR under its “Sagip Ilog” (Save the River) Program, a 2004 initiative that sought to improve the river’s water quality by raising dissolved oxygen levels.  

In 2004, the Marilao River Council was formed to rehabilitate the water body. A project called “Clean the Marilao, Meycauayan, and Obando River System” was launched, involving local government units (LGUs), the EMB, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the river councils, and the Asian Development Bank. They envisioned a “fishable, swimmable, and drinkable” river system. 

In 2005, Marilao became a part of a stakeholders’ group composed of the three LGUs that have jurisdiction over the MMORS. As a major tributary of Manila Bay, the heavily polluted river system in Bulacan became a focus of efforts to rehabilitate the natural harbor.

There was little to show for all these efforts, however. In 2007, Marilao, along with its neighbor, Meycauayan City, suffered global disgrace after New York-based environmental watchdog Blacksmith Institute included the town in its list of 30 “dirtiest places” on earth. The list raised an alarm over how the town’s industrial wastes were being “haphazardly dumped” into the river. 

In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a continuing mandamus or order to the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and 12 other agencies to clean up and preserve Manila Bay, resulting in renewed attention to the Marilao River. The mandamus stemmed from a January 1999 petition by a group of residents, who won the case in a Cavite court and the Court of Appeals. Ten government agencies, including the DENR and the DILG, appealed to the Supreme Court and lost.

The order prompted Marilao’s MunicipalPlanning and Development Office (MPDO) to conduct an inventory of commercial establishments and households adjacent to the Marilao River and its tributaries, supposedly to pinpoint pollution hotspots. 

What did they find out? Nearly 60% of the 756 households identified did not have septic tanks, while 71% of 91 business establishments had no wastewater treatment facilities. 

It was the first and last comprehensive inventory of households and businesses near the river, said Edmundo Canape, a senior staffer at the MPDO, who signed the 2009 report. Succeeding inventories would only check a percentage of the commercial establishments and households.

In 2011, the Supreme Court again issued a resolution enjoining government agencies and local governments surrounding Manila Bay to implement the 2008 mandamus. The high court cited the 42-year-old Presidential Decree 1152 or the Philippine Environmental Code, which requires all local governments to implement a waste management program.

Part of the directive was for LGUs to address water pollution at source by (1) inspecting all factories, commercial establishments, and homes along the banks of the major river systems in their areas; (2) determining if they have wastewater treatment facilities or hygienic septic tanks based on specifications prescribed by law; and (3) requiring non-complying establishments and homes to set up facilities or tanks within a reasonable time. Otherwise, they faced fines or closure. 

Still, the pollution of the Marilao River continued to worsen.

In 2017, then Marilao Mayor Juanito Santiago issued Executive Order 2017-09 for the town to comply with the High Court’s 2011 resolution. 

In 2018, the DILG flagged Marilao’s weakness in environmental governance. The municipality got a score of 45.91% in a DILG assessment and was one of 19 towns and cities in Bulacan that scored below the passing mark of 75%.

The DILG found that Marilao didn’t follow the Supreme Court directive when it inspected only 15% of the target number of septic tanks and wastewater treatment facilities. No single notice of violation was also issued by the LGU against establishments that failed to comply with Republic Act 9275 or the Clean Water Act of 2004. 

The DILG also noted the town’s failure to relocate informal settlers living along the river banks.

No environmental officer for a long time

In the wake of its failing marks from the DILG, Marilao’s MPDO took new steps to address water pollution at source. 

Based on a 2019 report provided by MPDO staffer Salvador Ramirez to PCIJ, they inspected about 1,000 homes in 16 barangays yearly — a small percentage out of some 50,000 total households — from 2016 to 2018. Notably, the inventory didn’t include business establishments.

The MPDO was simply undermanned. The office established the Marilao River Inspection, Inventory and Monitoring Team (MRIIMT) to attend to its old problem, but Ramirez said this team was a one-man squad. 

“So that time…kami lang dito. Ako. Ako ‘yung bumababa (So that time…it was just us here. It was just me. I was the only one who went to the field to inspect),” said Ramirez.

It was only in 2018 that Marilao would create the Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Office (MENRO) and hire Buenaventura to become its environmental officer. 

The Local Government Code of 1991 does not require the designation of an environmental officer. The town apparently never found the need to have one until Buenaventura was appointed to the post in January of that year. He would later assume the tasks from the MPDO.

In 2019, PCIJ asked Buenaventura if it was possible to send the LGU’s river patrol team to go after dressing plants found dumping untreated effluents into narrow, muddy and clogged tributaries.

Buenaventura dismissed it. “Hindi maaabot ng bangka ‘yun (That can’t be reached by the boats),” he said. 

A PCIJ team discovered it was an arduous task, but it was doable under the right conditions.  — PCIJ, February 2021

This series was produced with the support of Greenpeace Southeast Asia — Philippines.

Next: PCIJ reporting team takes a boat to Marilao River to search for the outfall pipe of a notorious poultry processing plant.— PCIJ

Philippine mines continue unhampered 4 years after Gina’s shutdown order

In Benguet, critics are dismayed and wary of environmental degradation and natural disasters. The Chamber of Mines of the Philippines is also waiting for Malacañang to resolve the suspensions and “move mining forward.”

BY MARIA ELENA CATAJAN/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

What you need to know about this story:

  • The late DENR Secretary Gina Lopez’s closure and suspension orders against 28 mines in 2017 were not implemented following a review ordered by Malacañang.
  • A culture of non-implementation of environmental regulations has allowed mining companies to evade sanctions, according to former DENR undersecretary Antonio La Viña, a responsible mining advocate.
  • Residents of two towns in Benguet are worried over the likelihood of disasters in mine sites and environmental destruction.

BAGUIO CITY — In July 2016, in one of her first acts as environment secretary, Regina “Gina” Lopez ordered an industry-wide audit of 41 large-scale mines in the country. Seven months later, 23 metallic mines received closure orders and five others were told their operations would be suspended. 

A statement issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) dated Feb. 2, 2017 cited “serious environmental violations.” 

“My issue here is social justice. If there are businesses and foreigners that go and utilize the resources of that area for their benefit and the people of the island suffer, that’s social injustice,” Lopez said in a press conference that day. 

It was a quick move rarely seen against an industry that has significant contributions to the national economy. Mining stocks plunged.

Mining companies are big employers in rural areas –– over 180,000 workers nationwide, not counting indirect jobs created –– and contributed 0.5 percent to the economy in 2019. 

In Benguet, a mineral-rich province in the Cordillera region, mayors of two mining towns covered by the order welcomed Lopez’s bold move albeit concerns for thousands of residents who stood to lose their jobs. 

Operations of Benguet Corp. (BC) in Itogon and Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (LCMC) in Mankayan were ordered closed and suspended, respectively. They are among the country’s oldest mines. 

Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan has had a strenuous relationship with Benguet Corp., at times finding the company responsible for his town’s environmental problems. He is also backing demands of indigenous people’s organizations, which claim ancestral rights to the land, for a bigger share of BC’s profits.

Mankayan Mayor Frenzel Ayong also supported a closer look into Lepanto’s operations. “It’s a welcome development for the government to look into the details of the operation [of LCMC] as well as its compliances with the law,” he said. 

Four years after Lopez’s crackdown,Benguet’s mines continue to operate to the dismay of civil society groups. Benguet Corp. and Lepanto did not cease operations except during strict lockdowns last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The mines that were served with closure orders by former DENR Secretary Gina Lopez were not closed at all and are operating after some of them appealed their cases to the Office of the President and the others to the DENR itself,” said Rocky Dimaculangan, Chamber of Mines of the Philippines (CMP) vice president for communications and national coordinator towards sustainable mining.

“If there are companies among the firms in the first round of MICC audit that were compelled to suspend their operations, it could be because of other violations outside the audit,” he said.

The mining companies immediately appealed their cases to President Rodrigo Duterte in 2017. The shutdown orders were put on hold amid warnings from the CMP then that shutting down mining companies would put 67,000 jobs at risk and cost the government up to P16.7 billion in taxes.

A Lepanto miner works underground in Mankayan, Benguet. Photograph: Lauren Alimondo/PCIJ

In Cordillera alone, mining companies employ close to 17,000 workers, with over 7,000 in large-scale mines and 10,000 in small-scale mines.

Duterte ordered the Mining Industry Coordinating Council (MICC) to review DENR’s audit. Lopez, who co-chaired the interagency body with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, questioned the review.

Three months later, in May 2017, Lopez was kicked out as environment secretary after the Commission on Appointments rejected her nomination. She died two years later after a battle with brain cancer.

In an e-mailed response to PCIJ’s questions, Malacañang said it could not disclose its basis for allowing the mining firms to operate despite Lopez’s orders as it was “protected by the deliberative process privilege.” 

“Albeit the proceedings herein are quasi-judicial in character, publicly divulging information and records, which include information on the nature of the case, violations allegedly committed, arguments of the parties, and other filings and pleadings made thereon by mining contractor-parties, relative to pending cases before this office is a violation of the sub judice rule as it constitutes blatant disregard of the same evils sought to be prevented by said rule,” said Ryan Alvin Acosta, deputy executive secretary for legal affairs.

‘Culture of non-implementation’

There has been no word about the MICC review or a final decision from Duterte on the mining companies that appealed to his office, although the DENR under Secretary Roy Cimatu in the last four years has upheld the closure of several mining companies and allowed others to operate again.

In Benguet, the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA) slammed the failure to implement Lopez’s orders against Benguet Corp. and Lepanto.

“The audit was the result of the long-standing struggle of the affected communities against the destructive operations of the mines. However, the suspension was never implemented. No mines in the Cordillera ceased their operation,” said Santos Mero, vice chairperson of the coalition fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples in the region.

Fay Apil, director of the DENR’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) in Cordillera, said they were still waiting for the MICC to confirm or refute Lopez’s audit on the two mines.

This goes to the “culture of non-implementation” of laws and regulations that has plagued the mining industry, said former DENR undersecretary Antonio La Viña, an advocate of responsible mining.

“It should have been decided quickly. This is why there is so much conflict in the mining industry. It’s an inherently risky activity and there are clear rules, but when rules are violated they are not enforced,” he said.

The DENR should also make sure its cases are airtight, he said, as mining companies have the money to pay the best lawyers.

La Viña said one thing going against the mining industry was its problematic public image because of a history of mining disasters.

“In theory, responsible mining is possible. The mining companies must follow the law. It needs strict compliance because of the destructive nature of the activity,” he said. 

In one of the country’s worst mining catastrophes, the 1996 Marcopper disaster in Marinduque province released 1.6 million cubic meters of toxic mine tailings into the Boac River when a drainage tunnel was fractured. It caused illnesses that residents suffer to this day.

In Itogon in September 2018, 19 months after Lopez issued a closure order on Benguet Corp., disaster struckasclose to 100 small-scale miners taking refuge in a company bunkhouse and a church during the onslaught of Typhoon “Ompong” (international name: “Mangkhut”) were buried in a landslide. 

Palangdan blamed the tragedy on Benguet Corp.’s operations, but the company pointed to illegal small-scale mining that it said it didn’t control. The bodies of the miners were not recovered. 

Miners rest in this bunkhouse near Benguet Corporation’s office in Itogon, Benguet. Photograph: Jean Nicole Cortes/PCIJ

Philippines’s oldest operating mines

Benguet Corp. has been in Itogon for more than a century, the oldest operating mine in the country. It started open-pit and underground mining operations in the town in 1903, employing thousands to extract ores of gold, nickel and silver. 

It ended its underground operations in 1992. But when pocket miners invaded the Acupan tunnel –– one of two underground mines that formed the company’s gold operations –– the company opened it to investors and established the Acupan Contract Mining Project (ACMP).

ACMP saw a large-scale operator and groupings of small-scale miners working together under a mine lease agreement while it prepared the mines for the final phases of rehabilitation and decommissioning.

Benguet Corp. lawyer Froilan Lawilao said it was the first of its kind. MGB hailed it as a model for partnership between a large-scale corporate mine operator and small-scale miners. 

Sixteen mining associations and cooperatives, involving up to 1,000 small-scale miners, operate their own pocket mines under a 60-40 profit sharing agreement. 

Lopez however thought the economic benefits to the community did not outweigh the environmental dangers. She ordered the Itogon mines closed after the DENR audit found Benguet Corp. liable for the October 2016 mine tailings spill that contaminated a 1.6-kilometer stretch of the river.

The audit report said the company committed the following violations:

  • operating a prohibited controlled disposal facility;
  • maintaining and storing toxic and hazardous materials without an accredited Treatment Storage and Disposal (TSD) facility;
  • failing to install air pollution control devices and apply for a permit to operate upon installation, and 
  • failing to rehabilitate the Antamok open-pit mine after it ceased its operations.

Benguet Corp. received the show-cause order on Oct. 28 and filed its reply on Nov. 1. The company claimed it had proof the findings were altered from an original version that declared the company compliant with mining laws.

Lawilao said company officials were told by DENR inspectors that Benguet Corp. passed the audit. A memorandum dated Aug. 16, 2016 stated that the company had complied with all legal and technical standards and “contributed to the local economy, except for some minor lapses.”

Lawilao also noted inconsistencies in the audit report, where the auditors allegedly interchanged the sites of Benguet Corp. with Lepanto. “These inconsistencies are serious and [indicates] the mine audit report was haphazardly prepared,” he said.

More disturbing was the “generalized finding of deficiencies for BC and Lepanto,” he claimed. 

Benguet Corp., he explained, did not rehabilitate the Antamok open-pit mine because its operations were merely suspended. There are plans to reopen it. 

And because Benguet Corp. began operations before the Mining Act of 1995, it was not required to deposit an approved amount for rehabilitation once operations cease.

When small-scale miners’ rushed to the Antamok mine site, it eventually prompted Benguet Corp. to apply for final decommissioning, which will turn the area into a Minahang Bayan. This will allow small-scale miners to operate legally and under the government’s radar.

Lawilao said the infractions committed by the company were “mostly permitting issues or operational concerns” that could be fixed without stopping their operation. Executives were surprised when they saw the news in September 2016 that Benguet Corp. was among the companies recommended for closure, he said. 

“In a nutshell, we alleged that we were issued a stoppage order without any basis. The audit findings are not bases to suspend the mining company’s operation because these are minor offenses. We were just advised to implement remedial measures, like to register the [tailings] dam,” he said.

Benguet Corporation’s Tailings Storage Facility Dam No. 2 in Itogon, Benguet. In 2020, the company’s plan to raise the level of the dam was met with protests from downstream communities. Photograph: Jean Nicole Cortes.PCIJ

The Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) opposed Benguet Corp.’s plans to continue its mining operations in Itogon, however, and stood firm that it was time to return the land to the municipality. 

Imbes na i-rehab, mas inisip pa nito kung paano mas pagkakitaan pa ang lupain lalo na ang bahaging nasa ilalim ng kanilang mining patent (Instead of starting rehabilitation, it found a way to continue to profit from the land especially in areas under its mining patent),” the CPA’s Mero said.

Halimbawa, ang mga proposal nilang rehabilitation is to transform the Antamok Open Pit mine para sa bulk water reserve ng Baguio. Noong hindi umubra ay gawin daw na sanitary landfill. Mayroon din silang pagtatangka na mag-venture sa real estate at pag-convert ng bahagi ng kanilang mining patent into an economic zone,” Mero added

(For example, there was a proposal to rehabilitate the Antamok Open-Pit mine by transforming it into a bulk water reserve for Baguio. When it didn’t work, they said they could turn it into a sanitary landfill instead. They also attempted to venture into real estate by converting parts of their mining patent into an economic zone.)

Mero was worried that disasters could strike again if the tunnels were not rehabilitated. “Many of the abandoned tunnels were not properly backfilled. These pose hazards to the community especially during continuous rains, strong typhoons and earthquakes. There are also reports that in their contract mining areas, they are now mining the pillars, further weakening the ground,” he said.

The people are better off finding alternative livelihoods, said Mero.

“More than 100 years of mining yet our town and its people remain poor. The [landslide during typhoon ‘Ondoy’ in 2009] and subsequent closure of SSM (small-scale mining) operations and the pandemic have totally exposed how hard life is in Itogon. Even if we host the oldest mining company, we are also concerned about the unrehabilitated tunnels and open pit mines,’ Mero said.

Benguet Corp. had been under the control of the Romualdez family until the administration of Duterte, when Benjamin Philip and Daniel Andrew Romualdez, sons of alleged Marcos crony Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, left the company after decades of fighting government sequestration.

The economist Bernardo Villegas, an independent director, was installed as chairman in late 2019. The company reported nearly P116 million in net income that year on revenues of P802 million. 

Lepanto: First copper concentrator

Lepanto, on the other hand, was established in 1936 and was the first to operate a copper concentrator in the Philippines. 

The company alone employs over 2,000 employees and boasts of its ISO certificate, first issued on May 12, 2016, stating that the company had complied with environmental management standards. 

The audit report said Lepanto committed the following violations:

  • dumping mine tailings directly to the river;
  • violating health and safety regulations;
  • maintaining and storing unregistered TSD; and
  • operating a controlled dumpsite.

Lepanto also contested the 2017 suspension order that cost the company over P1.8 billion, the company’s resident manager Thomas Consolacion told reporters then. 

It was granted a stay order on Oct. 12, 2017 after it filed an appeal with Malacañang. The company was ordered to pay P27,275 in fines to the MGB and P100,000 to the Environmental Management Bureau. Lepanto also agreed to monthly inspections.

Read Lepanto’s memo on the lifting of the suspension order here.

PCIJ reached out to Lepanto corporate communications head Butch Mendizabal for an interview and for copies of the suspension order and appeal it had filed with Malacañang. The company declined both requests.

Notwithstanding Lepanto’s ISO certification and support from residents directly employed by the company, protests from host and downstream communities hound the industry giant. 

The call to cancel Lepanto’s mining permit started in 2002 when local scientists, health professionals, and academicians formed Save the Abra River Movement (STARM) with a series of environmental investigative missions and studies from 2002 to 2005, which yielded proof of the river’s decline due to mining.

Communities dotting the Abra River banks have long attributed the rivers’ siltation and pollution to Lepanto’s operations, endangering the people’s primary source of irrigation, fishery and other livelihood.

The Tailings Storage and Facility 5A of Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company. Photograph: Lauren Alimondo.PCIJ

“Abra River is an integral component of the broad people’s call for Lepanto’s closure,” said Mero. 

From Benguet, the river flows to the municipalities of Cervantes, Quirino and San Emilio in Ilocos Sur, and traverses the towns of Luba, Manabo, Bucay and Bangued in Abra. Its waters meet the West Philippine Sea in Santa, Bantay and Caoayan, also in Ilocos Sur.

“When the company started, there were still no laws prohibiting the dumping of waste directly into the bodies of water. For decades, Lepanto disposed of its waste in the streams, which eventually found their way to the main river system,” said Mero.

Companies were allowed to use natural water bodies for their mine wastes provided that these were treated. The company used to course mine waste through a tributary creek connecting to the storage facility. 

Lepanto built its first dam to contain silt and wastewater in the 1960s, but the company suffered three dam failures until 1993, releasing volumes of tailings to the river and destroying rice fields along its banks.

In the municipality of Santa in Ilocos Sur, Lepanto’s tailings dam poses a threat to all communities along the Abra River. “We are the catch basin. All waste from upstream will eventually reach our communities here, where the river exits,” said Vice Mayor Jeremy Bueno.

In March 2017, during the hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources in Baguio City, Bueno told lawmakers that “Lepanto’s Tailings Dam 5A on the Abra River’s headwaters is a clear and present danger to life in the entire river basin.”

Bueno said his position on the matter remained the same. “There has been no significant change, even when the company was ordered to cease its operation, the looming threat from the tailings dam remained,” he said.

In 2004, Lepanto faced fines for polluting the Abra River. It was penalized by the Pollution Adjudication Board after failing the effluent standards required on rivers. The government slapped the company with minimal fees in the same year.

The Environmental Management Bureau (EMB) launched another probe in 2008. A test conducted in April that year found that lead content in Dam 5A exceeded the normal lead levels. The research findings and succeeding pollution probes by the EMB further strengthened the call for Lepanto’s closure.

But MGB’s Apil said Lepanto made adjustments to its operations before Lopez’s audit report came out, piping its tailings from its mills to a tailings dam in compliance with her orders for all mines to stop channeling their waste through bodies of water.

Lepanto recorded heavy losses in 2019. Its net loss widened to P1.03 billion from P775 million as revenues dipped 3% to P2.12 billion amid weak gold trade in 2019. The company was controlled by the family of businessman Felipe Yap.

Sinking towns

The environmental issues in Benguet’s mining towns are beyond the findings of Lopez’s audit report.

In October 2015, a sinkhole measuring about 150 meters swallowed six houses during the onslaught of Typhoon “Lando” at Sitio Kamangaan in Barangay Virac in Itogon.

Later, about 500 more houses were identified to be at risk of being swallowed by the sinkhole.

A report by the National Institute of Geological Sciences of the University of the Philippines (UP) said the subsidence was caused by a pipe out that started at the old drain tunnel of Benguet Corp. Heavy rains triggered the collapse of soil.

At that time, Mayor Palangdan insisted Benguet Corp. must admit responsibility for the Virac sinkhole and stay true to a promise to rehabilitate the mine. The sinkhole created a five-hectare danger zone.

But Benguet Corp. did not take responsibility for the sinkhole. Instead, it offered remedial measures and a relocation site at their old timber yard, former dumping grounds of the mining firm. However, resettlement is being hampered by disputes between land claimants and the mining company.

Those rendered homeless have since been renting homes while BC employees were given temporary resettlement.

Mining next door. These households are located near Benguet Corporation’s mine in Itogon, Benguet. Photograph: Jean Nicole Cortes/PCIJ

In 2018, when Typhoon “Ompong” struck, Palangdan was ready to renounce mining and go back to farming after small-scale miners were buried alive in a landslide widely attributed to the town’s mining operations.

He lamented how the town was destroyed, forcing people to look for other means of livelihood. 

Benguet Corp. again denied responsibility for the landslide and said illegal mining and gold processing activities were carried out without its permission. 

MGB also attested that the landslide was not caused by mining alone, as there were aggravating circumstances.

Environment Secretary Cimatu immediately ordered a halt to small-scale mining in the Cordillera and deployed soldiers and police to enforce the ban, sealing all tunnels. 

The death of the miners revived calls for the opening of a common mining site under the “Minahang Bayan” scheme for small-scale miners. 

The Minahang Bayan centralizes the processing of mineral output within a zone, helping curb illegal, unregulated and indiscriminate mining. It also allows the government to better monitor gold production by small-scale miners.

In 2019, a Minahang Bayan permit was awarded to the Loakan Itogon Pocket Miners Association (LIPMA) within the patented mineral claims of Benguet Corp., which endorsed the application. 

In Mankayan, sinking was first observed in 1972 or almost four decades after Lepanto started mining operations.

The subsidence has crept into the villages of Colalo and Poblacion, pushing former Mankayan mayor Materno Luspian to call for an independent probe to find the cause and solution to the perennial danger.

In 1975, a team from the then Bureau of Mines, Commission on Volcanology and Bureau of Public Works investigated ground movement in Barangay Poblacion.

The team found cracks along concrete pavements, house floors and walls, and displaced posts. Buildings and structures were found to be below standard and erected over weak foundations.

The probe found no conclusive evidence that underground work at the mines caused ground movement. Sinking was attributed to rainfall, topography, highly fractured and altered overlying rocks as well as disturbance of the slope by man and nature.

‘Bold moves need support’

Lopez’s Feb. 2, 2017 order was contentious even inside the DENR. Protocol was not followed, too.

Apil said the DENR didn’t normally slap mining companies with outright suspension orders. Usually, the DENR  informs the company first about its violations and gives it time to comply. 

The audit report was also submitted directly to the DENR central office in Quezon City, bypassing the regional offices. “Unfortunately, we were not provided [with the report] here in the region. It was only there, at the DENR central office that they vetted the results,” Apil said.

Mero said it resulted in confusion on the ground. It was not clear what agency was to enforce the directive and ensure the shutdown of mines. The MGB regional office had minimal participation in the audit, he said. 

On Aug. 9, 2019, MGB’s Cordillera office recommended the permanent lifting of the suspension order against Lepanto after it said the company fully complied with all the requirements set by the MICC.

On Jan. 9, 2020, Apil also endorsed granting Benguet Corp.’s appeal against the closure order but imposed conditions that the company would implement its corporate social responsibility programs.

Four years after Lopez’s shutdown orders, the status of Malacañang’s review is still unknown. CMP’s Dimaculangan said the MICC scheduled a second round of audits in early 2020 although he said he’s unaware if this was completed.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told PCIJ he’d defer to Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, whose office refused to divulge information on the specific cases.

The CMP said it was also waiting for Malacañang to finally resolve Lopez’s shutdown orders and “move mining forward,” citing the industry’s potential to contribute to economic recovery amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“To achieve this, we believe that the government should resolve the suspension orders issued by former Secretary Lopez, which is still pending with the Office of the President, after compliance with any corrective measures recommended by the MICC,” said Dimaculangan. 

President Duterte, who has kept the previous administration’s ban on open-pit mining, has repeatedly warned he would shut down mining operations in the country if miners didn’t follow tighter environmental rules.

But it was clear that Duterte didn’t have as much zeal for Lopez’s crusade, said La Viña, as when he ordered the shutdown and rehabilitation of the tourist island of Boracay in 2018.

“The lesson there was: You have to do bold things with the support of the president,” said La Viña. –– With research and reporting by Sherwin de Vera and Lauren Alimondo, PCIJ, January 2021

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.— PCIJ

Media groups rally behind AlterMidya; condemn ‘callous, dangerous, evidence-less red-tagging’

Media institutions defended a network of independent news outfits from government allegations it is a Communist “propaganda machinery.”

In a statement following a Senate hearing last week, the country’s most respected media institutions expressed support to the People’s Alternative Media Network (AlterMidya) and denounced the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC)’s repeated allegations against the group.

“We strongly condemn the NTF-ELCAC’s callous, dangerous, and evidence-less red-tagging of the Altermidya network,” the media organizations said.

The institutions include the Asian Center for Journalism at the Ateneo de Manila University, the University of the Philippines Department of Journalism, the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Consortium on Democracy and Disinformation, the Foundation for Media Alternatives, MindaNews, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Philippine Press Institute as well as media outfits Rappler and VERA Files.

At the third hearing of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, Peace, Unification and Reconciliation on red-tagging last December 1, NTF-ELCAC executive director Allen Capuyan said AlterMidya outfits were part of the Communist Party of the Philippines’ “propaganda machinery.”

The media institutions however said Capuyan’s allegation is “a baseless blanket statement… provided without proof, presented as an out-of-context info-graphic, fraught with deadly consequences.”

“Red-tagging, especially without credible evidence of wrongdoing, is a devious form of disinformation. Other institutions red-tagged have been systematically harassed or demonized; other individuals, especially women, have been trolled, detained, assaulted, even killed,” the signatories said.

The institutions said the Altermidya network offers independent readings of national issues and events that a functioning democracy should welcome as part of a healthy pluralism in the public discourse.

“It is admirably committed to reporting on corruption, human rights abuses, and environmental issues, as well as the plight of farmers and workers. And some of its institutional members, including but not limited to Bulatlat.com and Northern Dispatch, have a well-deserved national reputation for high-quality journalism: hard-hitting, yes, but also rooted in the facts,” their statement said.

The media organizations said the AlterMidya network has done its journalism despite great risk, including death threats and a massive distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack.

“We therefore view this latest act of red-tagging with the utmost concern. It renders these community journalists even more vulnerable to abuse and violence, at the exact time we need more of their journalism,” they said.

‘Small but courageous’

In an earlier statement, the NUJP called on fellow journalists and “all Filipinos who cherish freedom and democracy” to support AlterMidya “against the utterly malicious and clearly criminal red-tagging by security officials.”

The NUJP said the government’s “baseless accusations” against the alternative media are nothing new but the level of vilification from the Duterte administration through NTF-ELCAC indicates it is bent on silencing contrary views and voices to force conformity on the Filipino people.

The NUJP said the latest assault on the alternative media is similar to the silencing of ABS-CBN and the continued attacks on Rappler and other critical and independent news organizations.

The union said AlterMidya’s “small but courageous news outfits” play a vital role in serving the people’s right to know through reportage and analysis that provide fresh perspectives to often under-reported social issues.

These issues include land reform, human rights, the environment and injustice as well as oft-neglected sectors such as farmers, small fisher folk, the urban poor, laborers and indigenous people.

“The otherwise unheard or ignored voices they bring to the national conversation strengthen our democracy by helping shape a fuller, more accurate picture of our society, of our people.

This, of course, is what those who seek to impose their will on us fear most and why they seek to silence not only the alternative media but independent Philippine media as a whole,” the NUJP said.

“It has always been a matter of pride for the NUJP to have the alternative media with us and count some of their best journalists as leaders of the organization,” NUJP said.

‘Will not be muzzled’

Alternative news outfit Bulatlat.com in an editorial said it will not be muzzled by the government’s latest attempt to discredit independent journalism in the Philippines.

Bulatlat  said President Duterte had been attempting to picture independent journalists as

“enemies of the state for exposing the administration’s gross human rights record, and lately its inefficiency in handling the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of recent strong typhoons.”

“Our allegiance is to the truth. That such truth hurts those in power only affirms even more the relevance of independent and fearless journalism. We in Bulatlat will continue to perform our tasks, alongside our colleagues in the alternative and dominant media, because the Filipino people deserve no less,” the country’s oldest existing online news outfit said.

Mindanao’s Davao Today also said it is concerned with the “malicious and baseless attempt to taint the integrity of Davao Today in its role as the voice of the Mindanao community.”

“In a national landscape where dissenting voices are increasing and systematically silenced, independent and community-sourced bearers of information have become our last stronghold of democratic practice. Community journalism should flourish to serve the community as Davao Today has been doing,” the outfit said in a statement.

AlterMidya said it sees the latest attacks against itself and its members as a form of intimidation to force critical journalists into silence amid growing discontent among the people due to the Duterte government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

AlterMidya said it will pursue legal action against NTF-ELCAC’s “malicious smear campaign.” # (Raymund B. Villanueva)