China-funded bridge project could harm Paradise Reef, environmentalists warn

Camille Elemia
2022.11.17
Davao, Philippines
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China-funded bridge project could harm Paradise Reef, environmentalists warn A boat carries Filipino and Chinese workers involved in construction of the bridge linking Davao city and Samal island in the Philippines, Nov. 6, 2022.
Camille Elemia/BenarNews

Updated at 11:00 a.m. ET on 2022-11-18

Construction of a China-funded bridge to connect Davao city with Samal island in the southern Philippines threatens a large coral reef, environmental experts and community leaders warn, but the Philippine government will not relocate it despite their pleas.

The nearly 4-km (2.5-mile) project is being promoted as part of an effort to develop Samal, a largely underdeveloped island that can be reached only by ferry or boat. Environmental groups have said they are in favor of a bridge to cut travel time to five minutes, but not at its current location.

Conserving Paradise Reef, the 7,500-square-meter (80,729-square-foot) reef in the area, is vital to protecting this coastal community from the effects of climate change, experts say. Coral reefs decrease hazards caused by storms and sea-level rise, according to marine biologists. 

Environmentalists and the Rodriguez family, the owners of the Paradise Island Park & Beach Resort located near the reef, are questioning the decision by the government, its foreign consultant Ove Arup and Partners Hong Kong Ltd., and local subcontractor Galerio Environmental Consultancy, to place the bridge’s landing area on the island near the reef because, they say, it plays a crucial role in the Davao Gulf ecosystem.

“That reef does not belong to Samal island or to Davao city. That is part of the Republic of the Philippines and as Filipino residents, we are responsible. We must hold our government accountable for that,” said John Lacson, a Davao-based marine biologist who has volunteered to help the Rodriguez family in its efforts to persuade the government to reroute the bridge.

The Asian Development Bank helped fund a feasibility study by Arup, but the Rodriguez family contends that it lacked consultation with locals. The state-owned China Road and Bridge Corp. is the contractor for the project. 

In 2019, the landing point for the bridge on Samal was changed from the original site – a former shipyard – to the coast of Costa Marina Beach Resort, adjacent to Paradise Resort and also owned by the family.

“We are in favor of the bridge. But let us not destroy the Paradise Reef. Our family and ancestors have long protected it,” resort manager Narciso Rodriguez said in an interview with BenarNews. 

Father Joel Tabora, president of the Ateneo de Davao University, echoed the statement in a roundtable discussion on Nov. 5.

“We are not against the bridge but when there are clear alternatives, here we take a stand for the environment. Let’s build a bridge but let’s not pursue Paradise Reef,” Tabora said. 

Groundbreaking

Despite such concerns raised about the bridge’s potential impact on the environment, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. led a groundbreaking ceremony in Davao City in late October and in the presence of Huang Xilian, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines. 

“This is a testament to the strong and ever-growing foundation of the bilateral relations and cooperation between the two countries. It is a pleasure as a nation to join hands with you for the eventual success of the endeavor,” Marcos said.

Vice President Sara Duterte, and her brother, Davao City Mayor Sebastian Duterte, also attended the event. 

“This is not the only project that we have depended upon, the concessional loans and even grants from the government of the People’s Republic of China, and it is clear to see the benefits that those projects bring to our people, to our economy and to the Philippines,” Marcos said. 

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Coral reefs and fish thrive at Paradise Reef at Samal island, southern Philippines, Nov. 6, 2022. [Camille Elemia/BenarNews]

Differing feasibility studies

The 2019 Arup feasibility study contrasted starkly with one done by the Japan International Cooperation Agency three years earlier when JICA was set to finance the project, before the government approved the Chinese loan under the then-Duterte administration’s Build Build Build program. 

Japan estimated the project cost at 16 billion pesos (U.S. $278.3 million). Arup, meanwhile, estimated the cost at 23.4 billion pesos ($407 million) with 90 percent funded by a loan from Beijing.

The Japanese project proposed a different Samal island landing site for the bridge that would have been cheaper and would have had minimal environmental impact. Instead of landing near the reef, the proposal called for the bridge to land at an old shipyard in Barangay Caliclic that is rich in grassland but not corals.

Locals call the site Bridgeport.

“The ratio of live coral reef is less than 10 percent, according to the existing material condition. The habitats of vulnerable species of flora and fauna are far away from the project site and the project would not affect these species,” the 2016 Japanese report said.

The Philippines Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), the project’s lead agency, did not respond immediately to a BenarNews request for comment about the decision to move the project.

But in an Oct. 7 statement, the department said that the final alignment was a product of “comprehensive study by experts,” taking into consideration the environment and the navigational and aeronautical restrictions. It cited the bridge’s proximity to the Davao City International Airport and ship routes. 

The Japanese report, seen by BenarNews, included those considerations.

Issues  

The Rodriguez family in particular is alleging that the government has lacked transparency and failed to consult with locals about the updated landing site for the bridge.  

“We only found out that the landing site will be here when we saw Galerio staff surveying the area in 2019,” Narciso Rodriguez said, referring to the subcontractor. 

“The distrust grew when Chinese contractors, with a DPWH official, trespassed into our property on Oct. 4 with armed Philippine Coast Guard officials,” he said. “Instead of passing through our boat entrance, they docked at our private jetty.” 

The Rodriguez family had raised concerns during an August 2019 meeting with project officials at the DPWH central office in Manila. That December, the family offered to donate property near Bridgeport to be the new landing site.

Marine biologists said the property, like Bridgeport, has limited marine life and is the suitable location.

The Rodriguez family said the government has refused to accept the property.

Since then, the family met with project officials again in Manila February 2020.

Julito Sarmiento, an environmental lawyer representing the family, said Arup presented its 2019 study including photos of a dilapidated Paradise Reef in murky waters. Sarmiento and the family objected to the photos, saying they were either fabricated or taken in another area. 

The family responded by showing the results of its commissioned study, led by Filipina Sotto, a marine biologist from Cebu province. Her study called on the government to relocate Arup’s “wrongly selected” landing site. 

“The DPWH apologized to us and stopped Arup’s presentation. The next meeting a month later, Arup presented a new study, so that means they don’t know the area, they don’t know what they’re doing,” Sarmiento said while showing BenarNews a recording of the meeting.

The Rodriguez family-commissioned report showed hundreds of species in the area, a finding supported by Lacson, the other marine biologist.

“You cannot pay somebody to misconstrue the truth. This is the truth – there is an abundant life there, a thriving coral community,” Lacson said. 

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Chinese and Filipino workers prepare for construction of the bridge to Samal island at the Lanang Beach Club in Davao city, Philippines, Nov. 6, 2022. [Camille Elemia/BenarNews]

Fred Medina, Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving commissioner, said he had frequented the area over the years and backed the latest study. 

“The report of Sotto’s team is accurate. In terms of coral density, the corals are alive in Paradise Reef as compared to the shipyard or Bridgeport. We should not disturb the environment,” Medina said during the Nov. 5 roundtable discussion.

By comparison, Arup and the government reported that there are only 12 percent of live corals and that they are in “poor condition,” according to the Rodriguez family.

Arup also did not immediately respond to a request from BenarNews for comment.

BenarNews visited the contested area on Nov. 6 and saw stretches of hard and soft corals filled with plants and sea creatures. Just a few hundred meters away, two boats coming from the Davao city side were carrying Chinese and Filipino workers.

Sites for the bridge pillars are surrounded by a mix of hard and soft corals.

Marine biologists said that mitigation efforts, including a silt curtain, would be useless around the construction sites because of the changing tide levels. A silt curtain is a device used to protect water quality in nearby rivers and seas from sediment.

“The coral reefs will die in one or two years,” Sarmiento said.

On the Davao side, two Chinese construction workers and nearly a dozen Filipinos were operating a machine to test the soil.

The bridge is set to be finished by 2027, but Sarmiento said there still is time to push for the realignment of the bridge. 

“It’s all about the president’s political will,” Sarmiento said. “If he wants to save the environment and make it his legacy, he can do it.”

This story has been corrected to say that a study commissioned by the Rodriguez family found hundreds of species in Paradise Reef.

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