The Philippines and Canada were locked in a dispute over garbage Thursday, two days after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened war if Canadian officials refuse to take back tons of waste shipped in batches from Ottawa to Manila five years ago.
Canada’s envoy to the Philippines, John Holmes, said Thursday that his government was committed to resolving the issue of more than 100 shipping containers filled with household trash, such as plastic bottles, bags and used adult diapers that were shipped to Manila between 2013 and 2014.
Holmes’ statement came after Duterte, in a meeting with local officials on Tuesday after visiting areas devastated by an earthquake in the northern province of Pampanga, burst out in anger and threatened extreme steps if Canada does not take back its trash.
“I want a boat prepared. I’ll give a warning to Canada maybe next week that they better pull that thing out or I will set sail, I will throw it in Canada,” Duterte said, according to official transcripts released by his office.
“Let’s quarrel with Canada. I will declare war against them. We can face them,” he said. “I will advise Canada that your garbage is on the way. Prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to.”
The outspoken Philippine leader, who styles himself as a tough anti-crime crusader, is known to spew out outlandish threats and often prefaces with remarks with “son-of-a-b … h.” He had once threatened to ride a jetski and plant the country's flag in disputed South China Sea islands, later clarifying that he made the statement in jest.
Holmes said he was shocked by Duterte’s rants, which were aired nationwide over state-run television. He said Canada had been working on the possible return of the garbage.
“That’s why, frankly, I was surprised by the comments because we are working closely with the government of the Philippines to resolve this issue,” Holmes told reporters.
“I won’t comment on the specific words of the president or his tone, but I will say this, our prime minister committed and has recommitted to resolving this issue, including taking the waste back to Canada,” Holmes said, referring to Canadian leader Justin Trudeau.
In a statement issued after Duterte’s threat was made public, the Canadian Embassy in Manila said a joint technical working group, consisting of officials from both countries, was examining ways to properly remove the waste from the Philippines. No specifics, however, were given.
“Canada is strongly committed to collaborating with the Government of the Philippines to resolve this issue and is aware of the court decision ordering the importer to ship the material back to Canada,” it said. Ottawa had earlier said it could not compel a private shipper to return the garbage to Canada.
In 2015, Philippine lawmakers claimed that at least 26 shipping containers of the trash had been dumped in a private landfill in Capas town in Tarlac province, north of Manila.
Duterte’s spokesman: Relations tested by garbage issue
Reacting on Canada’s statement, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said that the 70-year diplomatic relations between the two countries was being tested by the garbage issue.
“We take note that its response is not appropriate to the strong statement we made against its throwing its garbage to our land. Our stand against its making our country a garbage bin of their waste is non-negotiable. It cannot dilly-dally on its getting them back,” Panelo said.
“It must retrieve them pronto or we throw them back to its shores. Its offensive act cannot be countenanced and any further discussion on the matter is unwelcome and unnecessary,” he said, emphasizing that Canada had not issued an expression of regret.
The verbal clash between the two nations occurred a year after Duterte cancelled a multimillion-dollar agreement to buy 16 military helicopters from a Canada-based manufacturer after Trudeau’s government expressed concerns they could be used in anti-insurgency operations.
Recently, EcoWaste Coalition, a group of environmentalists, wrote Trudeau and his environment minister, Catherine McKenna, asking them to act on the trash scandal.
“The dumping of Canadian wastes in the Philippines is immoral and illegal. We respectfully request that the Canadian government provide a clear and definite date by which it will repatriate its garbage, so that this protracted ordeal can finally be promptly ended,” said Aileen Lucero, EcoWaste Coalition’s national coordinator.
In 2016, a court in Manila ordered the private importers, the Chronic Plastics Inc., the Valenzuela-based consignee, to ship the 2,500 tons of waste back to Canada.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.