From the highway, speeding motorists often breeze past the clump of mangroves along the Manila Bay coastal road between Las Piñas and Parañaque without a second glance. But occasionally, a flock of birds in the lagoon catches their attention, the only indication that this is no ordinary coastline.
Declared the Las Piñas-Parañaque Critical Habitat and Ecotourism Area (LPPCHEA) in 2007, the islands were included in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance last March 15, one of only six such sites all over the country.
In fact, beyond the squatter shanties and floating trash – plastic bottles, tin cans, rubber slippers and other waste pushed inland from the sea – there's an unlikely paradise known only to intrepid bird watchers.
Nestled in the sunny lagoon are two strips of land known as Freedom Islands where 80 species of migratory and resident birds such as the endemic Philippine Duck, the endangered Chinese Egret, and the rare Pied Avocet may be seen.
However, its uniqueness may not be enough to save this last piece of wilderness in the burgeoning metropolis of Manila from falling victim to urban development.
Airport authorities are calling for the transfer of the wildlife sanctuary to another location, blaming it for bird strikes at the nearby Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the country's premiere gateway.
A P14-billion land reclamation project, which will surround the protected area, also threatens the islands' existence and may eventually cut it off from the rest of Manila Bay.
The protected area covers 175 hectares of mudflats, mangroves, and a diverse assortment of birds in addition to the two islands, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The Parañaque River runs along its northern boundary, the Las Piñas River on the south.
Nine species of mangroves including the nilad, where the city of Maynila got its name, grow thick and wild along the shoreline and serve as the roosting, nesting, and feeding grounds of the birds.
Annually, up to 5,000 migratory birds following the East Asian–Australasian Flyway make a stopover in the area during the migration season. Conservationists say this figure is about one-sixth of the number seen in the 1970s.
A visit to the islands may not be enticing at first, with fishermen on the shore busy filling dingy styrofoam boxes with their catch for the day – shrimp, mussels, clams, oyster, or fish.
But once inside, the enthralling sight of small bird colonies facing the bay or just gathering inside the lagoon is a welcome experience for harried Manila residents. With a slight movement the birds fly off, just like pigeons scattered around a busy church square, except that the island's feathered denizens are much bigger with longer beaks and more colorful features.
Since 2011, the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) has been calling for the removal of the sanctuary purportedly to avert further bird strikes, one of the natural hazards in airports around the world.
So far, there has been no recorded fatal accident from bird strikes at the airport. In a report, the National Economic and Development Authority's Land Use Committee also noted that "the incidence of bird strikes could not be attributed directly" to the existence of the bird sanctuary, which is located some three kilometers from the tip of NAIA's runway.
"The frequency of bird strikes has been erratic in the past nine years… There are anecdotal reports that most bird strikes are caused by pigeons that are raised in the nearby communities in Parañaque," according to the report dated March 20, 2012.
"While aviation safety is of primary importance, there is no substantial reason for demolishing the LPPCHEA," NEDA said. And even if the sanctuary is removed, "bird strikes will continue given the Philippines' location along the East Asian–Australasian Flyway and the airport's proximity to Manila Bay and Laguna de Bay, which are also resting or staging sites of migratory birds."
Mike Lu, president of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, agreed with the NEDA's findings and even proposed the establishment of more sanctuaries to divert the birds from the NAIA grounds.
"Pag nawala 'yung bird sanctuary, the birds will look for alternative places to rest and one big area is the airport runway. So we think that if you take away the bird sanctuary, there will be nowhere else to go but the runway," he told GMA News Online.
"I would even advocate creating more sanctuaries to attract the birds away from the runway. That's a better solution," the bird enthusiast added.
A proposed ordinance in the City of Parañaque prohibits the breeding of pigeons and other birds within four kilometers of the airport.
… or land reclamation?
The controversy about bird strikes cropped up again when tycoon Ramon Ang took over Philippine Airlines in April 2012. This time, environmentalists asserted the issue was a smokescreen for a planned 750-hectare reclamation project – which includes the bird sanctuary – involving Ang's company that has been up in the air for two decades now.
The Bay City project, which was formerly called Three Islands, was stalled after it became controversial during the 1990s due to alleged corruption coming from the government's highest ranks. It was dubbed "the grandmother of all scams," and a senate inquiry was called to investigate it.
A report by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism at the time said about P3 billion in bribes changed hands for what was then known as the PEA-Amari deal, referring to the Philippine Estates Authority and the Amari Coastal Bay Resources Corp.
Later, Amari's right to reclaim the land was passed on to the Central Bay Reclamation and Development Corporation (CBRDC), then to Centennial City, which is now called Cyber Bay Corp.
When the Supreme Court declared the joint venture agreement between PEA and Amari as null and void in 2003, Cyber Bay pursued a P13.385 billion reimbursement claim with the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA), which replaced PEA.
Throughout the legal saga, Atty. Peter Suchianco, a consultant of Ramon Ang, was a constant presence in the various corporations. He served as the director and president of CBRDC, and when the company was taken over by Cyber Bay, he became the new firm's president for five terms and director since 2002. At the same time, Ang sat either as president or chairman of the board of Cyber Bay.
In recent years, a new property developer named AllTech Contractors, Inc. has entered the picture, providing an unsolicited proposal to reclaim the coastal area in Las Piñas and Parañaque, now whittled down to 635 hectares and excluding Freedom Islands.
According to company records, Suchianco is AllTech's project manager for the proposed reclamation. But despite their interlocking interests, Suchianco denied in an interview last year that Ang had a hand in AllTech.
City within a city
With the growing trend in contemporary urban development towards city enclaves, or "city within a city," it's no surprise that Las Piñas is eager to join the game. But since, as it claims, the city has no more land to develop, the local government opted to have an agreement with AllTech for a P14-billion reclamation project.
In an interview, Las Piñas Mayor Vergel "Nene" Aguilar said the proposed reclamation is a mixed-use development with commercial and residential units, plus entertainment centers like malls and casinos. It would be like The Fort in Taguig City, or Eastwood in Quezon City, he said.
He estimates revenues of up to P8 billion per year once the reclamation project is in place, or more than five times the P1.4 billion annual income of the Las Piñas local government. In addition, the project would generate some 30,000 new jobs, he said.
But environmental economist Dr. Oggie Arcenas notes that local government units need to think beyond political boundaries and local revenues.
"Kadalasan silaw sa pera pero in fairness to them, it could be because they're in need. Kailangan nila ng pondo para sa projects nila. [But] everything should be taken into account," he asserts. "Someone will bear the cost. Who will shoulder the cost?"
Last year, the Supreme Court issued a writ of kalikasan against the project but did not grant a temporary environmental protection order that would stop it, prompting the petitioners to seek recourse with the Court of Appeals, where the case remains pending.
The legal battle over the reclamation project has pitted Aguilar against his sister, Las Piñas Rep. Cynthia Villar, who is leading the petition. She claims to have the support of some 300,000 residents of Las Piñas, who fear that the project would block the natural flow of rivers into Manila Bay and bring floods to the city during storms.
The proposed area to be reclaimed will not include the bird sanctuary, but the map below shows that it would blanket almost the entirety of the Freedom Islands and choke off access to Manila Bay.
"They want to reclaim seaward, but then the sea is part of the feeding ground of all the birds. It sustains the lagoon inside. If they continue with the plan to reclaim, the sea will be far away. We fear that the marine life inside the lagoon will die," WBCP's Lu says.
Noise pollution and siltation during the process of reclamation may also drive away the birds and fishes, the bird enthusiast noted.
Dr. Rene Rollon, director of the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, also pointed out that the project will cause "irreversible habitat destruction" of the mangrove ecosystem.
"Kaya natin pinuprotektahan ang mangroves dahil sa kanyang function at ginagawa sa system, and among those functions are as coastline stabilizer, spawning grounds, feeding grounds," he said.
"Kung isolated na ang mga mangroves mula sa open area ng bay, ano na ang function niya? Wala na, decoration na lang. We [may] have mangroves in an ecotourism spot, pero wala namang function," he explained.
Through the years, the ecosystems in the Manila Bay area have deteriorated due to economic development activities, but many life forms still thrive within its borders.
"Hindi naman tayo totally against reclamation, e. We need development, but we have to balance development and protection of natural resources," LPPCHEA program manager Rey Aguinaldo told GMA News Online.
"I will prefer to maintain this one and build it as an ecotourism area and a (source of) pride for the Philippines… [having a] wetlands park in Manila Bay," he noted.
Aguinaldo says the gains from preserving the bird sanctuary may not be immediately apparent, but it will prove its worth in the future. "Kapag na-reserve mo [ang area] hindi agad mare-realize ang immediate gains, but in the long term saka mo lang mare-realize kasi na-preserve mo na ang area," he says. – YA/HS, GMA News