Rappler reports highlight concerns, potential conflict of interest in Manila Bay reclamation project

CHEERS TO Rappler for its three reports that together went beyond just reporting President Marcos’ suspension order of all reclamation projects in the Manila Bay area, except one. While the rest of the media merely repeated the president’s statement, Rappler on August 9 posted a story that flagged political interests involved, and followed this up with two more linked articles that directed attention to the broader picture of urgent concerns tied to the government-backed build-up in the reclaimed area.

The first report exposed the special favor of exemption extended to a political family allied to President Marcos. The second discussed the perspective on reclamation by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and the third noted the absence of an actual copy of any presidential suspension order a week after Marcos issued the moratorium. 

Rappler’s Iya Gozum consistently tracked the issue, providing the necessary background on this development and a broad view of the problems these projects might have on the environment and ecosystem. 

What’s the Story? 

On August 7, in a briefing on the Bulacan flooding, media reported President Marcos’ announcement that all reclamation projects in Manila Bay – with exception of one – have been suspended pending his review and assessment of the management problems in these projects (“‘Di masyadong magandang patakbo”). The president did not go into further detail but said that the lone project allowed to proceed had been reviewed. Marcos did not identify that project. 

Media hardly followed up on this policy statement. But some reporters online and on TV did report that dredging activities continued in some of Cavite’s coastal towns along the Manila Bay.

Prior to Marcos’ announcement, news accounts had cited the United States Embassy’s concerns over reclamation projects tied to China Communications Construction Co. (CCCC), a company owned by the Chinese government. US Embassy Spokesperson Kanishka Gangopadhyay had noted in a statement that the US government blacklisted CCCC in 2020 for helping “militarize” outposts in the South China Sea. Gangopadhyay added that CCCC “has also been cited by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank for engaging in fraudulent business practices.”

On August 10, some media reported the calls made by several civil society organizations to suspend all reclamation projects, stressing the displacement of families and environmental concerns, including flooding and loss of livelihood for fisherfolk. They also urged President Marcos to disclose the exempted project. No government agency announced which project was allowed to proceed and no reporter got the information. 

What Rappler Got Right?

Gozum produced three reports on the issue, detailing and highlighting both the political connection behind the exemption and other crucial concerns about the reclamation development policy pushed by the government.

Rappler did right to expose the president’s obvious favor given to a political ally and his family. This would have been easy enough for other media to do. 

Gozum first picked up Waterfront Manila’s “fact box” published on August 7 in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The ad said since 2022, the Gatchalian-led Manila Waterfront reclamation project obtained permits from the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA) and DENR. The company clarified that its contractor, China First Highway Engineering Corp., was not flagged by the World Bank and was independent of its parent firm CCCC. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian admitted during the Kapihan sa Manila Bay Forum on August 2 that he had known about the project and that it “went through a thorough process,” but denied direct involvement.

Gozum recalled that Sherwin ran for senator under the Marcos-Duterte slate and is now part of the Senate majority; and that his brother, Rex, is a member of the Marcos Cabinet as secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

Gozum’s second article broadened the discussion on the government’s reclamation policy, especially in the Manila Bay area, citing DENR Secretary Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga who questioned the inconsistency in the government’s policy: the drive to build-up on reclaimed land and preserving Manila Bay and its ecosystem. 

The article revealed an important policy lapse: the DENR has not been in a position to question the reclamation projects and to halt them. It highlighted the policy inconsistency – probably even ambivalence – and the favor the government gives to real estate developments on Manila Bay. Yulo-Loyzaga emphasized that a 2008 Supreme Court ruling directs 13 agencies to work together in preserving the Bay, but the mandate cannot be fulfilled if “new structures” are built. The secretary said her agency is still in the process of doing a cumulative assessment of the impact of development on Manila Bay, as projects had been evaluated individually.

Gozum’s third article stressed that media have yet to obtain a copy of the suspension order, as well as the list of suspended projects that would help verify the implementation of the moratorium. She also pointed to the conflicting figures provided by the DENR and PRA on the total number of reclamation projects in Manila Bay.

Why Is this Important?

Journalism is one of the best ways to inform citizens about policy matters, which can be reflected in statements made by public officials. Reporting what was said is only the first step. Media need to follow up on both the larger landscape of concerns as well as the details, especially when these involve preferential treatment given to members or allies of the current administration, including their business interests. 

The importance of environment is paramount, given the reality of climate change and extreme weather conditions. It becomes urgent for journalists to include the perspective of those involved in environmental protection. Media must scrutinize the role the government, particularly the DENR, plays in all kinds of ventures – not just reclamation – that might have an impact on the fragile ecosystems of coastal land and surrounding waters. 

The Manila Bay reclamation project presents a case study with which to check the soundness of reclamation as policy, especially with conflict-of-interest issues sparked by the mix of business and politics. At this point, media must fix its attention on policy implementation as development itself can subvert environmental protection. 

President Marcos has said all the right things: In his second State of the Nation Address he promised a “whole-of-nation” approach to the environment. It’s the media’s duty to if the speech is all just words, with no follow up action.