(Photos by Yvette Lee)
The series of seizures of Philippine black coral and other threatened marine life should not come as a surprise. Half a decade ago, the problem was outright poaching by foreign vessels. That phenomenon continues: Late last month authorities apprehended 122 Vietnamese fishermen onboard vessels flying Philippine flags around Balabac, Palawan.
But poaching, with its potential for diplomatic fallout, can be a costly exercise. So four years ago, the biggest illegal extractors of Philippine marine life – and possibly the biggest consumer group, too – were already laying down the foundations for more cost-effective enterprises. Doing so required setting up layers of corruption.
I wrote an article published on Jan. 17, 2007 that not only tackled poaching, but also the arrangements being done to streamline the harvest and smuggling out of Philippine marine life. It led off:
China, host of the 2008 Olympics, has launched a campaign to highlight its “Green” side but Philippine environmentalists and government officials say poaching activities of its nationals veer toward “organized crime.”
“In Palawan, Tawi-Tawi, Jolo and Basilan, there are Chinese ‘tourists’ spending time in fishing villages, befriending locals and placing orders for endangered aquatic and land animals,” according to Lory Tan, World Wildlife Fund-Philippines executive director.
In between scouting for friendly locals to the actual trapping of wildlife and smuggling these out of the country, are several steps that require an intricate arrangement of “top to bottom” bribes, Tan (said)
Only last week, Tan (now vice president and chief executive of WWF Philippines) warned about the destruction of Philippine coral reefs.
He said 50 years of nonstop destructive commercial and poorly managed artisanal fishing has left only 5% in excellent condition. Only 1% remains “pristine.”Another report cited destroyed reefs in an area five times the size of Metro Manila.
Whether you’re harvesting coral or just destroying them in the hunt for other marine life, it’s a lucrative business. The value of just one shipment, believed to have originated from the coast of Cotabato, was pegged at P35 million -- for 196 kilos of sea whips corals, 161 heads of preserved hawksbill and green turtles, 7,300 pieces of seashells and 21,169 pieces of black coral.
Another recent case in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu province, featured ready-to-export corals and shells, stocked in two shanties and bound for South Korea. Nathaniel Lucero, aquaculturist from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, said the recovered shells and coral are “all endangered species” – nobody is allowed to harvest, much less export, these.
(By the way, Black Coral isn’t always black. Diver and award-winning photographer Yvette Leem who shared the photo above of a live Black Coral Tree, says: “They come in different colors, white, orange (like this one), fluorescent yellow and green. It’s called black coral because when the stems and branches are exposed to the sun and dried, they become shiny especially after being polished,” Lee explains. True black coral is seldom seen in commercial quantities, having fallen victim to decades of pillage. Video clips of the seizures actually show sea fans, Lee adds. The most expensive coral is actually the red kind found in the Mediterranean area.)
Back in 2006, scientists were already warning of the great pressures placed on our seas. An article by Katherine Adraneda noted that the World Bank viewed the Philippines as the world’s "center of marine biodiversity" because of its vast species of marine and coastal resources. But the WB report, "Philippine Environment Monitor 2005," also criticized the country for using its coastal resources "in a very inefficient manner”.
Elisea Gozun, former environment secretary and WB consultant, presented the report:
“Gozun said the country’s fishery resources are considered more heavily exploited than elsewhere in the world, and that the country has the most degraded reefs compared to five other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia...
Plenty of lip service has been paid to marine conservation. Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a diver, even ordered then environment secretary, Angelo Reyes, to convene a task force and come up with a national integrated coastal management plan.
And yet the same administration -- headed by a woman who liked being photographed with the fishes and the big blue sea -- ignored reports of big-scale poaching.
The Arroyo administration even blocked efforts by hard-working sea rangers to apprehend poachers and bring them to justice.
Angelique Songco, head of the Tubbataha Management Office, said that in several cases, Department of Justice Officials in the national capital relieved local prosecutors, replacing them with Manila-based fiscals. Or they ordered a reversal of findings. In one case, a judge halted proceedings mid-trial to allow a plea bargain by the suspects.
TOM lawyer, Gerthie Anda said: "It's the trend; they'll bargain down to the least serious crime, often with advice by government officials."
In one incident I also wrote about, the Department of Foreign Affairs actually tried to intercede for the poachers. (The DFA was then headed by former secretary Alberto Romulo, who was initially asked to stay on by President Benigno Aquino III.)
The December, 26, 2006 story went this way:
They got caught red-handed with 800 live fish, including 300 of the endangered Mameng (Napoleon Wrasse), but 30 Chinese poachers apprehended on December 21 by rangers at the Tubbataha protected marine park, may yet get to walk if the Chinese government has its way.
Chinese diplomats have reportedly demanded the release of the crew, according to sources at the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Chinese, the sources said, even want the Navy to escort the 300-gross ton Hoi Wan out of the area.
The Tubbataha rangers’ appeals for a Navy ship to escort the vessels to Puerto Princesa were ignored. But an officer from the Chinese Embassy suddenly arrived in Puerto Princesa within 24 hours of the report.
An official of the DFA also reportedly called Puerto Princesa to defend the Chinese, calling the arrest irregular and claiming the vessel was merely passing through Philippine waters.
The reason for that became clear a few days later. I got hold of a copy of Chinese Ambassador Li Jinjun’s letter to Romulo, urging the Philippine official to “pay personal attention” to the case.
Li warned the case could jeopardize the attendance of Premier Wen Jiabao in an upcoming summit of Southeast Asian nations and their East Asian partners.
Ambassador Li Jinjun linked the case to a Philippine-China fishery cooperation agreement and the country’s relations with Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of Filipinos work as domestic help.(Yap did not deny the report or address the issue of Chinese pressure, except to say his office was coordinating with the rangers and WWF.)
The envoy said the embassy was in close contact with the Department of Agriculture and the AFP Western Command. Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap, the ambassador claimed, had promised “to resolve the issue as soon as possible” if the fishes were released
He urged Romulo to agree to the release of crew and their vessel before it was escorted to Puerto Princesa. “In that case, we are afraid that it may make the situation more complicated and delay the early resolution.”
Poaching, of course, was happening way before Mrs. Arroyo assumed power. From 1998 to 2006, rangers across the country arrested close to 600 Chinese nationals. There was only one conviction – for 17 poachers nabbed with 54 marine turtles in December 2005.
The crime carries a 12 to 20-year jail sentence. But by the first semester of 2006, President Arroyo had signed a pardon for the Chinese nationals.
At the time I was writing the article, lawyers and government officials were trying to persuade Manila to prevent 30 Chinese poachers from the Hoi Wan from leaving the country following their release from bail. They were definitely candidates for flight, having been caught with 2,000 fishes, compressor equipment, wet suits and ten sampans on their vessel.
We’re still being bullied in the seas around Palawan, but the rape of our wathttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifers has also become an efficient criminal enterprise in the years since the WWF warned of “buyers” doing the rounds of coastal towns.
The volume of the recent seizures indicates a long-running operation, complete with half-way warehouses and consolidation centers. That doesn’t happen overnight. In 2007, Tan was already talking about “local managers”.
Senate Environment Committee chairman, Juan Miguel Zubiri has identified financier of black coral-consignee Exequiel Navarro as Olivia Lim Li. He wants authorities to investigate whether Li and her cohorts have become recalcitrant despite previous criminal charges.
Officials had apparently intercepted in 2008 a similar shipment traced back to Li. So it’s not clear why Toto Suansing, Bureau of Customs Deputy Director, claimed: “First time nag-crop up ang name nito”?)
There is another urgent reason to get to the bottom of these coral and marine life smuggling. Years back, a senior National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) official told me that “impunity” could encourage involvement in other dangerous forms of smuggling.
“If they can carry fishes and other animals, they can carry drugs or even arms,” the NBI official warned.
The Philippines has a serious problem with narcotics and terrorism and the provinces cited by Tan are among the weakest links in the government’s law and order campaign. They are also among the poorest, together with some Eastern Visayas provinces where, “sailors on board a Chinese vessel en route to Hong Kong from South America dumped two tons of cocaine off the central Philippine seas in December 2009”. By July of the following year, more than 500 kilos of cocaine had been turned over by fishermen or seized from those attempting to exploit the bonanza.
Here’s the thing: If crime groups are free to harvest, collect and consolidate corals and marine life, what else have they been stuffing into those huge containers?