By Miranda Autor

For 15 years, 54-year-old Jimmy San Jose had been working as a caretaker of the Bulakan Mangrove Nursery and Eco-Park in Barangay Taliptip in Bulakan town, Bulacan.

But when he first heard of San Miguel Corporation (SMC)’s plans to build an international airport near the park, the news came as a surprise to him as none of the residents had been consulted before any decisions were made.

“Nagulat nga kami nun. Di namin alam pati eco [park], nadamay,” San Jose grumbled. “Bigla na bigla kami nun dahil biglaan talaga ang pagkaka-evict…Wala naman kaming magagawa.”

While SMC has suitably relocated San Jose and his neighbors and compensated them for their houses, the eco-park’s fate remains in question as the corporation begins construction of the New Manila International Airport (NMIA).

This, as Taliptip residents who depend on the area’s natural features for their livelihoods have been moved out to make way for construction of the 2,500-hectare, four-runway aerotropolis, despite mounting concerns raised by environmental advocates.

Why now?

SMC proposed the project in 2018 after signing a deal with the Department of Transportation (DOTr).

The construction of NMIA has been eyed as a move to decongest Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA), the main gateway into the Philippines and tagged as among the world’s busiest airports.

Even as the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic brought airports around the country to a grinding halt, the aerotropolis is still greenlit to be built.

Other locals in Bulacan fear that the aerotropolis might worsen floods in their own communities as a result of land reclamation in Taliptip and neighboring Barangay Bambang.

Science advocacy organization AGHAM has also questioned the Environmental Clearance Certificate issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), noting the importance of the mangrove forests in the area.

No-go for the mangroves

As construction of the NMIA continues, the lot designated for the airport has slowly creeped into the Bulakan Mangrove Eco Park, a sprawling marine habitat filled with lush greenery and the titular mangroves.

Although government offices and SMC’s environmental consultant firm, Philkairos Inc., have assured Bulakenyos that the project will spare the mangroves and leave them undisturbed, this seems unlikely, given the conditions required for smooth operations at the airport.

“Tatanggalin yun [mga mangroves]. Pagka hinangin ng eroplano, maraming ibon kaya’t matatanggal yun,” San Jose said, reacting to the statements made by the government and private sector. “Hindi naman pwede na may puno dahil dadapunan ng ibon at dadami ng ibon dun [at the airport].”

The possible presence of birds at the NMIA could potentially endanger the safety of planes taking off if they are found on runways and in the immediate vicinity of the airport.

As long as the mangroves are around, they will continue to attract disruptive wildlife for being a suitable habitat.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the dense root systems of mangrove forests work to trap sediments, which in turn stabilizes coastlines and prevents erosion from waves or storms.

Because the mangroves at the eco-park play a crucial role in mitigating the severity of typhoons and floods, removing them may greatly affect the area’s ecology and environment, posing a threat to coastal communities in Bulacan.

However, SMC has its own plans. Due to his experience working with mangroves, San Jose was recruited by them to help with their tree-planting efforts.

“Kinuha naman ako ng airport. Magagawa daw ng eco-park dito sa Paombong,” he said.

San Jose also noted that the mangroves may take a while before maturing, as he and his colleagues had planted some of them in 2013.

While SMC is planting 25,000 mangroves in Hagonoy, Bulacan and intends to plant a total of 190,000 mangroves across Central Luzon, AGHAM Diliman and PAMALAKAYA pointed out in a joint statement that there is a logging ban on mangroves because of the slow growth of the species.

This means that the mangroves torn down in the eco-park will not be replaced anytime soon.

Even after being compensated and relocated, San Jose was sad to say goodbye after he was removed from his caretaker job at the Bulacan Mangrove Eco-Park, especially that he had witnessed its growth from remnants of former illegal fish ponds blasted by the local government.

With the mangroves no longer under San Jose’s care, soldiers now stand guard over the mangroves as they lay silent, awaiting their final fate. ###

This article was written and prepared by Miranda Autor (Student-Journalist) and Ma. Isabel Cruz (School Paper Adviser) from Marcelo H. del Pilar National High School, Division of Malolos City as a final output of DepEd-DRRMS and AYEJ.org’s Green Beat Initiative: An Online Environmental Journalism Training.