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Impact Stories

Dolphins and Fisherfolk Sue for the Right to Live

Posted on March 18, 2016

The dolphins seemed more comfortable, swimming, gliding and leaping, when a group of NGOs visited their habitat in the Tañon Strait in May 2008. It was not so six months previously, when the dolphins and other marine mammals, assisted by environmental lawyers, went to court to sue intruders to their habitat. With the intrusion temporarily aborted, Tañon Strait seems to be home to marine mammals once again.

In December 2007, resident marine mammals of Tañon Strait Protected Seascape, through their human legal guardians, Attys. Gloria Estenzo-Ramos and Liza Eisma-Osorio, filed a petition with the Supreme Court to stop further offshore oil and gas explorations by Japan Exploration (Japex) Philippines, Inc., declaring that their habitat was being destroyed by the drilling activities off Western Cebu. The legal guardians said the marine mammals, which possess very good hearing abilities, had been disturbed by round-the-clock underwater blasting and drilling operations. It was the first time in the country and in Southeast Asia that a case was filed in behalf of animals as aggrieved parties.

That same month, a separate petition against the same oil exploration company was also filed by the Fishermen's Development Center (FIDEC), an organization of marginal fisherfolk, who complained that the blasting had driven the fish away, resulting in reduced fish catch and jeopardizing the livelihoods of thousands of local fishers. FIDEC also reported of fish kills and the disappearance of several species of marine life, like the lumiagan, a type of squid, and a local fish, called bucao-bucao, from their fishing grounds.

Pilot whales in Tañon Strait (Photo: Lory Tan/WWF)

The respondents of the case were the Department of Energy (DOE), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and Japex. The DOE, they said, had contracted the company to ascertain the location and volume of oil and natural gas deposits in the strait, which was reported to contain a potential oil reserve of one billion barrels and a recoverable 100 million barrels. The contract area covered 2,850 sq. km. offshore of the strait and is surrounded by 36 towns and cities in the provinces of Cebu, Negros Oriental and Negros Occidental. The DENR, on the other hand, was cited for claiming that the exploration would not have adverse impacts on the marine life in the strait and that the Tañon on Strait Protected Area Management Board had approved the exploration.

Tañon Strait, a narrow strip of sea that separates the islands of Cebu and Negros in Central Visayas, and connects the Visayan Sea to the Bohol Sea, was declared a protected seascape in 1998. It is a high biodiversity area that is home to 141 out of 27 cetaceans (dolphins and whales) found in the country, most interesting of which are the dwarf sperm whales and melon-headed whales.

The story of the fisherfolk's struggle against the oil and natural gas exploration in their fishing grounds reached a high point when FIDEC submitted a proposal to FPE in November 2007 to support their project, "Urgent Legal Action Against Oil Exploration in the Visayas." The project sought the intervention of the Supreme Court for immediate relief from the impacts of the operation of Japex. Aside from that, one of the main objectives of the project was to set a landmark case that will reshape environmental policies, particularly on offshore mining, and provide avenues that will facilitate sustainable development.

In the course of its implementation, the project transformed from a purely legal action to become a movement, the Save the Tañon Strait Citizen's Movement (STSCM) that aimed to enlist the participation of universities, local government units and concerned individuals working for the environmental protection of Cebu. Before the movement could be formally launched, however, Japex announced it was relinquishing its oil-drilling project in Tañon in May 2008, purportedly "because of lack of commercial oil and gas discovery."

Despite Japex's pullout from Tañon Strait, fisherfolk in the town of Pinamungahan where the drilling site was closest and, therefore, had the most intense impact, aver that their fish catch has not returned to normal. An estimated 200,000 fisherfolk in the provinces of Cebu, Bohol, Negros Oriental, and Negros Occidental in the Central Visayas region have been adversely affected by the oil and gas exploration activities of Japex at the Tañon Strait and by another oil exploration company at the adjacent Cebu-Bohol Strait. The fishers were forced to look for alternative sources of income, like doing laundry, gathering and selling firewood, and carpentry. Many of their children had to stop schooling and even got sick for lack of proper nutrition as finances dwindled.

The fisherfolk have not forgotten nor recovered from the effects of the four-month fishing ban that Japex imposed, from November 2007 to February 2008, while it undertook drilling operations in a 3,150 meter deep well within the strait. The company forbade the fisherfolk from approaching within a seven kilometer radius of the well and deployed armed men to guard its perimeter. It also reportedly threatened the fisherfolk that they would pay for the company's equipment should they be damaged. FIDEC, and STSCM, for that matter, has always maintained that the pullout of Japex from Tañon Strait in May 2008 was due to the snowballing of opposition to the drilling, not to the lack of commercial quantity of oil and gas, as claimed by the company. For a campaign that pioneered a landmark litigation involving marine mammals and fisherfolk as petitioners challenged current concepts on legal standing and changed policy framework.

The legal action did not only directly benefit the fisherfolk in the affected municipalities, but all the stakeholders around the strait, as well, especially communities in other areas threatened by oil exploration. The uniqueness of the case and the whole-hearted involvement of the participating organizations and volunteer experts, as well as the creative manner in which STSCM handled the issue, have inspired other communities suffering from different kinds of environmental problems to undertake similar endeavors. The case of the dolphins and the fisherfolk has become a cause celebre among environmentalists in the region, and in the whole country as well.

In 2008, the Supreme Court, recognizing that the environment is an important component in ensuring the fundamental human rights to life, health and wellbeing, has designated 117 trial courts as "environmental courts" to hear cases involving violations of environmental laws and to speed up their resolution. In 2010, the high court further strengthened the cause of environental justice when it promulgated the Rules of Procedure for Environmental Cases, which enfleshes the constitutional provision of the people's right to a balanced and healthful environment and provides a "simplified, speedy and inexpensive procedure for enforcement of environmental rights and duties," among others. With this in mind, STSCM is very optimistic that the highest court of the land will decide in favor of the petitioners.


1 These cetaceans are the following: 1) Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris); 2) Spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata); 3) Common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus); 4) Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus); 5) Fraser's dolphins (l.agenodelphis hosei); 6) Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus); 7) Pilot whales (Globicephala melaena); 8) Pygmy killer whales (Feresa atenuata); 9) False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens); 10) Dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima); 11) Melonheaded whale (Peponocephala electra); 12) Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus); 13) thevery rare Omura's whale (Balaenoptera omurai); and 14) beaked whale (Mesoplodon sp.). Source: Aragones, Lemnuel V., et al. 2006. "Ecology and conservation of cetaceans in southern Tanon Strait: with some results implicating possible negative effects of seismic surveys to cetaceans."

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