Despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s strict imposition of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon, and localized ECQs in the many provinces of the Visayas and Mindanao, Chinese sea vessels and workers continue to operate in some islands of the Philippines.
The most recent case involves two Chinese vessels that arrived at Semirara Island in Antique, the province’s coalmine reservoir, causing alarm among residents and local government officials.
“The Chinese cargo ships are enjoying the privilege in spite of worry and fear by the community in Semirara, who mix with the coalmine workers,” said Bong Sanchez, president of the environmental group Save Antique Movement (SAM).
Ironically, the vessels came last Friday, the same day when the Department of Health (DOH) announced three new persons with COVID-19, all of which work in Semirara Island.
Antique has been undergoing ECQ, which means the Chinese vessels violate the protocol on restricted transportation.
“The government made it mandatory for residents to stay home, but it’s ok for the Chinese vessels to come in,” Sanchez added.
The local government of Caluya, the municipality covering Semirara Island, has imposed a policy preventing Chinese crew members to disembark to avoid more cases of COVID-19.
From Semirara back to Homonhon
Earlier this month, GMA broadcast journalist Atom Araullo reported a similar incident involving a Chinese-manned vessel permitted by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to extract chromite ores in Homonhon Island, Eastern Samar.
On April 3, DENR’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) ordered the suspension of the Mineral Ore Export Permit issued to Techiron Resources, the island-based mining company that commissioned M/V VW Peace, a Panama-registered vessel.
The said vessel carries 13 Chinese and four Myanmar nationals who will load 7,000 metric tons of chromite ore worth P61 million. Authorities in the town of Guiuan barred the said vessel.
However, MGB eventually lifted the suspension on April 11, after the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) allowed continued operations of export-related industries amid the ECQ.
DENR also leveraged the Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) Memorandum Circular No. 20-08 signed by President Duterte on March 20. The memo “guarantees the unhampered movement of all cargoes and transit of personnel of business establishments allowed to operate during the quarantine period.”
Muntinlupa City Representative Ruffy Biazon pointed out that the DENR misappropriated IATF-EID’s Resolution 14 provision on unimpeded movement of all types of cargo.
“It was meant to avert any threat of shortage of basic food, essential hygienic products and medical products. Export of minerals has nothing to do with that,” Biazon said.
Eastern Samar Governor Ben Evardone urged DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu to stop the loading of chromite ore on the vessel docked on the island.
“The people of Eastern Samar have raised serious concern on the possible danger this poses to public health while our province is under general community quarantine due to COVID-19,” Evardone said in his letter.
“As of today, there are no confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Province of Eastern Samar. Our province has done all possible measures to protect our people from this disease,” the appeal read. “This mining operation has given Estehanons anxiety and fear over the possibility that all our efforts to prevent this disease from entering our province will be put down the drain.”
The Catholic church has joined the governor and the residents of Eastern Samar in their call. In an interview with the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), Father Christian Ofilan of Homonhon’s St. John Baptist Parish said that the people are anxious and concerned.
“Nakakadismaya ang desisyon. We thought na ipagtatanggol kami ng gobyerno pero parang mas nangunguna ang interes ng foreign nationals,” Ofilan lamented.
Exploiting the environment, infecting the people
So aside from China’s ongoing activities in the West Philippine Sea, Chinese-manned vessels also continue their island-hopping and mining activities amid the ECQ. While the majority of the Filipinos have to stay at home to prevent catching COVID-19, these Chinese vessels have the privilege to roam and quarry amid the ECQ. They did it at a time when people, including the media, have less visibility. It feels like being robbed by a thief in the middle of the night.
Their free movement brings two ill effects: first, China’s continued exploitation of our country’s natural resources that causes damage to the environment; and second, more possible cases of COVID-19 infections brought about by the Chinese nationals who meddle with Filipinos working in the mine sites.
Another alarming thing, the government under the Duterte administration and its agencies like the DENR employ their authority and legal means to permit these Chinese vessels to continue their activities. This is despite the sentiments coming from the residents and the local government managing the islands in question.
Our local officials in the provinces work hard to keep COVID-19 at bay but the national government seemingly allows these “floating petri dishes” to reach our shores.
And what happened to Duterte’s vow to end mining during the early days of his presidential career? Did China cause a change of heart?