“In the face of many challenges, we again are called to fight for the control of our own land and our own seas, and the call is on to everybody. Are you joining us? Kaya ba natin ito? (Can we do this?)”
Amid the continuing territory row in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. posed this question to Filipinos as the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) led the fifth year commemoration of the Philippine Rise on Saturday, June 12, which coincided with the celebration of the country’s 123rd Independence Day.
Esperon, who is also the chairman of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS), graced the activity which was held at the Haribon Hangar in Clark Air Base in Pampanga.
The celebration commemorated the renaming of Benham Rise to Philippine Rise by virtue of Executive Order No. 25 signed by President Duterte in February 2017.
According to Esperon, the commemoration of the Philippine Rise and the celebration of the 123rd Independence Day were crucial in promoting marine conservation and constructively re-asserting the country’s sovereign rights on the maritime region.
Without mentioning the country’s dispute with China in the WPS, Esperon hinted at the similarity of the situation now and 123 years ago “when all Filipinos were called upon to fight for our sovereignty and our freedom especially the right to control our own land and our own seas,” which ultimately led to the proclamation of the Philippine Independence on June 12, 1898.
“[W]e celebrate again the renaming of the Philippine Rise as an act of emphasizing our eternal sovereignty over the area. Our obligation then is eternal vigilance to conserve and defend this maritime territory,” Esperon said.
The highlight of the event was the conduct of an inter-agency solidarity maritime patrol around the Philippine Rise region using multiple assets from the Philippine Air Force (PAF), Philippine Navy (PN), Philippine Army (PA), and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).
Lt. Gen. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr., commander of the Northern Luzon Command (NoLCom), called on all Filipinos to “commit” themselves in the protection of the Philippine Rise “not only for the present time but for the future of our children and their children’s children.”
“It is timely that we will patrol our regions in this manner during Independence Day to raise awareness of the strategic value of the Philippine Rise and promote marine conservation,” Burgos said.
How the Philippine Rise came to be?
The Philippine Rise is a 13-million hectare underwater plateau located in the Philippine Sea near Casiguran, Aurora in Central Luzon. It is identified as one of the strategic areas covering the country’s eastern border.
It is largely unexplored but Filipino marine law experts have said that the area is a “potentially rich source of natural gas and other resources.”
According to Esperon, ancient fishing communities of Luzon had relied on the Philippine Rise’s marine wealth and resources for generations for their livelihood and survival.
“The Philippine Rise has been an integral part of our nation,” Esperon said. “The Philippine Rise is an indisputable and inalienable part of our heritage and of our national patrimony,” he added.
In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf recognized the Philippines’ claim over the Philippine Rise after Filipino marine experts and the government worked and defended the legal position to the claim, Esperon said.
The claim started in 2001 during a workshop co-organized by the University of the Philippines’ (UP) Institute of International Legal Studies (UP-IILS) and National Institute of Geological Studies (UP-NIGS). The workshop was aimed at helping the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)’s National Mapping and Resource Information Authority to apply the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in the Philippines.
In the workshop, Esperon said that Dr. Teodoro Santos of the UP-NIGS proposed the Benham Rise as a possible continental shelf — an extension of the territory — of the Philippines.
“The idea was welcomed and an interagency memorandum of agreement (MOA) among a few government agencies and the academe was signed,” Esperon recalled.
The first phase of the Philippines’ journey to claiming the Philippine Rise was spent on extensive hydrographic surveys to get the required scientific and technical data as basis for the claim.
After six years or in 2007, the data were taken up by a technical working group under the Cabinet Committee on Maritime and Ocean Affairs.
The second phase included the preparations of the claim for submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf by merging technical analysis with legal, economic, and national security policies of the goals.
The Philippine government “expected a long wait” for the issuance of the ruling, “in fact not earlier than the estimated 2014,” Esperon said, but the UN Commission on the Limits of Continental Shelf suddenly took up the case in January 2011.
On April 12, 2012, the UN commission approved in full the Philippines’ submission, gaining for the country an area of 52,340 square miles.
Now, marine scientific researches and expeditions are being done by the national government in partnership with the academe in the Philippine Rise which resulted to a number of discoveries including a rich biodiversity of soft and hard corals, fish, sponges, and algae.
In 2019, Filipino marine geophysicist Jenny Anne Barreto and her team discovered the world’s largest caldera or volcanic crater with a diameter of 150 kilometers. They named it “Apolaki” caldera, which was based on a Philippine mythological figure.