For the past four months, the City of Gentle People has been getting more media attention than usual because of the controversial 174-hectare reclamation project that was dubbed as a “monumental ecological disaster.”
It gained media coverage on July 11, 2021 after a local news outlet reported that the Dumaguete City Council had already passed a resolution granting the city mayor authority to sign the venture agreement with the contractor—giving the P23-billion project a green light. Since then, the project has gained opposition from scientists, experts, professionals, fisherfolk, and even ordinary citizens.
On Sept. 10, Dumaguete City Mayor Ipe Remollo withdrew his request to the City Council to grant him authority to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with E.M. Cuerpo, the winning bidder of the controversial project. He noted, however, that the request is without prejudice “to pursue the city’s applications for pertinent permits with the Philippine Reclamation Authority and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources relative to the Smart City project at the proper time.”
To date, the #NoTo174 silent protests every Friday are still religiously attended by people from all walks of life.
Development vs. environment
In a pandemic-stricken economy, the officials of the third-class city explored the reclamation project as a means of economic advancement. Remollo mentioned in a television interview that the project will be “sustainable and a solution to the poverty of the people of Dumaguete and Negros Oriental.”
The reclamation, referred to as the “Smart City,” will be 5G-ready with a coastal wastewater treatment facility, shoreline, slope and water protection, esplanade, marina, modern ferry port, and open area for sports facility, hospital, and a city administration hub.
Remollo reiterated in his information drives that the project will provide job opportunities for the Dumagueteños. He also mentioned that the project will decongest the city, ease the traffic, and the wastewater treatment facility will address the toxic boulevard waters.
All these, however, are at the expense of the environment—especially the city’s marine life. Primarily a coastal university town, Dumaguete has established four marine protected areas in barangays Bantayan, Lo-oc, Mangnao, and Banilad—all of which will be affected by the reclamation.
STEWARDS, a marine conservation organization in the city, did a simulated overlay of the marine habitats in Dumaguete’s coast in contrast with the magnitude of the destruction of the proposed reclamation. They found that the city’s coast houses 57.80 ha of seagrass, 59.76 ha of corals, and 38.10 ha of mangroves. The reclamation will cause the loss of 62.5 percent of seagrass (equivalent to 36.15 ha), and 60.58 percent of corals (36.20 ha).
This projected loss is significant, especially to the 994 Dumagueteñon fisherfolk and the 38,342 residents of the eight coastal barangays in the city who depend on fish for sustenance and livelihood.
Remollo’s city development plan
Remollo’s master plan for Dumaguete in 2017 was to expand the development of the city upland with the construction of a double highway from the city’s civic center to encourage inclusive barangay development and create a one-stop-shop for efficiency and sharing of amenities.
He also planned for economic sustainability and equitable distribution of wealth among the people. In this regard, the city will transfer the central market to a “more spacious, better-parking location, and traversing the new diversion road, in Brgy. Batinguel.” Moreover, the present public market will be “converted into a central market mall, with a convention venue on the second floor.”
For environmental viability, the administration initiated a materials recovery facility (MRF) for waste segregation and economic recycling of reusable and disposed items.
The 174-ha reclamation project is nowhere in these plans. Precisely because it came as an unsolicited proposal to the city local government.
Globally acclaimed urban Planner Architect Paulo Alcazaren, who was responsible for Iloilo’s esplanade, even questioned the project. He asked, “What happened to that  plan? Why are we focusing on the reclamation that is more expensive?”
“It’s cheaper to improve Internet [capabilities] than to reclaim land and pay the price [of environmental degradation],” he said.
For a university town, a cradle of academics and scientists, the city had a lot of opportunities to consult experts on the matter. However, as displayed in the case when STEWARDS presented themselves to observe the environmental survey conducted by EnviComm, the organization tapped by the city to survey the state of the marine life in the city, the local government showed very little to no cooperation nor appreciation to the measures of its constituents.
Politics of it all
Remollo is seeking re-election this 2022. With this element added into the mix, we are in for a roller coaster ride for the next 200 days or so. As local journalist Raffy Cabristante would have it, “So the mayoral race in Dumaguete is, in a way, a referendum on the 174 [project]. Whoever wins as mayor also reflects the people’s sentiment on 174.”
As elections draw near, it’s important to scrutinize leaders and determine their values and non-negotiables. Especially in this time when we are in a race to curb the effects of the climate crisis, we have no room to impose more environmental damage than we already have.
As the case for now, the 174-ha project remains to be a potential disaster waiting to threaten the livelihood of Dumagueteños, wreak havoc on the marine ecosystems, and ultimately cause irreversible environmental damage that will backfire to the people.
The cry of the people who oppose the project is simple: anti-urbanization, especially one that is unsolicited, is not anti-development. You cannot put the environment against development because there is no true development that is not environmentally sound. Genuine sustainable development is reliant on making the environment more livable for everybody—and any true leader would understand this.
About the Author
Aprille Roselle Vince Juanillo is a Climate Reality Leader trained in 2020. She is an active community leader and communications practitioner with rich experience in organizational development, program management, legislation, and formal and non-formal writing. She has been with the Association of Young Environmental Journalists (AYEJ) since its inception and served as the pioneering vice-president. Straight out of college, she worked with AYEJ as a training specialist for environmental writing education focused on climate change resilience and adaptation. She presently serves as the organization’s program officer.