Sunday, 27 December 2009

The Problem with Representative Democracy


The Bohol Chronicle reported today (27 December 2009) that the Sangguniang Panlalawigan has given a go-signal for the governor of the province of Bohol to sign a joint venture and development agreement (JVDA) with Oasis Leisure Islands Development Inc. (OLIDI) to reclaim at least 450 hectares by building 5 islets at Panglao Bay. The provincial lawmakers believed that the proposal was advantageous to the government, as it will not spend any single peso for the project, from its inception to implementation. Interestingly, the Bohol Chronicle reported that Vice Governor Herrera stressed that "Several discussions have been made and the SP met with the proponents many times. Concerns of each board member have been satisfactorily answered."


I was appalled.


It seems that the Sangguniang Panlalawigan members have not read the proposal in its entirety. I wonder if they could answer questions if reporters will ask them for the details of the proposal. I wonder if indeed they have gone through the pages carefully, and with professional scepticism, scrutinized each component and assumption of the proposed project. I wonder if they understood the document very well. I wondered, because, a project as ridiculously expensive such as this, in terms of environmental, social, and economic costs, can be approved in less than a year. Wasn’t it just two months back that this project was discussed in the legislative body?


It is not surprising why environmentalist lawyer Raul Barbarona commented that the provincial board approved the proposal in haste. He was reported to have said that “"We heard there were board members who vowed the reclamation proposal would 'go through the eye of the needle' and yet deliberations on the matter seemed to breeze through without any hitches." But Vice Governor Herrera said that they deliberated on the issues since October. I wonder again regarding the quality of these deliberations – can the minutes of the Sanggunian prove how extensive these deliberations were?


Why am I asking?


It seemed that the provincial legislature forgot that the provincial vision is one of “eco-cultural tourism destination”. My sister who is a biologist has already commented on the extensive damage this would have on the coastal resources of the province. Where is the opinion here of the management board of the Bohol Marine Triangle? A reclamation project in one of the country’s delicate marine ecosystems, though how many times it would pass environmental compliance (EC) under the country’s current system of EC assessment procedures, will never be justifiable. This means 450 hectares of coral reef destroyed, marine resources displaced, local livelihoods endangered, and coastal terrain alteration that would haunt us for the rest of our lives.


Second, it seems that the provincial legislature forgot the plain economics of land use. The project proposal of the proponents highlighted the demand for land which I believe is very much understudied and grossly overstated. This does not tell you how great the demand is for additional land, at least in the context of Bohol, but provides macro and regional perspective only. My interest in the case is to know how big the demand to justify the alteration of the environmental terrain. Unfortunately, the study did not provide a convincing argument. It presents the sunny side of reclamation, yes, but what about those reclaimed areas where takeup was low? We have strong cases on this in Cebu and in other supposedly economic zones that were unable to provide the supposed economic benefits. What I am interested to see is how the other similar initiatives all over the country fared. The preparer of the study seemed to suggest that just because there were other similar projects that occurred elsewhere, the viability is assured here, in terms of market. That is a great fallacy. Yes, I agree that there is a limitation on space, but why users of space will go to Panglao and locate their business there is still to me, a very vague proposition. Simple questions like who is the market, where are they, what are their preferences, what is their interest in Bohol, or in Panglao in particular, what is their capacity, are all missing. Take a look at this statement, for example:


“At present, the inadequacy of infrastructure facilities has affected the tourism development

of the municipality.” (Chapter 6, page 7)


What infrastructure facilities? It can be water and electricity. But insufficiency of establishments to cater to tourism demands? Yes, only in May and December, but the other months of the year? So why establish islands to cater to tourism activities? Don’t they know that since 2007, while there is an increase in tourist arrivals in terms of absolute numbers, the rate of increase was alarmingly declining? Where is the underserved market? Are our provincial lawmakers ignorant of the fact that tourist establishments in the province have experienced this year a steep decline in revenues? So why create another island?


How about data on housing demand to support a need for the establishment of the second island? Where is it? How about demand for schools and universities? They should know that HNU’s enrolment is on a downward trend in recent years. So why again establish second island? This is ridiculous. The marketing aspect is full of promise, yes, but very hollow. Baseless. I wonder how the Provincial Government of Bohol can believe in this project.


Thirdly, have our provincial lawmakers consulted the provincial accountant’s office for their opinion or the Philippine Institute of Certified Public Accountants perhaps? Because the marketing projections are not there, these are not even overstated or understated in the financial analysis, but altogether inexistent and baseless. Take a look at this, for example:


Revenue Sources: Marina, Golf Course; Residential; Institutional; Schools; Spa/Medical Tourism; Equestrian; and Low Impact Resort.

Estimated Revenue: Sale: Php 1,575 M, Lease = Php 1,260 M/year


And I ask, what is the basis. And when will this occur? I cannot see a time-series presentation of this except total figures indicated in a Table 7.6 of the document. It does not even tell you how this will be achieved. Again, I go back to my argument in above where I indicated that take up in some reclaimed sites in the country is low even in big cities in Cebu. And Panglao?


I can go on lengthily regarding my objections on this document. I wonder if the provincial board have considered these points. Just take a look at this table if it will not blow your minds off.

Development Site

Proposed

Land Use

Island 1 (150 hectares)

Marina, Condos, Hotels, Commercial District, entertainment centers


Mall Strip, F-1 Race Track, Golf course

Island 2 (150 hectares)

Marina, Condos, Hotels, Residential, Schools,


Institutional, Spa/Medical Tourism,


Equestrian, Low Impact Resort

Island 3 (75 hectares)

Small Commercial Establishments,


Souvenir Shops, Boutiques, Hotels, Dive


Shops, Apartment, Condos

Island 4 (70 hectares)

Nature Park, Wildlife & Fish Sanctuary,


Golf Course, Camping Grounds, Marina, Zoo



Island 5 (5 hectares)

Small Private Residential Islets (17) with an


average area of 2,941 sq.m/islet


Sub - Total

Expansion (150 hectares)

Commercial, Residential, Recreation, Resort


As indicated in the table above, this is not just about 450 hectares, but 150 more. Maybe journalists in this province also need to check on their facts. Its 600 hectares of reclaimed land, ladies and gentlemen, the process of which, the proponents argued in the technical section, will “not alter the stream regimes, will not cause floods in the foreshore”. This will do quarrying of materials from the coastal beds, yes, and they will ensure that “it will not interrupt the flow of vessels on the navigational sea lane” and that “protective measures shall be developed so as not to make the sea an industrial waste disposal area”. These are the only promises of the technical aspect. And nothing else. They do not even talk about displacement of the sea inhabitants, your sea grasses, your fishes, your corals, which unfortunately, do not have the power to march the streets and bring placards to voice out their opposition to this ridiculous project.


Indeed, this is one big problem of representative democracy – when we select leaders and they will be the ones to determine how the future of this province, or this country will be shaped in the next 50 years. Our leaders decide on how our resources will be saved or squandered. Our leaders decide on how the lives of the voiceless fishes and coastal resources will be dramatically altered forever. Our leaders decide even without letting us know, without even consulting us, without even considering our fears and apprehensions.


In one of her interjections to this project, my mentor, Ms. Rosalinda G. Paredes questioned, “ISN’T IT FAIR THAT THEY TOO (referring to the non-government organizations), WHO HAVE A BIG STAKE IN BOHOL’S ENVIRONMENT AND WHO IS THE VERY SECTOR THAT HAS CRIED SO LOUD TO MAKE BOHOL’S ENVIRONMENT (WHICH IS NOW THE MAIN ATTRACTION THAT HAS BROUGHT THE TOURISTS DOWN HERE) PROTECTED AND PRESERVED, WOULD KNOW WHAT THIS IS ALL ABOUT TO BE ABLE TO SUBSTANTIALLY COMMENT AND MAKE FEEDBACK?”


I share this lamentation. It is not fair for our leaders to go ahead, make decisions on issues as critical as this, without even conducting extensive research and consultation. Like some of the projects in this province, they will again do things in the horse-after-the-cart fashion. Mr. Norris Oculam, proponent of the project said that the public can openly "participate in the consultation process and see for themselves that we will not take shortcuts". Why is he the one planning to conduct the consultation? Why is it that the provincial legislators did not even have the decency to consult the population before they made their decision?


What is alarming is a statement in the document that reads:


“A reclamation development, although more costly in terms of physical costs, and with all of the above limitations and constraints, will not be a problem. The issue of obtaining permits, licenses and project approval for implementation would be more speedy and the operation of the developed property would be smooth with very minor disruptions or interventions as long as the environmental aspects of the project and its development are well taken cared of.”


I abhor these statements. They point to a quick fix of all requirements. They point to a fact that obtaining permits and licenses would be “very smooth and with very minor disruptions”. If I am a proponent of this project, I would not say that. I would say that obtaining a permit would be very difficult. I wonder again if the local office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources will have the balls to stand against this project. I wonder too, what is the stand of our friends at the Bohol Environmental and Management Office. This project indeed reveals the colours of our officials and our government agencies.


As I end this emotionally-charged essay on the project, let me remind our provincial lawmakers on what governance is all about. I take my inspiration from Neera Chandoke’s essay on Governance and Pluralisation of the State.


First, the government (and its officials) is just one of the diverse agencies, only one among the many, which is concerned of a country’s development. They do not have the monopoly of knowledge and intention, so they need to consult.


Second, the agencies concerned with development are acting from a different standpoints (benevolence, profit, etc) as compared to the state (obligation to citizens). Norris Oculam’s obligation is to his investors, our lawmakers is to us, the citizens. It is our interest that they should protect, and also that of the fishes out there.


Third, modern governance resembles a pluralist model of different actors with different interests. The government is expected to be an arbitrator, a negotiator. They should arbitrate and negotiate for us.


Finally, they should not forget that civil society theory clearly establishes a divide between state and non-state and that social associations are more important than the state to the citizen. They should remember that this province has a wealth of actors in development. Our non-profit players who have had a long history of oppression and active involvement will take this matter to their own hands.


To my friends, now is the time for collective action again.