This is Bulacan, Manila Bay, the gateway to the Philippines.
It is home to rich marine biodiversity, endangered migratory bird populations and coastal communities.
Now, warn scientists, the area’s delicate ecosystem and coastal communities are under threat from a new US $15 billion airport development. The New Manila International Airport – the Philippine’s most expensive infrastructure project in history – will cover an area seven and a half times the size of New York’s Central Park. When completed, it will cater for approximately 100 million passengers a year and be one of the busiest airports by passenger traffic globally.
The project is proposed, built, managed and operated by San Miguel – one of the largest conglomerates in the Philippines. Dutch company Royal Boskalis has signed a contract worth €1.5 billion to construct the first phase of the project. This was insured by the by the Dutch state via export credit agency Atradius DSB.
San Miguel’s bid for the international airport was given the green light by the Philippines government in September 2019, allowing construction to start at any time. The controversial decision came a year and a half after the Philippines and Netherlands joined forces to develop the Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan to ‘clean up, rehabilitate and preserve’ Manila Bay. Its report warns that to avoid damage to local communities, ecosystems and biodiversity, San Miguel should seek an alternate location for its airport project.
Instead, the project stood to evict approximately 700 families, according to communities in that area. Almost half reportedly received no compensation or relocation offer. Others felt intimidated to leave by the military, with residents reporting that San Miguel representatives were accompanied by armed soldiers on door-to-door visits to speak about the new airport. Residents now describe struggling to subsist and earn a living because of the disruption to their livelihoods. Responding to Global Witness, San Miguel stated that it was local government units which requested military and police presence during consultations.
A botched public consultation – which initially made no mention of an international airport – was part of a pattern of failures by San Miguel. Despite its current and potential harmful impacts, San Miguel, and its Dutch business partners have made statements celebrating the project’s environmental and social credentials.
Responding to Global Witness, San Miguel maintains that it obtained an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) for the airport project in 2021 in compliance with the Philippines Environmental Impact Statement system and provided details of its Environmental Impact Assessment procedure, adding that a public hearing was held and attended by stakeholders including the local communities. San Miguel also stated that an ECC issued in 2019 to a separate company (which it later acquired), was distinct to its own ECC and for unrelated ‘land development’.
Global Witness maintains that because San Miguel had already obtained authorisation from the Philippine government to begin work on an airport in September 2019, after which point it states that it carried out various consultations on its airport project, it was and necessarily would have been impossible to conduct valid consultations or environmental assessments with affected communities, who were unaware of the intended purpose of the project. In a second impact assessment completed by San Miguel in 2021, the company includes an earlier public consultation for a ‘land development’ in the same area as part of stakeholder engagement activities undertaken. The presentation, seen by Global Witness, makes no reference to a future airport development expressly.
The project’s environmental costs are already significant. Hundreds of mangrove trees, which not only absorb and store climate-wrecking carbon dioxide but also form natural flood barriers, have been cleared. Environmental and climate-related damage are expected to worsen and permanently damage natural habitats on the airport development site. A census of waterbirds in Manila Bay revealed that their presence has declined by over 20% since 2017. Massive land reclamation projects – like the airport – are set to see these numbers dwindle even further in the area.
The Manila Bay Sustainable Development Master Plan shared a vision of ‘a sustainable and resilient’ area. It aimed to promote inclusive growth, reduce pollution, restore vital ecosystems and healthy habitats, and mitigate vulnerability to climate-related disasters.
The New Manila International Airport is a far cry from this vision.