Conceptual design of the Coron-Culion Inter-island Bridge. | Photo from DPWH Sec. Mark Villar's FB page

The controversial inter-island bridge project in Culion did not go through the normal development planning process of national government agencies led by the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), but had proceeded because it managed to get funding from Congress through the annual appropriation of the Department of Public Works and Highways.

According to a senior NEDA official, the project did not go through a review and evaluation process of the regional development council, the highest policy-making body tasked to coordinate and set the direction of all economic and social development efforts in the region.

“Hindi dumaan ang project evaluation ng DPWH kasi its GAA funded under the local infrastructure fund program, so hindi na siya na-review,” Susan Sumbeling, acting regional director of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), said in an online forum organized by the international non profit Oceana.

Sumbeling also said there is a need to weigh the promised economic returns of the projects to its environmental impacts.

“We need to weigh all our options and NEDA supports everyone in pushing for sustainable development. I really hope they will weigh the economic return of the diverse marine ecosystem that will be put at stake,” Sumbeling said.

The DPWH recently suspended work on the project amid questions about its absence of proper permits and growing local opposition.

Engineer Yolanda L. Tangco, acting regional director of DPWH, in a work suspension order issued on April 7, instructed J.H. Pahara Construction Corporation to halt its operation until necessary permits were complied with.

The P4.2 billion project for the 26-kilometer inter-island bridge aimed to connect the island towns of Coron and Culion, traversing from the village of Bintuan in Coron to the village of Jardin in Culion municipality.

“DPWH does not have the intention na hindi kami susunod sa lahat ng regulations. We apologize for that. Hindi namin sukat akalain na hindi kami makapag-comply muna sa clearances. Sa ngayon, walang construction activities,” Tangco said in an online round table discussion organized by Oceana Philippines on Thursday morning.

Lawyer Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), a non-government organization based in Palawan, questioned the governmental process which subsequently led to the start of the construction even without proper consultations among the affected local stakeholders.

“Unfortunately, the Buklod Calamianes had to complain first because construction work has started, and yet no consultations were made, and all the appropriate clearances and permits were not in place. Bakit pa kailangan magreklamo bago huminto?,” Anda said.

Organizers of the Save Lusong Gardens and Shipwrecks movement, a local group that had launched an online signature campaign against the project, warning about the destruction of coral reefs and shipwrecks that serve as dive attractions around the area, welcomed its suspension.

“Our network of civil society individuals and groups called Buklod Calamianes have expressed concerns on the possible environmental, socio-economic, and livelihood tourism and fisheries impacts of the project, especially in the absence of the required environmental impact assessments, clearances, and relevant studies,” said Father Roderick Caabay, one of the proponents of the Save Lusong Gardens and Shipwrecks civic group.

Launched on March 6, DPWH Secretary Mark Villar previously said the inter-island bridge will connect Barangay Bintuan in Coron to Lusong and Marily islands in Culion. It will be a bridge that is over 20 kilometers under the Build Build Build (BBB) program of the national government.

The petitioners who call their group SAVE through said “the bridge construction is going to be within the five-kilometer radius of seven of the top underwater attractions in Coron and Culion — Lusong Coral Gardens, Lusong Gunboat Shipwreck, Irako Shipwreck, Olympia Maru Shipwreck, Kogyo Maru Shipwreck, Morazan Maru Shipwreck, and Akitsushima Shipwreck” in Sangat Bay.

“Heavy sedimentation, dredging, and making roads connecting islands to mainlands will kill nearby reefs and damage shipwrecks which are popular destinations for tourists,” the petitioners claimed.

They said six of these underwater sites are also historical for they are Japanese WW2 shipwrecks that date back to September 24, 1944.

Among the signatories was Bishop Edgardo S. Juanich, who said he that the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) requires such project to do a free prior informed consent (FPIC) properly.

“I am signing because according to IPRA, a Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) must be properly sought and fulfilled first before such project be implemented in ancestral lands (or claims) more especially on those that will directly affect lives and culture of indigenous communities – The Calamian Tagbanua Tribe in this particular case,” Juanich said.