An environmental policy and governance expert has recommended that the West Philippine Sea be designated as a Philippine Protected Seascape, citing the value of its ecosystem services and marine biodiversity not only to the country but also to the rest of the world.

Speaking on the heritage value of the West Philippine Sea (WPS) during the recently held 2nd Marine Protected Area (MPA) Summit, Dr. Ben Malayang III, professor emeritus of Environmental Policy and Governance Institute of Environmental and Marine Science at Siliman University, said the sea’s ecosystem services must be protected at all cost “because they generate unique and irreplaceable ecological, economic, and social benefits (and values) that are natural heritage – a universal commons – of Filipinos, of others around the South China Sea, and of the world.”

WPS, where Kalayaan town is located, accounts for approximately 30% of Philippine seas and 20% of the total area of the South China Sea.

Recently, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) adopted Resolution no. 2022-827, declaring around 3.79 hectares of Lawak Island, one of the areas being claimed by Philippines in WPS, as a protected area citing the threatened resident birds, and a potential Green Sea Turtle nesting site.

The 5.53-hectare island is home to at least six bird species and other wildlife.

Malayang said that while the Philippine government is affirming its legitimate jurisdiction over WPS as a clear and an uncompromisable national interest of all Filipinos despite contending territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS), “protecting the ecosystem services of WPS from the perspective entirely on science is a concern more foundational to human being than territory.”

“While others are looking at WPS for its territorial jurisdiction, we look at its ecosystem services. It is a concern of all who value WPS and SCS as maritime domains. On this ground, it is recommended that using existing mechanisms and procedures, WPS or any of its part like the Kalayaan Island Group and Bajo de Masinloc be declared as a Philippine Protected Seascape. And we work towards this, even as we continue addressing the matter of territorial claims,” he emphasized.

He also said the government should move for the inclusion of the WPS ecosystems services to the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Heritage Park Protected Area (HPPA) system, and to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List.

Manalang explained that based on a framework of heritage evaluation, WPS qualifies as an important seascape under Republic Act 7586 or the National Integrated Protected Areas System act of 1992, thus, it qualifies for protection.

WPS ecosystems has outstandingly remarkable areas and biologically important habitats of rare and endangered species, and identified portions of land and water set aside by reason of their unique physical, biological significance and manage to enhance biodiversity and protected against human exploitation, which forms part of the qualifications, he said.

“These to me are fundamentally qualifying WPS or at least portions of it such as KIG under NIPAS. I think it can also qualify under the ASEAN heritage parks program because it does qualify under their criterion – ecological completeness, representativeness, high conservation importance. They already qualify there but they cannot qualify as legally gazetted because has not been part of the legal system of the Philippines as a NIPAS act,” he explained.

“So if it becomes part of the NIPAS system, and legally gazetted, then it qualifies correspondingly to the ASEAN heritage parks program,” he added.

Also, he said WPS bears salient qualifications like natural features of outstanding universal value from the point of view of aesthetics or science, to become a UNESCO world heritage site.

“And what’s more science than ecosystems services being preserved for legacy and heritage value. Geological and physiological formations or habitat of threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science conservation,” he stated.

He also noted that while Philippines has around 10 heritage parks, most of it are terrestrial rather than water body, considering the fact that the country has mor waters than land. He added however that two of the country’s World Heritage Sites are marine in nature which are in WPS or at least in the Fisheries Management Area (FMA) 5 category.

“We have seven times more water, more seas than land and yet most of our ASEAN heritage parks are land parks. So you will notice na kung sa kataas-taasan ng world standards, we do have a case to make WPS a protected area,” he said.

In conclusion, Manalang stated that while there are several countries claiming territorial jurisdiction over SCS, there should be a common interest that should be upheld for the benefit of the area, and that of the people. Afterall, WPS ecosystem services produce baskets of social, ecological and economic, distinctive, inevitable, and exclusive benefits that are commons to all the people not only in Philippines but around the region.

“And by commons, we mean that they are shared for all and by all, nobody can actually sequester them,” he said.

He said threats that the area is facing and needs to be protected from are either climatic or anthropogenic, that includes illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, adding that while there are malicious or obnoxious claims because he believes that such claims themselves is not a problem per se.

“You can always make your claim. The problem becomes when you obnoxiously pursue your claim beyond the boundaries of law. So that is the point we have to make,” he said.

He added that with claimant countries claiming portions of the area, protecting its ecosystem services is the more fundamental need, which institutions that are already present there could make a priority. He also said this security should be categorized as a common need but must be distinguishably separated from securing and sustaining territorial claims as contentions.

He likened the situation in WPS to that of the south pole where there are also conflicting claims over Antarctica, but claimant countries are setting aside their territorial issues.

“They suspended their claims and instead they are working together for a common good, and they did it on research. And it was that research in Antarctica that was the first revelation about the worsening ozone layer depletion. It was first discovered there,” he said.

“Again, of universal value to all humanity. So sana ma-distinguish natin yung selective territorial claims [in WPS] against collective common interest, he said, adding that while we are laying claims on portions of WPS, it is also imperative to protect it.

“Logically it must be because of its value. And that value is anchored on its ecological services. And so, all of its claimants, however opposing and conflicting they are, must have a common interest in protecting the very thing that they want to claim. That to me would be our opportunity, our portal for resolving the issue not as a territorial claim but rather, as universal commons with respect to the ecosystem services of WPS,” he concluded.


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