By Gerry Albert Corpuz and Rey Manangan
MANILA, Philippines- Leaders of the activist fisherfolk alliance Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) on Friday welcomed the decision of Department of Justice (DoJ) secretary Leila de Lima to review the controversial P 18.7 billion Laguna Lake rehabilitation awarded to a Belgian firm by the previous administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
In a press statement, Pamalakaya national chair Fernando Hicap and Vice chairperson Salvador France said the decision of Justice secretary de Lima to review the opinion issued by her predecessor-former secretary Alberto Agra that the project is an executive agreement and governed by Republic Act 8182 or the Official Development Assistance (ODA) Act of 1996.
In Agra’s opinion, ODA loan agreements may be considered an executive agreementm which the under revised implementing rules of the Government Reform Procurement Act are exempted from its provision requiring government projects to be subjected for bidding.
But in their July 2 letter of appeal to Secretary de Lima, the Pamalakaya leaders stressed the issue is a matter of life and death to 6 million people residing around the lake’s surroundings.
“Honorable Secretary de Lima please pardon us for bringing this early to your honorable office. We believe this is a matter of national interest beyond the sectoral interest of small fisherfolk in Laguna Lake and the 6 million people surrounding the country’s largest but dying lake. We affirm this is a matter of life and death in which your honorable office can play a decisive role to correct the grave mistakes of the past,” Hicap and France said in their July 2 letter to de Lima.
“Madam secretary, to begin with, former Justice Secretary and Solicitor General Alberto Agra recently issued an eight page opinion affirming the legality of the loan agreement between the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Belgian government involving the rehabilitation of the 90,000 hectare Laguna Lake which will cost the Belgian financial bank a total of P 18.7 billion,” they added.
Acccording to Pamalakaya, former Secretary Agra issued the opinion upon the request of acting Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Horacio Ramos who sought the advice of the DoJ on whether the loan agreement between the two countries shall be considered an executive agreement or a treaty that needs the approval of the Philippine Senate and what Philippine laws govern the loan agreement between the two countries.
In his eight page opinion issued less than two weeks before the inauguration of President Aquino, former justice secretary Agra asserted the loan agreement may be considered an executive agreement based on the ruling issued by the Supreme Court in the Commissioner of Customs v. Eastern Sea Trading case, where it differentiated an executive agreement from a treaty.
In the said ruling, the Court held that international agreements involving political issues or changes of national policy and those involving international arrangements of a permanent character usually take the form of treaties.
On the other hand, executive agreements involve arrangements of a more or less temporary nature such as commercial and consular relations. The P18.7-billion loan agreement was signed by the government through the DOF and Fortis Bank on April 30, 2010.
Pamalakaya learned the project is covered by a loan agreement between the government through the Department of Finance (DoF) and the Fortis Bank SA/NV, a Belgian commercial bank which offers a comprehensive package of financial services for private and professional clients, wealthy individuals, corporate clients, financial institutions and public entities.
The loan granted by the Belgian commercial bank is to be guaranteed by the office National du Ducroire Delcrederedienst, the export credit agency of the Belgian government. Secretary Agra said the loan is considered official development assistance (ODA) under Republic Act 8182 or the Official Development Assistance of 1996.
The loan was intended to improve the environmental condition of the lake in order to uplift the socioeconomic condition of the people within the Laguna de Bay regionand its spillover development effect benefiting the entire Metro Manila and the whole country as a whole, in the long term.
The project is composed of subprojects such as dredging of the lake nautical highways; lake water-quality improvement; development and operation of the lake ferry-transport system; and lakeshore development.
The project will be implemented for 850 days and the contract was awarded to Baggerwerken through direct contracting, an alternative mode of procurement. Sources said Baggerwerken is a Belgian company engaged in the business of keeping the sea lanes open, construction of some of the world’s biggest ports and protection of the coastal population against flooding and violence of the seas.
The supply contract was entered into by and between then-Environment secretary Eleazar Quinto for the government and Dimitry Dutilleuz for Baggerwerken. Quinto was one of those midnight appointees of former President Arroyo and was followed by Ramos, another midnight appointee of the former President.
The Pamalakaya leaders said they were highly puzzled about the project since this rehabilitation undertaking was not even brought to the attention of Laguna Lake people. Everybody was kept in the dark. This project is an across-the-lake mystery to 6 million people of Laguna Lake.
“The DoJ, the DENR and the Laguna Lake Development Authority (LLDA) did not bother to inform, consult or seek the collective opinion of 6 million people living along the lake regarding the ambitious lake rehabilitation project funded by the Belgian government,” the group insisted.
“The fisherfolk of Laguna Lake through Pamalakaya wish to inform your honorable office and the chair of the EU delegation to the Philippines—Honorable Alistair MacDonald that there is nothing honorable with the P 18.7 billion Laguna lake rehabilitation project simply because the project was questionable and merely a passed on project by the Arroyo administration to the Aquino government that should be reviewed and scrutinized by the present dispensation,” the group in their letter to the DoJ chief.
“Nobody knows what the project is all about? Madam Secretary it seems to us the P 18-7 billion project is one of the midnight contracts rushed by President Arroyo and the Office of the President before Arroyo’s term expired on June 30. We have this strong feeling that this project is another money making campaign on the part of the former Arroyo presidency,” the group added.
Pamalakaya also sought the help of Secretary de Liam to faciliate a talk with the highest official of the EU commission in the Philippines to immediately ask the Belgian government and its Belgian embassy in Manila to indefinitely suspend or terminate the contract for the P 18.7 billion rehabilitation project in Laguna Lake.
“We are suspicious of the project which is packaged as rehabilitation project of Laguna Lake. The Philippine government could be pursuing a bogus rehabilitation project in the name of privatization of Laguna Lake at the expense of the livelihood and community rights of over 6 million lake people,” it said.
Pamalakaya said the 18 billion peso project was meant for the setting up of support infrastructures for the full-blown privatization of the lake. The government intends to clean the lake and get rid of fishing communities and urban poor villages in preparation for the grand entry of big business planning to put up an international airport and world class hotels along the lake.#