Wednesday, August 23, 2006

House Committee to Investigate Oil Spil

The House environmental committee headed by Congressman Boy Banaag will conduct a hearing 1:30pm today to investigate the Guimaras Oil Spill. Hopefully, our lawmakers will be able to elicit from resource persons some insights on the total cost of cleaning up the oil spill and its effects on the environment, tourism, health and livelihood of the people not only of Guimaras but also of the entire Western Visayas. Media reports yesterday said the oil slick has already reached the shores of Dumangas, Ajuy and Concepcion, all in Iloilo province. And for my part, I am most interested to know what the impact of the oil spill is on the tourism masterplan for the region.

It is rather unfortunate that an environmental disaster of this magnitude would strike just when Guimaras's tourism industry seemed poised to take off. The province was already being touted as the cheaper alternative to Boracay, which has become too crowded and too pricey for ordinary salaried Filipinos to afford. Tourists, both local and foreign, have started flocking to this small island-province to frolic in its white sand beaches, to sightsee its pristine flora and fauna, and to savor its export-quality mangoes. The Guimaras Mango, which remains as the only mango accepted for export to Japan, continues to be a good source of living for the province’s farmers. Also, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during her latest SONA announced that she has earmarked billions of pesos to develop Western Visayas’s tourism industry. The local governments of Iloilo City and Guimaras province have allocated funding for the improvement of Ortiz wharf which serves as the primary point of embarkation of people going to Guimaras. Over-all, things were finally looking up for Guimaras which has long been considered as one of the poorest provinces in Region 6.

The people of Guimaras took great pains to preserve their environment. I remember that several years ago, government planners proposed to contruct a bridge to connect Iloilo City and Jordan (the capital town of Guimaras). But the plan did not push thru because the people of Guimaras opposed it, their reason being that they did not want cars from mainland Panay entering their island for fear that they may carry the weevil virus. The weevil virus has long been the bane of Ilonggo farmers and it has infected most of the agricultural crops in Panay in the past. This is the reason why Guimaras has remained weevil-free and that its mangoes continue to be the only variety allowed for export to Japan. The bridge, if it was constructed, would have brought development to their province but the people of Guimaras chose to sacrifice "development" for the sake of their environment. Now, in one fell swoop, all their years of sacrifice will all come to naught.

Observers predict that the tourism industry masterplan for Western Visayas will be derailed for many years because of the oil spill. With the shocking photos of the oil sludge contaminating the beach, who would now want to go to Guimaras? Some say it would take three years to totally clean up the oil sludge, while others claim that it will take longer for the mangroves, coral reefs and marine ecosystem to fully regenerate. Whether it will take 3 or 30 years, what is clear to local residents is that the damage has been done. What is still not clear at this point is who should pay for cleaning up the environment and who should be punished for wrecking havoc on our region’s tourism industry. I hope that the House Committee on environment would be able to shed some light on this issue.

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