Endangered Giant Clams Focus of Cement Plant Battle

By Michael Bengwayan

AGNO, Pangasinan, Philippines, September 12, 2000 (ENS) - They are already endangered, and now 29 of the largest clams in the world may die because of a two-year old conflict between a multi-million dollar cement plant and community residents in the coastal town of Agno on the island of Luzon.

Giant clams (Tridacna gigas) are found only in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific. These enormous bivalve molluscs are internationally protected under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) because they are heavily exploited for human consumption and for the aquarium trade.

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Giant clam (Tridacna gigas) (Photo courtesy Man and Molluscs)
The importance of the giant clams to marine life is immense. They replenish the ecology of coral reefs and help to rebuild fishery resources.

The fate of these 29 giant clams now lies in the hands of the Agno Concerned Citizens for Ecologically Secure and Sustainable Development (ACCESS), a non-governmental umbrella organization of several fishermen's groups.

ACCESS is fighting to stop the displacement of the giant clams in favor of construction of a 13 billion peso (US$325 million) cement plant and pier complex by the Goldsun Development and Construction Company of Taiwan.

The cement plant is being established in the Abagatanen Cove where 35 of the clams were placed in 1998 by the Agno fishermen with the help of the Concerned Divers of the Philippines for the purpose of expanding clam production and management. Six of the original 35 died after their meat were forcibly extracted.

The Pangasinan region, on the western coast of Luzon, occupies the northern portion of the Island's central plains. The Agno River flows across the plain to the broad Lingayen Gulf on the west coast.

Saving the clams and stopping the Goldsun Corporation of Taiwan is a monumental task says Lydia Colobong, vice chair of ACCESS.

Agno municipal mayor Adan Rosete has issued an order to fishermen of ACCESS to remove the clams as he has to respect Goldsun's prior application to build the cement plant and a pier.

Goldsun Corporation was able to acquire an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) from Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Antonio Cerilles. After the certificate was issued DENR's environmental management bureau ordered the removal of the clams.

Even the regional Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will not oppose the cement plant. Director Nestor Domendon said "the cement plant project is covered by an ECC and by all means, it has to be respected."

But Colobong and her fisherman supporters remain unfazed. "Why should DENR take the side of the cement plant proponents when the environmental compliance certificate does not guarantee priority rights over the area?" she demanded.

"The project was endorsed by the municipal fishery and agriculture resource management council of the town because it is beneficial to resources enrichment of the seas and the ecosystems and has no adverse effects on the fisher-folks," she said. "I can't and will not accept that local officials will stop it to satisfy the whims of a destructive company.

Goldsun owner, Taiwanese millionaire Winking Lee has complained to Secretary Cerilles because of the giant clam project in Abagatanen cove. Lee told Cerilles that the project sits in the company's pier facilities and violates the company's priority rights and interest over the area, DENR sources revealed.

Although Cerilles has yet to act on Lee's complaint, Mayor Rosete has already warned Colobong and ACCESS fishermen that the clams will be forcibly removed as it is a "defiance of local executive powers."

But Colobong denounced Mayor Rosete's orders. "Such reasoning from a municipal head is unfounded and unjustified. It is contrary to the provisions of the Fisheries Code which gives priority rights to small fishermen and their organization," she stressed.

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Map of northern Luzon showing approximate location of disputed area. (Map courtesy CIA)
"While it is true that local executives have power over municipal waters, we believe there should be an enabling act of the municipal act of the municipal council. Agno does not have a fishery and water ordinance code and such absence makes the municipal powers negligible," she pointed out.

Not all government officials want the clams removed. The resident ombudsman of the Department of Agriculture Bienvenida Gruta says there is no defiance of the mayor's authority because the "residents were just exercising their right to the marine resources of the town without causing anybody undue injury or prejudice."

A former presidential executive secretary Jacobo Clave also supports the fishermen residents. He said, "an ECC does not confer any right, much less priority rights." This view points up the practice of the DENR giving environmental compliance certificates to controversial companies which sometimes destroy natural resources with environmentally harmful practices.

There is a stalemate for the moment and the fishermen are guarding the clams, Colobong said.

The Concerned Divers of the Philippines have expressed their disgust over the incident saying, "it is a show of how the influential can destroy the weak and the poor."

Each of the remaining 29 Tridacna gigas clams measures 1.5 meters (nearly five feet) in length and weigh over 250 kilograms (550 pounds). If protected, they can multiply so quickly there will be thousands in a few years, say their defenders.

Their meat is expensive because of its delicious taste. Although few remain because of widespread harvest and destruction, they are recommended for an alternative aquaculture industry. In the Solomon Islands and Palau which lie in the Pacific Ocean east of the Philippines, the giant clams contribute much to the economy.

But in the Philippines, these clams which once numbered in the millions, have succumbed to dynamite and cyanide attacks by unscrupulous fishers. This, coupled with inadequate marine resource management and protection efforts, have left them clinging to the edge of survival.