By: Purple Romero

In May, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sent his youngest son, Sebastian Duterte, and assistant Christopher “Bong” Go jet skiing in Benham Rise, a 13 million-hectare underwater plateau 250 km east of the Philippines which Manila claims and is believed to be rich in natural gas and marine resources.

The act, which many criticized as a publicity stunt, was supposed to be a show of assertion of the Philippines’ sovereignty over the maritime area, which it calls the Philippine Rise.

The mercurial president’s commitment to protect what has been declared part of Philippine territory in the face of Chinese aggressiveness could now be tested again, however, as environmental officials assess the chances that he will give them the go-signal to seek international funding for a management plan for the area.

The plan would seek to determine how coastal areas and watersheds in the nearby provinces of Catanduanes and Aurora could affect Benham Rise and its ecosystem. It would also seek to assess the vulnerability of the marine reserve to ocean acidification and sea level rise.

Duterte’s Approval Needed First

An official from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), who asked not to be named because she is not authorized to speak on the matter, confirmed to Asia Sentinel that they are eyeing potential funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for the development of the management plan. GEF, first introduced in 1992 at the Earth Summit, is one of the world’s major sources of grants for environmental programs.

It will be one of the three or four proposed projects that the Philippines is considering to submit to the body.

“Yes, what we’re doing is consolidating [proposals for GEF] and doing some assessment,” she said at the sidelines of the 6th GEF Assembly in Da Nang, Vietnam, which opened on June 23 and will conclude on June 29.

When asked if the project on Benham Rise would be a priority, however, she said: “Let’s see. Hopefully, we’ll come up with what is really needed by the country.” The main setback, she said, is GEF’s reduced funding, which fell from US$4.4. billion in 2014 to US$4.1 billion this year.

But sources privy to the deliberations in the environment department, said, however, that the agency is constrained by an order from the Office of the President that all agencies must first obtain Duterte’s approval before they can “negotiate” and  “sign international agreements, and agreements covering borrowings, guarantees, and foreign grants.”

Rappler reported that Malacanang Palace issued Memorandum Circular No 16 on April 11, 2017, which states that “the President is the sole organ of the country’s foreign relations and the constitutionally assigned architect of its foreign policy.”

China in the Philippine Rise

Jet ski drive or no jet ski drive, Duterte’s foreign policy has been characterized by a pivot to China, a move that enabled the economic and military superpower to explore the rise and later on name five of its undersea features last February.

This incident caused an uproar, as Benham Rise, unlike the South China Sea, is not territory contested between the Philippines and China. Duterte famously gave away a significant victory against China that the Philippines won when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016 ruled against China in a territorial dispute over islands in the South China Sea. Duterte failed to press China on the issue.

The UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf declared in 2012 that Benham Rise is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.

Following a wave of criticism and protest, the president has barred foreign vessels from exploring Benham Rise. He has also declared 352,390-hectares of the reserve as a “special fisheries management area.”

The question now is if Duterte will be consistent enough in this turnaround that he will allow the environment department to seek funding from GEF, whose donors are developed countries. Duterte has nixed other international grants and deals, such as those with European Union and Canada after both criticized his war on drugs.