Koreans, Condos and a Rare Unspoiled Philippine Forest

The Philippines’ Subic Watershed Forest Reserve is 9,800 hectares of primeval forest, a lowland ecosystem of 745 different plant species, including three that are endangered and four others that are potentially threatened. Virtually the last bit of protected forest on the island of Luzon, it is home to some of the country’s rarest hardwood trees and a huge variety of bats, bugs, lizards, monkeys, snakes, deer and other beasts.

It is now also home to two US$20 million condominiums, one 22 stories high and the other 12. There are also plans for a swimming pool, tennis court, wastewater treatment plant, roof jogging track, parking lot, guardhouse and new roads. It is all being built by the Philippines subsidiary of Korea’s giant Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction, one of the biggest foreign investors in the country. The buildings are intended to house 182 of Hanjin’s Korean staff members in a secluded enclave.

Hanjin is already operating a US$1.65 billion ship-building facility at the former US base and intends to follow that up with a 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant on a Subic Bay beach, one of the country’s top tourism destinations and home to more than 70 species of fish as well as rare Olive Ridley and Hawksbill turtles. The power plant is also expected to include a 10-hectare ash pond at the mouth of the bay.

The intrusion into the heretofore relatively clean water and pristine forest has caused outrage among business associations such as the Subic Bay Freeport Chamber of Commerce and the Subic Bay Resorts Association, both of which say that the power plant will cause irreversible damage to the area.

"It will pollute the air, the land and the water, removing the key ingredients in Subic Bay's prime assets — clean air, clean water and the proximity to nature." the groups said in a statement.

Subic Bulletin, a local blog popular among Subic residents, puts it more bluntly: Subic’s administrators and Hanjin, it says, are “turning out to be the worst ecological nightmare Subic has ever faced. Putting a coal plant in the Bay, massive sewage-creating condos in the central business district and now high-rises in the jungles will do damage that our non-resident administrators will saddle us with for years to come.”

Subic’s forests have been home for centuries to the Aeta people, who once taught jungle survival courses to generations of US Navy sailors and Marines, especially during the Vietnam War era. The Americans took over the area from the Spanish in 1898 and quickly established what eventually became one of the largest overseas US military facilities. Because of their usefulness for security and training, the forests were protected from exploitation under American jurisdiction, but after negotiations broke down with the Philippine government, the US pulled out of both Subic and nearby Clark Air Base in 1992, an exodus that coincided with the explosion of Mount Pinatubo that also damaged the bases. Afterward, Subic became a free port under a separate Philippine authority and administrators pledged to protect the forest for future generations

The furor over the decision to allow the Koreans to build the two condos in the middle of what was generally believed to be a protected preserve demonstrates the often-rocky relationship the Philippines has with Korea. Some 800,000 Koreans live in the country, which some have called Korea’s Miami Beach, a reference to the Florida area where millions of Americans retire from colder climates.

Koreans are now the largest group of visitors to the country annually and the leading contributor of foreign direct investment in the Philippines, with 65 percent of the paid up capital in 2007, up from only 17 percent in 2006. Hanjin is one of the biggest, with the investment in the Subic shipyard and another US$2 billion slated for the strife-torn and poverty-stricken southern island of Mindanao.

In a country where, as the Philippine Daily Inquirer put it in an editorial,“ no one can sell out Filipino interests better than Filipino officials,” and where very few environmental protections are enforced, the forest apartment complex has kicked off an enormous fuss in the Philippine legislature, with members of the Senate threatening to launch an investigation and some demanding that the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority be charged over the decision to allow the condos. Sen. Richard Gordon, the first chairman of the freeport after the US gave it up, has asked that the Subic authority review its zoning plan.

How much this has to do with the project itself and how much has to do with the fact that it is a Korean company doing the building is debatable. Hanjin has had continuing safety problems at the Subic facility. At least nine Filipino workers have been killed and several more seriously injured at the massive shipyard. The company has told the local media and the Subic authority that it is working to clear up the safety problems.

Beyond that, Hanjin has been accused of arrogance and offending Filipino sensibilities by isolating its workers in a Korean-only complex in the jungle. When the US shipper, Fedex, built its own facility at Subic, one blogger wrote, they didn’t build high-rises in the jungle. But Koreans living in the Philippines tend to be security conscious, generally making sure they are surrounded by high walls or they live in condominium high-rises with plenty of guards. Filipinos have increasingly seen the Korean among them as forming a separate community with its own infrastructure and support systems.

Subic authority administrator Armand Arreza insists that Hanjin played by all the rules in getting permits to build the structures, including an environmental clearance certificate. He added that his agency would welcome a review of the process that allowed for the construction.

"Hanjin secured all the necessary legal requirements, why would we criticize the project?" Arreza told reporters. "It sends the wrong signal to people that even if you follow the guidelines, you tell us you have changed your mind in the end."

Hanjin also says it has oberyed reglations. It cut down 28 trees for the project, but replaced them with 422 mango saplings and 238 saplings of various other tree species.

In an interview with the maritime magazine Lloyd’s List, Hanjin Philippines President Jeong Sup Shim said that the fuss over the buildings is part of a politically motivated campaign to undermine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and said Hanjin might be forced to review its investment program in the Philippines.

For all that, according to one resident of Subic, the condos actually fall into a gray area. The site was actually an old ammunition storage site for the US Navy, and not in the watershed itself. The Navy protected the area, he says, although they also maintained nuclear weapon storage bunkers where the condos are going up.

The broader question, he says, is the perception that Subic administrators are essentially abandoning any attempt to protect the ecosystem that surrounds the base because of the desire for Hanjin’s investment. The issue of the coal plant, he says, is as damaging – or more so – than the apartments.

“They are letting Hanjin build that coal plant at the mouth of the bay right beside Subic's most delicate coral bed,” he says. “That is akin to building a coal plant on the beach in Waikiki.”