Approval of plans for Bulacan Aerotropolis in Manila Bay, one of the biggest megaprojects in the Philippines, threatens 700 families with displacement and loss of their fishing livelihoods. Thousands more fisherfolk would be affected by land reclamation for the 2,500 hectare airport and ‘airport city’ complex.
On 25th April the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) of the Philippines approved plans for a new airport and metropolis, i.e. an aerotropolis, in Bulacan province, Manila Bay. Residents of the village of Taliptip and seven other areas will be affected by the project and at least 700 families face displacement. They make their living from selling their fishing catch in a nearby town and from making fishing nets. Their income is low but life is good and they do not want to leave. A woman who has lived in Taliptip for 43 years is worried for the future of her children and grandchildren. They were not informed about the airport plans and have been told they will be relocated, but not where, or how they might make an alternative livelihood.
Local communities resisting loss of their homes and incomes for the airport project are being supported by environmental and church groups and people can follow the local people’s struggle on the Save Taliptip Facebook page. Leon Dulce, national coordinator of the Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment, writes that the Bulacan aerotropolis plan is being pursued aggressively and was kept hidden from Taliptip residents until news broke of President Duterte’s approval of the project. The seas surrounding Taliptip support the livelihoods of about 5,000 fisherfolk and salt-makers, who face being displaced for the project.
Living in hardship has made Taliptip’s people resourceful, they live off the grid using solar power and batteries for their modest electricity needs. The fishing catch has dwindled but they are determined to remain in their homes maintain their established communities. A fisherman from Sitio Kinse, an island community in the midst of the mangroves along the shoreline said: “So long as the sea is here, there is hope … What will we fish if all this were turned into cement?” Fisherfolk take care of mangroves, a vital habitat for many bird species including egrets, terns, kingfishers and swallows, along with shellfish living among its roots. At the beginning of May there was a ‘massive mangrove cutting spree’ in Taliptap, reportedly undertaken by SMC, possibly without the required environmental clearance and thought to be connected with Bulacan aerotropolis. On 12th May Pinoy Weekly posted a photo of Taliptip mangroves that had been cut.
National fisherfolk alliance Pamalakaya also opposes the new airport. Chairperson Fernanado Hicap said the project will cause environmental disaster in Manila Bay; destruction of marine ecosystems would threaten the livelihoods of more than 20,000 fisherfolk in Bulacan and neighbouring towns. Hicap also lambasted the broader Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure development programme that the new airport is part of, for selling coastal waters and public lands to large developers and foreign investors. Constructing an airport in Manila Bay would require extensive land reclamation works, creating new land from the sea and wreaking destruction on fishing grounds.
Developers and governments often opt for land reclamation, as an alternative to building on farmland and obviating the loss of productive agricultural land and displacement of rural communities. But dredging up vast volumes of sediment from the ocean bed exacts a terrible ecological toll; ecosystems including mangroves, coral reefs and coastal flats are eradicated when sediment is dumped on top them. The new airport is just one of five land reclamation projects Duterte’s administration has approved in Manila Bay, described by Hicap as disregarding the “socio-economic rights of hundreds of thousands of fisherfolk and coastal settlers”. Land reclamation for the Bulacan airport project is likely to impact not just on the town of Balakan but on the neighbouring towns of Hagonoy and Paombong and the city of Malolos.
A mega-airport and a new metropolis
A mega-airport is planned, with six parallel runways and initial capacity for 100 million passengers annually, more than double the passenger throughput at the existing main Manila airport, Ninoy Aquino International Airport, the busiest in the Philippines. With a budget of P735.63 billion (US$14.2 billion) the new airport in Bulacan is the country’s most expensive transport project to date, by far the most costly of eight infrastructure projects approved as part of the Build, Build, Build (BBB) programme on 25th April by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) Board, chaired by President Rodrigo Duterte.
San Miguel Corp (SMC), the Philippines’ biggest company by revenue – a conglomerate with interests spanning infrastructure, real estate, mining, petroleum, power and food & beverages – is set to build, operate and maintain Bulacan airport and aerotropolis. The plan spans 2,500 hectares, comprising 1,168 hectares allocated for the airport and 1,332 hectares for an adjoining ‘airport city’. The video below includes a graphic showing the basic layout.
SMC’s unsolicited proposal to build Bulacan Airport, revealed after scrutiny by the Department of Transportation in November 2017, featured additional SMC projects, in the form of the obligatory surface transportation network that is inherent to the aerotropolis development model. An SMC-built expressway linking the airport to the North Luzon Expressway is planned, which would in turn link to SMC-backed Metro Rail Transit Line-7. By the time NEDA approved the Bulacan airport proposal in April 2018 the expressway project specified a revenue stream for SMC, an 8.4 kilometre airport toll road. NEDA gave SMC’s proposal for Bulacan airport the green light in spite of Department of Finance concerns that the project is to be implemented by SMC subsidiary San Miguel Holdings Corp, whose capitalization is smaller than the airport project.
Clark Airport – another aerotropolis, another new metropolis
Some potential Bulacan Airport investors were cautious about the project because expansion of Clark Airport could serve similar markets. NEDA has approved US$241 million expansion of Clark Airport as another priority under Build, Build, Build. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez highlighted Clark Airport growth at an Asian Development Bank briefing saying “Clark will will soon be the showcase of the Duterte administration’s economic strategy”. In December 2017 the government awarded the GMR-Megawide consortium the construction contract for trebling Clark Airport’s capacity from current 4 million passengers annually to 12 million by 2020. President and CEO of Clark Airport, Alexander Cauguiran, has stated larger-scale expansion plans, for increasing capacity to 80 million passengers annually upon completion of a fourth phase of development.
A former US military base which is already an economic hub, Clark Airport is also being developed as an aerotropolis, encompassed within a wider area already primed with surface transportation infrastructure and lavish incentives for investors. Clark Airport is part of Clark Freeport, a 4,400 hectare tax and duty incentivized area. Further development of Clark Freeport is prioritized in NEDA supported infrastructure projects; the US$957 million Subic-Clark railway, connecting to the Philippines other freeport zone, has been approved. Clark Freeport adjoins a larger area, the 27,600 hectare Clark Special Economic Zone, where firms can avail themselves of a generous suite of tax breaks including income tax and corporate income tax holidays of up to eight years and exemptions from local government taxes.
In April 2015, as the government infused P1.2 billion (US$27 million) for a low cost passenger terminal, it was reported that the government was ‘pouring investments into Clark aerotropolis’ development’. Nearly three years later, in March 2018, the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) pitched Clark Airport to global investors as an ‘airport city’ and ‘growth center’. BCDA senior vice president John Bingcang said “Clark is on its way to becoming Asia’s next aerotropolis with the development not only of the airport, but the Clark Freeport as well” and invited investment in construction of a US$67 million access road to another airport city component, the “smart, green, and resilient” New Clark City. At completion covering an area of 93 square kilometres, planners envisage that New Clark City will be larger than Manhattan, housing 2 million people. Claims that the new metropolis will be sustainable, reduce carbon emissions and ‘pollution-free’, are undermined by aviation dependence. New Clark City is regarded by BCDA as complementing expansion of the airport.
Land disputes and displacement
Development of Clark Airport within Clark Freeport, in the 2,367 hectare Clark Civil Aviation Complex (CCAC), has triggered land disputes. In July 2016 117 farmers cultivating about 200 hectares of CCAC land appealed to President Duterte, drawing attention to their request to Clark International Airport Corporation (CIAC) to grant them ‘Disturbance Compensation‘. The president of a farmers’ cooperative said construction of factories and an industrial complex had begun without prior consultation. Farmers protested at the construction site, stating that they were willing to surrender farmlands but demanding just compensation plus reimbursement for loss of farm buildings and crops. Almost a year later, in June 2017, cultivation of grains, vegetables and spices in the CCAC appeared to be attracting birds. A Commission on Audit (COA) report blamed farming activities of people it referred to as ‘illegal settlers’ on 647 hectares of land for an increase in bird strikes, collisions with aircraft that can pose a safety risk.
GMR-Megawide is keen on bidding for the operation and management contract of Clark Airport, and already operates Mactan-Cebu Airport, the second busiest in the Philippines. A second terminal is scheduled to open within a few weeks and GMR-Megawide Cebu Airport Corp (GMCAC) plans for further expansion, a third terminal and second runway that would increase airport capacity from the current level of approximately 10 million passengers per year to 28 million passengers by 2039. The project entails reclaiming 300 hectares of Magellan Bay. This option, chosen in a proposal supported by some Cebu congressmen, was seen as preferable to expanding over land as that would have impacts upon between 10,000 and 12,000 households.
SMC, through its subsidiary Trans Aire Development Holdings Corp (TADHC) holds the concession to operate Boracay Airport, the main gateway to the Philippines’ most well-known tourist island. On 16th September 2015 residents facing land expropriation for expansion of the airport protested against plans to purchase their land at a fraction of its market value. The president of Caticlan Land Owners Association said the market rate for real estate in the area was between five and ten times higher per square metre than residents were being offered. Yet some residents had already received court orders instructing them to vacate their homes. Demonstrators gathered outside the airport terminal with placards reading: ‘No To Expansion Caticlan/Boracay Airport’, ‘Stop Harrassment’, ‘Airport Expansion is Killing us’, ‘Expropriation is Oppression’, ‘No to Expropriation, Yes to Fair Negotiation’, ‘CAAP / San Miguel Have Mercy ON US’ and ‘Government for the People, Not Government for San Miguel Corp’. About 200 families were affected by expansion of the airport and in November 2015 the Commission in Human Rights (CHR) in Western Visayas took cognizance of the complaints raised by landowners.
Some residents had no choice but to accept the low compensation offer. By April 2016 a number of families had been evicted to make way for airport expansion and become squatters. Local residents asked TADHC and the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) for clarification of the scope of Boracay Airport expansion plans, estimated to affect about 8,000 people. By October 2017 SMC was building a new terminal at Boracay Airport and, separate from airport development, expanding the footprint of its tourism related development on 130 hectares of land. Groundbreaking for a 400 room Marriott Hotel was imminent and plans included more hotels, an entertainment complex and an ocean park.