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The Guimaras tragedy

September 14, 2006

RULE OF LAW

By Basilio H. Alo
BusinessWorld
September 8, 2006

In tragedy, every moment is eternity. – Cristopher Fry

ONE national daily recalled the tanker Exxon Valdez’s spillage of around 10 million gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska in 1989, and compared it to MT Solar I’s 62,000 gallons of oil devastating the Guimaras shores today.

One local expert even advanced the opinion that when the next typhoon
hits the Visayas, it would neutralize the oil catastrophe simply through
the forces of nature.

Perhaps, the oil leakage may not be as extensive nor as horrifying as the one in Alaska, but to the affected fisherfolk, business establishments, and residents in the area, it couldn’t be any worse since their livelihoods have effectively been wiped out.

We should bear in mind that the Philippines is still a Third World country, unlike Alaska that is part of the powerful United States of America, the unofficial leader of the world’s developed nations.

The sight of hundreds of Guimaras villagers using their hands to scrape oil sludge from the rocks and trees in their island’s coastline shows so vividly the kind of weapons we can muster to fight the tragedy.

But for those in the know, this kind of disaster is not unusual in the maritime industry, and with the lengthy experience of our own shipping networks, accidents at sea are already well covered by insurers, both local and foreign.

I do not believe there is any practical advantage, other than political, in completing the investigation in a hurry. As a matter of fact, insurance companies should be left to handle it by their rules, and then indemnify the ones damaged by the oil spillage.

The Navy’s Special Board of Marine Inquiry will come out with its findings soon, but, by its own regulations, it may not determine civil nor criminal liability for the oil spillage, nor may it award damages.

Eventually, the claimants will be asked to file the proper case for recovery of damages in the regional trial courts and a decision will be forthcoming after a lengthy court battle that will usually end in the Supreme Court.

That will take a decade. In the meantime, Guimaras villagers will be suffering the ill-effects of the disaster, unless government takes a direct hand in bringing about quick relief to their vanished livelihoods.

The 1987 Constitution commands the State “to protect and promote the right to health of the people” and to “protect and advance the right of the people to a balanced and healthful ecology in accord with the rhythm and harmony of nature” (Sections 15 and 16, Article III).

Similarly, it is “the prime duty of the Government…to serve and protect the people” (Section 4, Article II, Constitution). So, before certain interested functionaries start revising or amending the fundamental law, maybe they should seriously consider following its current mandates first.

If Filipinos can show nationalistic or social concern, this is the perfect opportunity. The maritime disaster should bring out the best (or the worst) in our beings. Let us all work together within our modest means!

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