The rejection in 1991 of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement was a tremendous accomplishment. Even if the bases were devastated shortly after by the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, it was a defining moment for Filipinos. It was a culmination of a long and often violent struggle to be free from the shackles of colonial rule. It was an assertion of independence all the more remarkable for a nation long viewed as quiescent.
The withdrawal of the US Bases was celebrated with hope and wild rejoicing, which unfortunately did not last long. The Americans left a reality far more complex and disturbing – they turned over lands contaminated with toxic waste. Long after American forces left, fuels, cleaning fluids, lubricants, and other chemicals continue to leech into the land and groundwater endangering the lives of local population and the environment.
NO LESS THAN THE US GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE, US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE, WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION, AND US FIRMS HAVE CONFIRMED SERIOUS CONTAMINATION AT OVER 46 SITES IN BOTH THE CLARK AIR BASE IN ANGELES CITY AND IN THE SUBIC NAVAL BASE IN OLONGAPO CITY.
The victims of contamination are for the most part children and women. While accurate figures are clearly impossible to calculate, the non-governmental organization People’s Task Force on Bases Cleanup (PTFBC) estimates that as many as 20,000 families or close to 100,000 persons may have ingested contaminated water while living at the Clark Air Base Command (Cabcom). As of its last count, the PTFBC found at least 52 former Cabcom residents sick with serious ailments including cancer. Some 20 children and eight adults have already died because of waste poisoning.
The clinical manifestations exhibited by the victims were consistent with chemical exposure. In 1988 the Weston International conducted a study on soil and water samples believed to have the presence of cancer-causing substances. Identified were mercury, nitrate, lead, solvents, and other heavy metals as well as pesticides like dieldrin and malathion. Exposure to heavy metals could lead to cancer, leukemia, sperm count reduction, and central nervous disorders. It could also effect abortion or abnormalities.
The contamination has other implications – for the environment, for the economy, for health services, and increasingly, for the local population. Ingrained and persistent poverty ensures that they would never fully recover unless an immense, coordinated, international effort involving vast sums of money would get underway to touch the problem.
BUT THE US, WITH ITS UNIQUE ABILITY TO PROJECT POWER ACROSS THE WORLD, SO FAR HAS DENIED ITS RESPONSIBILITY FOR CLEANING UP THE CONTAMINATION CITING LACK OF LEGAL OBLIGATION. It has refused to release pertinent documents and severely criticized environmental studies conducted by those without experience in military restoration.
There is nothing unusual about that. Always, the US has held the upper hand in its relationship with the Philippines. Always, it is the less powerful who bear the risks of the mess left by polluters. It is a relationship that reveals again and again how unequal distribution of power and opportunity put the vulnerable and the poor at risk. It patently shows a disregard for a fundamental human right to food and water uncontaminated with industrial chemicals.
If the story were to happen in the US or in its superpower allies instead of in the Philippines, remediation activities would already have been undertaken. In Canada, Germany, and Japan, the US has provided assessment and cleanup after complaints of environmental contamination.
The US should do no less for the Philippines, which it has occupied and benefited from for almost a century. It is particularly urgent that the US accepts its responsibility in light of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which in 1998 it has forged with the Philippines. The VFA paves the way for the return of US forces in the country and the resumption of military exercises. The VFA does not guarantee environmental protection, but no less than our own Department of Foreign Affairs declared that the chances of toxic contamination is remote. Yet the US defense department has admitted that nuclear vessels have occasionally leaked radioactive liquids. Military port visits and training exercises have environmental impacts. War exercise harm forests, mountains, beaches, wetlands, and ultimately, people.
We cannot allow the further contamination of our land nor the continuous global environmental racism and injustice. THERE MAY BE NO TREATY OBLIGATION HOLDING THE US TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE, BUT THERE ARE MORAL AND PUBLIC HEALTH ARGUMENTS THAT SHOULD COMPEL IT TO ACCEPT ITS RESPONSIBILITY. Despite the absence of specific provisions in the 1951 US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty that obliges the US to clean up its toxic waste, relevant principles and agreement accepted by the US and the international community as morally responsible. Among these are the Stockholm Declaration on intergenerational equity, Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Rio Declaration.
The story of the US Military bases is not merely a story of environmental rights; it is a story of human rights-exploited, degraded, and stripped of their dignity. THEIR FUTURE DEPENDS ON THE RECOGNITION OF MORAL RESPONSIBILITY AND ON THE REDISCOVERY OF A CONSCIENCE. OUR GOALS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN JUSTICE AND FREEDOM. OUR TASK IS TO HUMANIZE THE LIVES OF PEOPLE THAT HAVE BECOME FACELESS EMBLEMS OF MISERY AND POVERTY.
We, the Bishops of the ecclesiastical province of San Fernando, where two of former US Military Bases are located, make these portions of the Statement of the National Secretariat for Social action, Justice and Peace (NASSA) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, our own.
We appeal to the Philippine Government to officially look into this concern and take the needed steps to give due solution to the situation.
We appeal to the United States of American Government to address this issue and recognize its responsibilities and obligations. To this end, we are sending a copy of this Statement to the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
We appeal to all government and non-government groups to coordinate in gathering more facts and urging both governments to face their responsibilities and take actions called for.
We appeal to the assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to take a stand on this issue and, if possible, to provide a copy of this stand to His Excellency President Joseph Estrada as he makes his official visit to the United States of America this month, His Excellency President Bill Clinton, and the President of the United States Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
Signed this 2nd day of July (Jubilee of Ecology) Year of the Great Jubilee of the Incarnation 2000.
+PACIANO B. ANICETO, D.D. Archbishop of San Fernando
+FLORENTINO F. CINENSE, D.D. Bishop of Tarlac
+HONESTO F. ONGTIOCO, D.D. Bishop of Balanga
+DEOGRACIAS S. IÑIGUEZ, D.D. Bishop of Iba