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MANILA, The Philippines -- China, host of the 1998 Olympics, has launched a campaign to highlight its “Green” side but Philippine environmentalists and government officials say poaching activities of its nationals veer toward “organized crime.”
“In Palawan, Tawi-Tawi, Jolo and Basilan, there are Chinese ‘tourists’ spending time in fishing villages, befriending locals and placing orders for endangered aquatic and land animals,” according to Lory Tan, World Wildlife Fund-Philippines executive director.
In between scouting for friendly locals to the actual trapping of wildlife and smuggling these out of the country, are several steps that require an intricate arrangement of “top to bottom” bribes, Tan told The Manila Times after a meeting of high-powered environmentalists and their legal advisers.
Friday’s meeting discussed the drafting of a legal protocol on wildlife protection but both private and public sector representatives complained about what a senator dubbed as “executive interference” in legal suits against poachers.
The watchdogs also claimed that China’s diplomatic muscle stymies local communities’ efforts against poaching.
Gerthie Anda, a lawyer for the state-created Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) in Palawan, said rangers across the country arrested close to 600 Chinese nationals for poaching in the last nine years.
Only one case, the December 2005 arrest of 17 coachers caught with 54 marine turtles, led to a conviction.
The crime of trafficking in endangered species carries a 12- to 20-year jail sentence.
But by the first semester of 2006, Anda said, President Arroyo signed a pardon for the Chinese nationals.
Angelique Songco, head of the TMO, said that in several cases Department of Justice officials in the national capital relieved local prosecutors, replacing them with Manila-based fiscals or ordered a reversal of findings.
In at least one case, Anda said, a judge halted proceedings mid-trial to allow a plea bargain by the suspects.
“It’s the trend; they’ll bargain down to the least serious and crime, often with advice by government officials,” Anda noted.
Tan said the WWF network and officials of allied environmental groups have already reported the presence of Chinese “buyers” in fishing villages dotting the country’s rugged coastline.
I hate to use the phrase “government collusion” so I’m going to say it’s organized crime because of the element of conspiracy between the Chinese buyers of these species, their local managers and some members of state departments,” Tan said.
A senior National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) official who attended the meeting confirmed Tan’s claim, warning that poachers’ “impunity” could encourage involvement in other dangerous forms of smuggling.
“If they can carry fishes and other animals, they can carry drugs or even arms,” the NBI official warned.
The Philippines has a serious problem with narcotics and terrorism and the provinces cited by Tan are among the weakest links in the government’s law and order campaign.
Lawyer Tony Oposa, head of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines environment task force and a deputized environmental prosecutor, said the draft protocol aims to “plug all loopholes” that colluding officials use to let poachers go free.
It would give environmentalists, prosecutors and judges training in the handing of evidence and the charges to use against poachers.
Hoi Wan case
But even honest law enforcers, the NBI official said, often run into official interference.
The case of the Hoi Wan illustrates the problems faced by environmentalists.
Lawyers and local government officials are trying to persuade Manila to prevent 30 Chinese poachers from leaving the country following their release on bail.
Rangers of the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park intercepted their vessel, the Hoi Wan, on December 21 for illegal entry into protected area and world heritage site.
On boarding, they discovered more than 2,000 fishes, including 350 juvenile Napoleon Wrasses, an endangered species.
They also found compressor equipment, wet suits and 10 sampans, indicating a sophisticated operation.
Palawan Gov. Joel Reyes and Reps. Abraham Mitra and Antonio Alvarez have requested hold orders for the Hoi Wan’s crew, who face several criminal charges, but have yet to receive a response from the justice department.
It took 10 days before the Philippine Navy answered appeals by the TMO for an escort vessel.
Songco said officials of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquaculture Resources had already boarded a Navy vessel when they were ordered off when higher-ups ordered crew to proceed to Northern Palawan.
Navy officials claimed there was an urgent security situation in the area but this report did not pan out.
It took appeals from the Palawan governor and congressmen, and days of negotiations between the Palawan officials and Manila, and between Tan and the agriculture and foreign affairs departments, to prod Armed Forces headquarters into issuing an escort order.
On Friday, sources from the DFA provided The Manila Times with a copy of the Chinese ambassador’s letter to Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo that could explain the reluctance to bring the Hoi Wan back to Puerto Princesa.
The December 28 letter urged Romulo to “pay personal attention” to the case, warning that it could jeopardize the attendance of Premier Wen Jiabao in this week’s summit of Southeast Asian nations and their East Asian partners.
Ambassador Li Jinjun linked the case to a Philippine-China fishery cooperation agreement and the country’s relations with Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of Filipinos work as domestic help.
The envoy said the embassy was in close contact with the Department of Agriculture and the AFP Western Command. Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap, the ambassador claimed, had promised “to resolve the issue as soon as possible” if the fishes were released.
He urged Romulo to agree to the release of crew and their vessel before it was escorted to Puerto Princesa. “In that case, we are afraid that it may make the situation more complicated and delay the early resolution.”