Green concerns over Philippines' planned mega vaccination centre

The quarantine facility at the Nayong Pilipino Foundation (NPF) property in Entertainment City, Parañaque City, is already the biggest in Metro Manila, but the Department of Tourism has endorsed the further construction of a “mega vaccination” complex. - NAYONG PILIPINO FOUNDATION PHOTO

MANILA (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN): Environment and heritage advocates are opposing a plan by the government to put up a “megavaccination centre” in an urban forest, saying the short-term use of the property of the Nayong Pilipino Foundation (NPF) will result in long-term ecological damage.

Lucille Karen Malilong-Isberto, the NPF executive director, resigned on Thursday due to a conflict with Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat over the project that would require chopping down about 500 trees at the NPF’s property in Entertainment City, the reclaimed area in Parañaque City known for its casinos.

The heritage group Dakilang Pamana ng Lahi (Pamanlahi) said the proposed vaccination site would endanger the “park’s growing ecosystem” and “urban wildlife” as the site is close to the Las Piñas-Parañaque critical habitat and protected wetland and is home to about 25 bird species.

“The green and fresh environment that is open and free, a large public space that is much-needed by the people of Metro Manila, will be destroyed and will disappear, ” the group said in a statement on Thursday.

The NPF, a government-owned and controlled corporation (GOCC) attached to the Department of Tourism (DOT), also expressed the same concerns.

The NPF promotes cultural heritage and Filipino identity “hinged on diversity, ” according to its website. It spearheads and develops “hubs, spaces, activities, green infrastructure projects, and research and knowledge production initiatives that utilize innovation and creative potential as catalysts for national development.”

A government source familiar with the proposed project told the Inquirer that more than half of the NPF’s 15-hectare property would be used for the vaccination facility, which would include roads and a parking lot.

In a statement on Thursday, the NPF said the property “is not a vacant lot but has a thriving urban forest that hosts a variety of urban wildlife and is the last remaining grassland in the reclaimed area of Parañaque.”

“The abrupt cutting of close to 500 trees and other site works on the NPF property will kill the existing ecosystem, ” the statement said.

“A megavaccination facility that will destroy this ecosystem would be a disaster and a disservice to the residents of Metro Manila who need more green and open spaces.”

In a stinging rebuke to Malilong-Isberto and others in the NPF, billionaire Enrique Razon Jr., who proposed setting up the mass vaccination site, said he was “at a loss for words to describe” the opponents of the project.

“What planet do these idiots come from? They previously leased the land to a questionable character from China to build a casino who would have torn down all the trees to begin with, ” he said in a statement sent to the Inquirer on Saturday.

He was referring to the NPF’s 2018 joint venture deal with Macau-based casino company Landing Corp. which was ordered terminated by President Duterte due to allegations of irregularities. The NPF’s board members then also were fired as a result.

Razon said the NPF did not plant any of the trees, which are ipil-ipil that “that grow like weeds” in the property.

“They think a park is more important than vaccinating the people so we can end this pandemic, open the economy, end the lockdown so people can actually go to a park?!?!” he said.

“We are in the midst of our biggest crisis ever with people dying and they want a park instead of vaccination centre!!! Incomprehensible!!”

Razon said the project won’t lead to tree cutting, “so their behaviour is highly suspicious.”

Malilong-Isberto had questioned the DOT’s statements that the management and operation of the planned facility would be turned over to the ICTSI (International Container Terminal Services Inc.) Foundation of the Razon Group.

She said this set up would raise issues of propriety and would be contrary to Presidential Decree No. 1445, the Government Auditing Code of the Philippines. The Razon Group owns and operates Solaire Resort and Casino at Entertainment City.

Razon, who led the private sector purchase of some 20 million Moderna vaccines through a tripartite deal with the government, had asked the DOT to use the property for vaccinating “thousands of Filipinos” daily.

In a March 25 letter to Puyat, Razon said the ICTSI Foundation was willing to shoulder the costs of the site development.

On May 4, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea issued a memorandum directing the NPF “to undertake any and all acts necessary to allow the Department of Health (DOH) or the NTF [National Task Force Against Covid-19] to use the NPF property ... for Covid-19 intervention measures, particularly as a site for [a] vaccination center.”

“Should the NPF have any existing plans on the same property, it shall defer the implementation thereof to give way to the more urgent purpose of meeting the public health emergency, ” said the memo, a copy of which was obtained by the Inquirer.

The DOT in a statement on Friday said it backed the proposal of the NTF to use part of the NPF property for a “temporary vaccination center” which was expected to inoculate “at least 12,000 individuals” a day for free.

It said it “guarantees” that the “legal, environmental, health and public welfare considerations” in the proposed project were taken into account.

“While the DOT’s mandate is the recovery of the tourism industry, it must submit to a higher goal—that of saving the lives of Filipinos, ” it said.

The NPF said it supported the government’s pandemic response and was hosting a quarantine facility operated by the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

The NPF board had also approved a “smaller” vaccination facility, but it said there should be coordination with the DOH and AFP to ensure that building it “in the middle of a surge” would not put patients and quarantine staff at risk.

Malilong-Isberto said the DOT only showed the NPF board a YouTube video of a drive-in vaccination facility in the United States.She had requested details of the proposal from the NTF and the DOH so that a draft project agreement could be reviewed by state counsels. - Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN

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