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Highlights of Australian Embassy Virtual Media Briefing 2021
by Marcelle P. Villegas - May 28, 2021
23 May 2021: In celebration of the 75th Anniversary of Philippine-Australia Diplomatic Relations, Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. and H.E. Steven J. Robinson AO, Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, witnessed the commemorative lighting of the iconic SM Mall of Asia (MoA) Globe with the commemorative logo and images of Australians and Filipinos showing mateship and bayanihan. This event is one of the highlights of the year-long anniversary commemoration in the Philippines and Australia. [Photo credit: Australian Embassy in the Philippines]
Every year, the Australian Embassy in the Philippines hosts the Annual Journalists’ Reception in Makati with the purpose of bringing together the Australian companies in the Philippines and the local journalists in a business briefing.
Last year’s Journalists’ Reception was cancelled due to the sudden nationwide lockdown as an emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However this year, the month of May had a good start with the launch of their first Australian Embassy Virtual Media Briefing last May 3rd.
The briefing was led by Christopher Lim, Senior Trade and Industry Commissioner of the Australian Embassy in the Philippines. Representatives of the Australian businesses provided reports and updates of their industries’ development, latest projects and trends. For this, they had two speakers, namely: Dave Shiner, Regional Director – Asia for Austal; and J.V. Emmanuel A. “Jocot” De Dios, Chief Executive Officer of Prime Metro BMD.
Members of the Philippine press also had a Q&A session with the Australian Ambassador.
His Excellency Steven J. Robinson AO, Australian Ambassador to the Philippines, gave an inspiring speech that focused on the shared values and history of Australia and the Philippines. He covered the topics on Australia’s support for the Philippine’s sectors in agriculture, food industry, education, infrastructure, finance, defence, COVID-19 vaccine supply, disaster preparedness program, and more.
He said, “Over the past several decades, we have witnessed the bond between Australia and the Philippines grow stronger and develop into an enduring friendship. We launched the 75th Anniversary celebration on Australia Day in January including the unveiling of the commemorative website mateshipandbayanihan.com.” The special website of the Australian Embassy in the Philippines contains stories of friendship and partnership over the years.
Last May 22nd and 23rd was Philippines-Australia Friendship Day. “Now, we are very pleased to be one of only five countries with an annual friendship day celebration, in our case set by Presidential Proclamation 1282. The Embassy aims to bring the celebration around the Philippines to a different city each year.”
Due to the restrictions of the COVID-19 community quarantine rules, the Australian Embassy launched some online programmes to reach out to everyone across the Philippines. The Embassy hosted an online “Stream and Sip” festival highlighting Australian films, music and food last 22nd and 23rd of May. They also featured Australian Music on Spotify and Australian films on Netflix.
During the briefing, the Ambassador also expressed his admiration to the Filipino people for their fortitude throughout the lockdowns. He mentioned that Australia has committed 500 million Australian dollars to support access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and to promote health security in the Indo-Pacific, including in the Philippines.
“Australia is committed to providing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines for the Pacific and Southeast Asia, including through contributing 80 million AUD to the COVAX Facility Advanced Market Commitment to deliver vaccines to the most vulnerable.”
“As vice-chair of the Gavi Vaccine Alliance Board, Australia successfully advocated for the Philippines to be eligible for COVAX AMC doses, and has advocated for the earliest possible access for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. So, we are pleased that the Philippines has received two shipments totaling 525,600 doses through the COVAX Facility. Now, this is the second highest number of doses delivered in Southeast Asia.”
Moreover, he discussed about the development cooperation program of the Australian Government for the Philippines. “And I am also really pleased that Australia was able to redirect our 80 million dollar development cooperation program to reinforce the Philippine response to the pandemic. In fact, Australia’s development program in the Philippines is one of our largest in the world. Our development partnership is focused on achieving a more prosperous, stable, and resilient Philippines.”
The Ambassador stressed that while trade is an important factor to develop, economic growth is vital as well to creating sustainable prosperity. “There are encouraging signs, for example, in our commercial ties even through the pandemic. As you know, there are over 300 Australian companies employing 44,000 Filipinos operating here in the Philippines, mainly in business processing outsourcing area (BPOs), mining and services sectors.”
He further enumerated on his speech the various infrastructure projects of Australian companies in the Philippines. “And it may interest you to know that Australian companies have been responsible for major developments in the Philippines including the interior design of the new terminal at the Clark International Airport as well as designing the Philippine Arena and that was a company by the name of Populous; the construction of the four-lane Cavite-Laguna Expressway that was done by Leighton Asia; the engineering and architecture for the Manila Clark Railway Project, North South Railway Project, Now that was done by SMEC. The value engineering design for the NLEX and the SLEX Connector Road Project, that was also done by SMEC. And the detailed design for the New Government Administrative Center in New Clark City; tunnelling for New Clark City as well, also done by BMD Construction; and providing advice to most PPP transactions in the Philippines, now that’s Macquarie Capital.”
Additionally, he mentioned other Australian companies here in the Philippines such as: Austal, a world-class ship builder; Crone which provides world-class architectural services; Prime BMD, experts in engineering services and project management; Qantas which connects people to Australia; Site Skills in Clark which supports Philippine skills development; Telstra, provider of first class global telecommunications; QBE, one of the world’s top insurance companies, and Orica, known for its world class mining operation.
During the Q&A portion of the briefing, Business Mirror and Philippine Resources Journal both asked the Ambassador about his views on the Philippine mining industry, particularly on the Philippine Government’s lifting of the 9-year moratorium on new mining agreements.
He replied, “So we think that the lifting of the ban is a really positive step forward for the Philippines because we think that the mining industry, done responsibly, using firms that have the most modern equipment, the most modern techniques that subscribe to world’s standards of mining, can really benefit the Philippines. The Philippines is a natural resource-rich country, and there’s much that could be done here that would really benefit the Philippines’ recovery.”
“And Australian firms know that the miners that we already have here - Orica, Oceana Gold, Red Nine - there’s a number of them -- They’re already thinking about what does the future hold for them as a result of that ban being lifted, and they’ve started to reach out to us just in recent times to express interest in mining across the Philippines. So I think that was a very, very positive step for the Philippines and good for Australian mining here, in cooperation and partnership with the Philippines. So, I’m very optimistic about what’s going to happen in the next couple of years about mining, and Australian mining here in the Philippines.”
The issue on defence and maritime border protection were some of the major topics discussed during the briefing. The Ambassador said, “Through the Australia-Philippines Defence Cooperation Program, Australia is the Philippines’ second largest counter-terrorism and defence cooperation partner. Australia and the Philippines have a long history of Defence Cooperation that dates back to World War II. 4,000 Australians fought here during WW2 of which 92 died.”
“We have had an MOU on Defence cooperation since 1995 and the SOVFA was enacted in September 2012.”
“Though limited by COVID, we continue to cooperate and with strong focus on education and training both in the Philippines and in Australia with an emphasis on counter-terrorism, in the aftermath of the Marawi siege.”
“We will continue to work closely with the Philippine Government to address the ongoing threat of terrorism. We also support modernisation efforts and maritime security engagement. Our defence program is also active in the humanitarian space – from assisting with the post-Haiyan typhoon response to most recently with a 3 million dollar, that’s Australian Dollars that we’ve donated to AFP hospital system to assist COVID-19 relief efforts.”
“We also cooperate in the areas of aviation and maritime security, as well as border protection. For both our countries, secure and reliable transportation networks are crucial in helping business and people trade and travel safely. Our Aviation and Maritime Security Division collaborates with the Philippines to improve transport security and enhance operational efficiency. We do this together by improving compliance with international standards and exchange views on transport security best practice.”
“Australia’s expanded engagement on maritime cooperation with the Philippines will be a key element of our commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of bilateral relations this year, through a new Philippine Civil Maritime Security Program (PCMSP) which aims to support the Philippines to strengthen its civil maritime security. Australia supports the adherence to international law, particularly UNCLOS, and other norms and laws that govern our international waterways.”
He stated that their civil maritime cooperation will focus on:
- Maritime governance systems, processes, and interagency coordination.
- Maritime or Marine natural resources management and environment protection.
- Technical assistance, research, and workshops.
“And through this program, the Australian Embassy intends to work with several government agencies such as the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine National Police – Maritime Group, and National Coast Watch Council.”
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Mateship and Bayanihan are shared values of Australia and the Philippines. The two countries have a long history of partnership and friendship that dates back even during the Spanish colonial times in the Philippines. Their diplomatic bond was tested and strengthened during World War II in the Pacific.
One remarkable part of their shared history dates back in the late 1800s when Australia opened its doors to migrant Filipino workers to support the pearling industry in Northern Australia. These Filipinos were called the “Manila Men” and they worked as pearl divers. These Filipino migrant workers played an important role in the development of the pearl, trochus and beche-de-mer (processed sea cucumbers) industries in Northern Australia. A large number of indigenous Australians are descendants of these Manila Men. 
Other than shared values and history, the Australia-Philippine relations include political, economic, development, defence, security and cultural relations. Australia has an embassy in Manila while the Philippines has an embassy in Canberra and a consulate general in Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. 
Australia’s first Consulate General in Manila was founded on 22nd of May 1946. There are over 250,000 people of Filipino heritage living in the Australia, and there are more than 10,000 Filipino students enrolled in Australian universities and vocational institutions. 
In celebration of Friendship Day last May 22, the Ambassador launched an online campaign to inspire people across the Philippines to join the celebration by sharing their stories of friendship. “This month of May, I invite everyone to join the celebration on social media by reflecting on our deep relationship and sending messages of friendship using the hashtag #mateshipandbayanihan and #FilAussieDay.” 
Thank you, Australian Embassy in the Philippines.
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Abe Almirol - June 23, 2021
Cagayan River Rehabilitation: Initiatives from Ridge to Reef
After two severe weather disturbances that took place in the first half of November 2020 heavily hit eight regions in the Philippines, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte immediately signed Executive Order No. 120 creating the Task Force Build Back Better (TF-BBB) to initiate a comprehensive and integrated recovery. Cagayan and Marikina valleys suffered the heaviest damage and human casualties as floods and its aftermath landslides placed many parts of the country in a state of calamity for weeks. Typhoon Rolly (international name: Goni) made its landfall on 1 November 2020 and several days after its onslaught and in almost the same path, Typhoon Ulysses (international name: Vamco) carried with it heavy rains as it reached the Philippine shorelines on 11 November 2020. Tuguegarao and Marikina cities were in deep floods as Ulysses traversed the Philippine area of responsibility. The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council reported over 2.3 million people affected across eight regions in the country. Reports indicated that 23,089 individuals displaced were moved to evacuation centres while 46,987 individuals displaced stayed outside evacuation centres. The death toll from Ulysses has reached more than 70. It has severely damaged property and infrastructure in some areas. Videos circulating in social media showed floods reaching the roofs in some parts of Cagayan and Marikina City. Two agencies, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), were given the lead role in a task force working on an operational mode adopting the “whole-of-society approach”. All government agencies and instrumentalities were mandated by EO 120 to take part. After eight months of work, the TF-BBB has made significant gains in pursuing rehabilitation and post-recovery initiatives. DENR has realised that problems such as this needs to consider all factors affecting the whole watershed catchment basin where floods occur. Environmental advocates and experts often refer to this approach as the ridge-to-reef initiative. "In the months since we set out to work in November last year, we have now set into motion significant post-disaster recovery initiatives in three priority geographic areas involving the restoration of Cagayan, Marikina, and Bicol River basins," DENR Secretary and TF-BBB chair Roy A. Cimatu said. Cagayan River Dredging: Agencies in Action Cimatu and TF-BBB co-chairperson Secretary Mark A. Villar of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) led the ceremonial dredging of sandbars along Cagayan River’s constricted midstream and planting of Bamboo seedlings on the riverbank of Barangay Bangag in the town of Lal-lo, Cagayan last 2 February 2021. After removing the sandbar obstacles that impede water from flowing freely, the roots of planted Bamboos should serve as a soil binder to keep the riverbank intact in the future. There are three priority sandbars to remove near the Magapit bridge, measuring about 235 hectares with an estimated volume of seven million cubic meters, according to TF-BBB statements captured by the media. The first phase of DPWH dredging operations targeted this choke point which a past study identified as the cause of flooding in Tuguegarao City and other settlements near the riverbanks. TF-BBB in Region 2 is chaired by Regional Executive Director Gwendolyn Bambalan of the DENR and co-chaired by Regional Director Loreta Malaluan of the DPWH. In her message during one of the virtual sessions of the task force, Director Bambalan lauded the different government agencies for their support to the Build Back Better initiatives in the region. "The regional TF-BBB is not only addressing the protection and conservation of the environment but also the welfare of barangays and families affected by the restoration of the Cagayan River," Director Bambalan said. In that meeting, the DPWH discussed the dredging operation and riverbank protections works. The Department of Human Settlement and Urban Development gave an update on the status of resettlement projects while the Office of Civil Defence reviewed the improvement of systems and essential services. The Department of Trade and Industry also presented its accomplishments on livelihood projects. For its part, the Department of the Interior and Local Government presented its agenda for strengthened governance and mainstreaming of disaster-risk reduction and climate change action. Representatives of the Land Registration Authority also attended the meeting. The LRA will be the partner agency of the DENR for the easement recovery along the Cagayan River. The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) has trained residents who were eventually hired as laborers and equipment operators to help carry out the dredging operations. TF-BBB has also engaged the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) to provide employment assistance to 120 residents for the planting and nurturing of bamboo trees in Tuguegarao City and the towns of Alcala, Enrile, and Gattaran. This will be implemented through DOLE's "Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers" or TUPAD program. Magat Dam blamed In many reports published and echoed in mainstream media and social media, the opening of the Magat Dam floodgates was blamed as the cause of flooding. The National Irrigation Administration (NIA) came out with a fact check to clear its liability. Even the Senate initiated moved to investigate the matter. NIA’s acting department manager of Public Affairs and Information Office, Eden Victoria Selva, came up with a comprehensive technical response, explaining that the Magat river is just one of the many river systems draining to the Cagayan River. “It is noted that the carrying capacity of the Cagayan River is 25,400 m3/s while the maximum volume of water released from the Magat Dam is only 6,706 m3/s indicating that water discharge of Magat Dam due to Typhoon Ulysses is not the main cause of massive flooding in the provinces of Isabela and Cagayan,” Selva said in an article that appeared in INQUIRER.net on 10 June 2021. The controversial statements blaming the Magat Dam’s release of water also aroused public perception that points responsibility to the occupants of watershed areas in the upstream of Magat River. Those affected by the floods were quick to call for punitive actions against watershed occupants, including calls to ban mining in the province of Nueva Vizcaya, including those issued with legitimate permits to operate. Sharing the Burden of Watershed Restoration and Protection In the watersheds upstream of the Magat River, a 10-year project co-funded by the Republic of the Philippines and the Japan International Cooperation Agency is nearing completion. It is called the Forestland Management Project (FMP), a sequel of the several forestry sector projects implemented by the DENR’s Forest Management Bureau in the last 30 years. FMP is a holistic approach in Community Based Forest Management Agreement (CBFMA) areas in sub-watersheds in the upper areas of the Cagayan River, particular the provinces of Nueva Vizcaya, Ifugao and Quirino. FMP is also present in the Upper Pampanga River in Nueva Ecija and in Jalaur River in Iloilo. Anselmo Cabrera, an Institutional Development Specialist working at the Central Project Management Office of the FMP at the DENR Central Office, has proposed a cost sharing mechanism that Watershed Management Councils should develop for mainstreaming. He said there must be a system where every citizen or institution using water can pay for environmental services performed by duty-bearers protecting and maintaining watersheds. Through a cost sharing mechanism, communities living in critical watershed areas will be compensated for their efforts to ensure there is sufficient forest cover. With this scheme, upland farmers could minimize soil erosion by planting permanent crops instead of clearing spots to plant vegetables and other short-term cash crops. The FMP has so far initiated several hundred of hectares planted with coffee, Guyabano, Rambutan, and other fruit bearing trees. About 35 people’s organizations benefitting over 5,000 households, mostly from Kalanguya, Ibaloi, Isinai, Iwak and Ifugao indigenous cultural communities, LGUs were also called to take a more active role in watershed protection. Cabrera welcomes the favourable result of the Mandanas Ruling, where local governments won in getting their share in revenues collected outside the Bureau of Internal Revenue. The Supreme Court has ruled that LGUs can now get a share from the collection of the Bureau of Customs and other national revenues. Information available from the Department of Budget Management (DBM) revealed LGUs, which include provinces, municipalities, and barangays, could get as much as 37% increase in their internal revenue allotments from the national government in 2022. A DBM advisory directed LGUs to use these additional money to fund the full devolution of services, of which, integrated social forestry is one. Nueva Vizcaya Governor Carlos M. Padilla made a friendly overture when nasty comments were posted over social media by angry residents of Tuguegarao City who wallowed in deep floods for several days after Typhoon Ulysses. Some people accused people in Nueva Vizcaya of denuding the watersheds. Relief goods from Nueva Vizcaya were immediately sent in flood-stricken areas, a gesture that Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba deeply appreciated publicly. He also called for collaboration between people downstream and upstream of the Cagayan River to understand and take actions together. During the last Watershed Management Council meeting, Gov. Padilla reiterated the importance of collaboration and networking to save watershed commons. He recalled a 2018 agreement with stakeholders which includes big water users such as SN Aboitiz and NIA, the two institutions managing the Magat hydropower and irrigation dam in Ramon, Isabela. Also included in the public pledge of support to the 2018 Nueva Vizcaya Declaration on Water are thousands of farmer’s organizations using water resources for irrigation and water utilities, like Solano Water and other entities providing services to majority of urban households. Watershed Management Councils were potent avenues for collaboration in watershed protection and maintenance. In Davao, a bulk water project implemented by Apo Agua Infrastructura, Inc. mentioned in a webinar that the Watershed Management Council has played a crucial role in mobilising communities and people. The TF-BBB in Cagayan Valley experience could be one of the best in the current administration’s whole-of-society approach in big projects. By mobilising both government agencies and communities, it has covered all areas of concern from the top of mountain ridges to the reefs in the sea. It would be exciting to measure if the impacts are indeed better ten years from now.
Philippine Resources - June 22, 2021
DENR studies possible lifting of ban on open-pit mining
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is still studying the possible lifting of the ban on open-pit mining, Malacañang said on Thursday. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque clarified that Executive Order No. 130, signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on April 14, does not include a lifting of the ban on open-pit mining. EO 130, which lifts the nine-year moratorium on mineral agreements, is to spur economic growth and support projects and programs of the government. “There is nothing in the executive issuance on mining which is EO No. 130 which lifts the ban on open-pit mining. I have conferred with [DENR] USec. Benny Antiporda and he says the matter is still being studied by the DENR,” Roque said in a Palace press briefing. He, however, reiterated that open-pit mining remains unacceptable for Duterte. In November 2017, Duterte said he agreed with the open-pit mining ban given the environmental damage it causes. Duterte, in his third State-of-the-Nation Address (SONA) on July 23, 2018, also warned the mining industry not to destroy the environment, saying environmental protection is one of his government’s priorities. “To the mining industry, I say this once again and maybe for the last time, do not destroy the environment or compromise our resources; repair what you have mismanaged,” Duterte said. Roque reiterated Duterte’s call to the mining industry to find other ways to extract minerals without destroying the environment. “But I understand from USec. Benny Antiporda that both the President and Secretary [Roy] Cimatu agreed that the mining industry must reinvent mining in a manner that would ensure that it is sustainable and would cost the least damage to the environment,” he added. Open-pit mining is allowed under Philippine law, but Duterte has rejected previous recommendations to lift the ban. The Philippines is the world’s biggest supplier of nickel ore and also among the top producers of copper and gold.
Philippine Resources - June 21, 2021
Villar: Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge On-Track for July 2021 Opening
Photo Credit: Department of Public Works and Highways Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar reassured on Friday, June 18, 2021 that remaining civil works are being fast-tracked to open the new and modernized Estrella-Pantaelon Bridge by next month. “We are here on-site to show you that all substructure and superstructure of the Estrella-Pantaelon Bridge have been constructed and we are confident that we will be able to finish remaining works on approach road and ancillary/miscellaneous works by July 2021,” said Secretary Villar. Secretary Villar together with BCDA President & CEO and Presidential Adviser for Flagship Programs and Projects Secretary Vince Dizon, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade and DPWH Undersecretary for Unified Project Management Office (UPMO) Operations Emil K. Sadain inspected the substantially completed Estrella Pantaleon Bridge following an on-site Press Conference on Progress Update of Build, Build, Build Program. Citing a report from Undersecretary Sadain, Secretary Villar noted that the ongoing bridge project across Pasig River linking Estrella Street in Makati City and Barangka Drive in Mandaluyong City is now 93 percent complete. When completed, the new Estrella-Pantaleon Bridge widened from two (2) lanes to four (4) lanes is expected to accommodate as much as 50,000 cars daily, improving traffic situation in the area and decongesting the Epifanio delos Santos Avenue. The bridge-modernization project is implemented by the DPWH-UPMO Roads Management Cluster 1 (Bilateral) and is funded under a Chinese Grant together with Binondo-Intramuros Bridge. Article Courtesy of the Department of Public Works and Highways