Padilla: Riled up about Benham

IN A week that was, knowledge of Philippine geography was imperative. Mocha Uson of the PCOO erroneously declared that the erupting Mt. Mayon was in Naga. However, Mt. Mayon is not in Naga but in Albay, which is 90 kms away. As Uson is probably the most notorious PCOO appointee, the netizens feasted on her latest gaffe and the memes that were fed on the social media were riotous.

But my main dish last week would be Harry Roque, the presidential spokesperson who declared that the Chinese researchers have been allowed in the Benham because "only China has qualified so far." This reply was during the press briefer where he was asked why China was allowed to conduct maritime studies in Benham Rise. He further claimed that "there are other applicants. Unfortunately, they did not qualify according to fixed guidelines already set by the government. No one has applied. And no one can do it because, apparently, it's capital intensive."

Benham Rise, also called the Philippine Rise is a resource-rich 24-million hectare region that is located at the east of Luzon. Of the 24-million, 13 million hectares is an extended continental shelf that the Philippines was awarded sovereign rights in 2012.

Irked by the SPox statement, Dr. Jay Batongbacal ranted on Facebook, claiming that Filipino scientists have been exploring the Benham Rise for years. And Batongbacal was not faking it as his bio states that he is the director of the Institute of Maritime Affairs and Laws of the Sea based in UP Diliman. In the same prestigious university, he also teaches courses on Property, Obligations & Contracts, and Law of the Sea and Natural Resources. The UP law graduate also holds a graduate degree in Marine Management and a Doctorate in the Science of Law, both from Dalhousie University in Canada. Dr. Batongbacal is the authority on Benham Rise as he was the legal advisor of the technical team that prepared and successfully pursued the Philippines' claim to a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise Region.

Batongbacal enumerated that since 2004 the country has sent Filipino teams(DENR-NAMRIA)onboard Filipino vessels to createthe "bathymetric model that was absolutely necessary for the Philippines to support its claimto the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles with 2D and 3D geomorphological analysis."

He also cited that for the past ten years or so, the DA-BFAR has been "conducting fisheries research and experimental fishing expeditions in the Benham Rise Region, particularly in areas between the coast of Luzon and Benham Bank, to determine the tuna fishery potential of its waters."

When interviewed at the Dinagyang Festival in Iloilo City over the last weekend of January, the SPox claimed he was misquoted and denied saying that the Filipinos have no financial means in exploring Benham Rise. He claimed being a victim of fake news and even hit on the law experts and academics 'who are mediocre' and felt insulted by his statement.

Oceanographic research cruises have been organized by DOST in 2014 and 2016 along with Filipino scientists from University of the Philippines, Silliman, and De La Salle universities. The combined efforts, supported by Oceana, a marine NGO advocating marine resources conservation, was able to explore the shallowest portion of Benham Rise and provided an initial glimpse of the hidden resources of Benham Rise. It was during these cruises that the first people to actually descend and "touch" Benham Bank 50m below the Pacific, were Filipino technical divers.

Batongbacal called it as "Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon" historical moment. There is nothing mediocre about that moment but surely there is ignorance coupled with arrogance somewhere in dry land last week and even at this time that would not only mess up geography but our sovereignty as well.
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