Siegfred Aldous Lacerna

Published: June 9, 2024

MANILA, Philippines — Maximo Bayubas, a local fisherman in Batangas known as Ka Simo, recalled a moment when his grandchild asked him what he would do for their future. Though he hesitated, one word came to mind: sacrifice. 

Ka Simo’s sacrifice bore fruit when he took on the mission of standing up for the Philippines’ Verde Island Passage (VIP), dubbed by scientists as the “center of the center” of the world’s marine shore fish biodiversity. The VIP also sustains the livelihood of thousands of fishers in the provinces of Batangas, Oriental Mindoro, Occidental Mindoro, Marinduque, and Romblon.

Ka Simo traveled to Europe to speak out against the threats posed by the expansion of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to their livelihood. 

“If possible, [these corporations] should stop funding these fossil fuel and gas projects because we are concerned about our physical safety, health, and livelihood,” he said. 

Ka Simo, 68, has been fishing in the VIP for almost three decades. He serves as the external vice president of a local fisherfolk group called Bukluran ng Mangingisda sa Batangas.

Gas rush in the VIP

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Infrastructure Expansion in the Philippines, Verde Island Passage, 2024 (Earth Insight)

The Center for Energy, Ecology, and Development (CEED) think-tank said the VIP faces constant threats from gas companies. It warned that plans for large-scale LNG facilities in the VIP will further strain the marine corridor.

The area, also a busy shipping lane, was hit by a massive oil spill in 2023.

Five of the six existing gas facilities, four of the seven proposed LNG terminals, and nine of the 39 planned gas power plants in the country are located in Batangas. 

LNG has been promoted as a “bridge fuel” for transitioning to a low-carbon economy. However, climate and energy campaigners warn that methane leaks from the gas industry significantly contribute to global warming.

“Don’t make ourselves liable in destroying our planet, and as much as possible, shift to renewable energy which is more affordable and environment-friendly,” Ka Simo said.

Ka Simo wrapped up his meetings with European investors and financiers, urging them to withdraw support from Shell and SMC’s projects. He will continue this campaign in Japan in the coming weeks, hoping to pressure corporations to listen to the concerns of small-scale fishers like him.

“The theory is simple: the gas and LNG projects are capital intensive projects which they cannot fund on their own and they would need financial support whether through loans, shareholdings, bonds and other types of investments,” CEED deputy executive director Avril de Torres said. 

Ka Simo and CEED have spoken with European financial institutions like Standard Chartered, UBS, HSBC, Allianz, LGM, and Erste, all of which have financial ties to Shell and SMC as financiers or investors.

De Torres clarified this isn’t their first engagement with financial institutions. Last year, they saw success after three companies—DWS from Germany, BNP Paribas from France, and Erste from Austria—divested from supporting SMC gas projects. 

“We saw early divestments after engaging the leaders from local communities and organizations VIP with financial institutions and it’s an effective way of stopping disruptive projects in the Verde Island Passage,” she said. 

Fishers skeptical of protection deal

A boat is seen sailing along the vicinity of the Verde Island Passage in Batangas, Philippines (Siegfred Aldous Lacerna)

While Ka Simo was in Europe, the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Energy (DOE) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with gas giants Aboitiz Equity Ventures (AEV), Metro Pacific Investment Corporation (MPIC), and SMC to protect the VIP. 

The three companies earlier teamed up to develop the country’s “first and most expansive” LNG facility in Batangas. 

“As a framework for joint stewardship and sustainable development, this historic initiative not only underscores the collective commitment to environmental preservation but also heralds a new era of public-private collaboration aimed at ensuring the longevity of one of the world’s most biodiverse marine ecosystems,” DENR Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga said.

She added the MOU is a call to collaborate with relevant stakeholders in the VIP, including coastal communities, peoples’ organizations and private entities. 

The government also formalized a partnership with power producer First Gen Corp. and broadcaster ABS-CBN to safeguard the marine corridor. First Gen operates four existing gas-fired power plants with a combined capacity of 2,017 megawatts in Batangas. 

However, Ka Simo criticized the lack of consultation, saying fisherfolk like him were not even invited to discuss the partnership.

“If the intent was the management [of the VIP], consult it to all stakeholders involved,” Ka Simo said. He added that if the government and the corporations were true to their words of protecting the site, what kind of preservation would they intend to do? 

“We can see whose interest they are trying to protect if the people, community, and groups protecting the VIP are not even consulted?” De Torres also said,

Ka Simo is set to fly to Japan to continue their dialogue with three banks: Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Mizuho, and Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation. All three hold financial stakes in the gas projects planned for the VIP.