© Basilio Sepe / Global Witness

Dutch construction project in the Philippines shows that voluntary corporate social responsibility doesn’t work

Abuses committed during the construction of an airport in the Philippines show the urgent need for legislation on corporate social responsibility here in the Netherlands, say Murtah Shannon of Both ENDS and Maartje Hilterman of IUCN NL on behalf of a coalition of Dutch and Philippine organisations. [1]The coalition consists of: Both ENDS, Care Nederland, IUCN NL, SOMO. From the Philippines: Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, AGHAM Advocates for Science and Technology for the People, … Continue reading.

Header photo: Migratory birds fly above fish ponds in Paombong in the province of Bulacan, north of Manila, Philippines. August 27, 2022. © Basilio Sepe / Global Witness

This op-ed was published in Dutch newspaper Trouw on the 3rd of February.

The construction of a new airport in Manila Bay is resulting in severe abuses and environmental damage, according to a new report by human rights organisation Global Witness. The project, in which the Netherlands is playing a prominent role, is controversial and with good reason. Through Atradius BV, the Dutch government has awarded dredging company Boskalis, which is implementing the project, the most extensive export credit insurance ever. With the approval of the Ministry of Finance, the Netherlands has provided security of 1.5 billion euros, for the event that the project runs into problems.

As a coalition of Dutch and Philippine environment and human rights organizations, we have regularly expressed our resistance to the project, and especially against the role played by the Netherlands. The issue has been raised in Dutch parliament on several occasions, but the Dutch stakeholders have continued to insist that it is because of Dutch involvement that the project complies with the highest standards for international corporate social responsibility (ICSR).

The Global Witness report however thoroughly debunks these claims. Everyone on the spot can see how international standards are being sidestepped. The airport is being built on a site where wetlands and mangrove forests are crucial to the survival of migratory birds that are under threat worldwide. Boskalis is currently levelling an area of 2,600 hectares of land to make way for the New Manila International Airport. Seven hundred families have been forced to leave their homes on the coast, according to the report under pressure from the army. Dredging operations by Boskalis and the closure of a large part of the bay have had an enormous impact on fishing. Thousands of fishers and their families depend on fish for their food security, which local organisations say is now under serious threat.

Claims do not need to be substantiated

This shows that the current system, in which the responsibility of companies and governments to act in a way that protects people and the environment when involved in such projects is voluntary, does not work. ICSR legislation is urgently needed. The top man of Boskalis himself recently expressed strong criticism of a proposed bill to ensure responsible and sustainable international business that was recently debated in parliament.

How is it possible that the Dutch government and the companies involved can get away with a story that is so far removed from reality in Manila? The supply of information, and thereby the image-building around such a project, is controlled by those who have a stake in it going ahead. In this case, it is the financiers, the export credit agency, the implementing companies and the project owners. They determine what information is and is not released and they do not have to substantiate their claims of compliance with international agreements on environment and human rights.

Atradius DSB has for example refused to release most of the documents relating to the project, in the interests of ‘confidentiality’. They include studies on human rights, and plans for relocating and compensating local people impacted by the project. The insurance company also refused to allow its environmental impact assessments to be examined by an independent party. That makes it almost impossible for civil society organisations to determined to what extent the companies involved in the project actually do what they claim to do. And for the people affected it is completely impossible.

This lack of transparency is fully in conflict with international standards, but these are only voluntary. That is the main problem. Companies can apply the guidelines as loosely as they see fit. Voluntary compliance is not enough, which is why the proposed legislation on ICSR has been drawn up.

This report must be followed up: there must at least be an independent enquiry into the decision-making and impact of this project. Boskalis must suspend its operations in Manila until the results have been made known. And the Netherlands must implement robust ICSR legislation as soon as possible.

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Maartje Hilterman
Project Leader – Forests for a Just Future