Runaway Risk


FEB 02 2023

Dutch companies will profit from a new Philippines airport project being built at a high cost to communities and the environment 


Executive summary

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The Philippines, which consists of over 7,600 islands in the Pacific Ocean, is one of the countries most at-risk from climate change. Many communities are already feeling the impacts of more severe storms, rising sea levels are a looming threat, and the warming ocean is putting marine life at risk. 

The protection and restoration of coastal ecosystems could play a key role in tackling climate change, but in Manila Bay those ecosystems are in jeopardy. 

The New Manila International Airport, a US $15 billion mega-development project, is the Philippine’s most expensive infrastructure project ever. Philippine conglomerate San Miguel Corporation (San Miguel) is building and managing the airport project. San Miguel’s impact assessments for the project reveal a pattern of failures which have had damaging consequences for communities and the environment in Manila Bay. Two Dutch companies are involved in the project – dredging giant Royal Boskalis Westminster N.V. (Boskalis) has signed a contract worth €1.5 billion to construct the first phase of the project. This was insured by the by the Dutch state via export credit agency Atradius Dutch State Business (Atradius DSB). They have also made statements celebrating its social and environmental credentials. 

However, since the project was given the green light in September 2019, it has already displaced hundreds of families, destroyed climate-critical habitats and devastated wildlife.

Our new report shows that: 

  • Around 700 families stood to be evicted to make way for the airport, according to local communities -with around half reportedly receiving no compensation.iv Local communities that relied on a balanced environment in Manila Bay now struggle to catch enough fish for a healthy diet and sustainable income. 
  • Prior to being displaced, residents describe a botched and coercive consultation process. They say armed soldiers went door-to-door with San Miguel representatives to discuss plans for the new airport. Community members report feeling pressured to take the compensation offered and feeling scared of further threats from the military who remained in the area. San Miguel downplayed the presence in its second impact assessment, which said that it was to ‘secure the project area’ and to ‘prevent outsiders from causing disruption’. 
  • Approval for the airport was granted by the Philippine government without the required transparency and safeguards that are outlined in international corporate accountability standards and are needed to protect people and the environment. The plans used in the initial project consultation reveal that they contain no mention of an international airport, preventing communities assessing or contesting the project’s impacts. 
  • The airport project site encroaches on a recommended ‘strict protection zone’ identified in a sustainable development plan for Manila Bay, jointly developed by the Philippine and Netherlands governments. Under Philippine law, these protection zones should be closed to all human activity except for scientific studies, and ceremonial and non-extractive uses by indigenous peoples. The plan recommended finding an alternative location for the project to avoid damage to the area’s natural habitats. 
  • Instead, complex coastal ecosystems have been destroyed to make way for the airport. The construction will disrupt the migratory route – known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – of more than 50 million waterbirds, including 36 globally threatened species, which journey northward from Southeast Asia and Australasia to seasonal breeding grounds. 
  • Hundreds of mangrove trees were apparently illegally cleared from the area according to a local government report in 2018. This occurred at the same time that San Miguel and another developer were purchasing land – the same land used in the airport development. With only a fraction of mangroves remaining in Manila Bay, these projects are helping to destroy the last frontiers of a fragile ecosystem. Mangroves contain the highest carbon density of all land ecosystems – so their loss has devastating consequences for the fight against climate change. They also help reduce coastal erosion and provide vital flood protection. 
  • The project’s climate impacts are expected to worsen over time. When completed, the new airport will cater for approximately 100 million passengers per year, making it one of the busiest airports by passenger traffic in the world. The aviation sector is a major and growing source of climate-wrecking greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite the growing list of harmful effects, San Miguel has steamed ahead with the airport project. 

The EU is currently negotiating a new law – the Corporate Sustainable Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) – that could help prevent companies from profiting from human rights abuses, environmental destruction, and climate breakdown and allow affected communities to hold companies accountable for their business activities. Global Witness calls on legislators to ensure that this new Directive puts people and the planet before profit.

Responding to Global Witness, San Miguel largely rejects Global Witness findings and states that its New Manila International Airport project adheres to international standards on environmental and social sustainability set out in the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) Performance Standards and the Equator Principles. The company states that it has complied with all the necessary procedural and documentary requirements required for its airport development as outlined in Philippine law. San Miguel received an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) for the project in 2021 in compliance with the Philippines Environmental Impact Statement system. It maintains that a separate ECC was issued in 2019 to a separate company (that it later acquired) was different and for an unrelated ‘land development’.

Responding to Global Witness, San Miguel only recognises the project displaced 359 households who were offered cash compensation or by paying for their resettlement. It stated that it was local government units who requested military and police presence during consultations and that that there are ‘no records of harassment’ recorded by the local government authorities. 

San Miguel did not respond to allegations of specific cases of mangrove destruction in 2018 before the airport project commencement. It indicated however, that its project complies with all regulatory requirement relating to the care and preservation of mangroves located within and adjacent to the airport project. 

Boskalis and Atradius DSB responded to Global Witness with details of their environmental and social impacts assessments and implementation plans. More detailed responses from the companies are included below.