- Samal Island, a popular tourist destination near Davao City in the southern Philippines, is fringed by a 300-meter (980-foot) coral system known as Paradise Reef, which hosts more than 100 coral species.
- A plan to build a bridge linking Davao to Samal threatens to destroy the reef, scientists and conservationists warn.
- Campaigners in the area are calling on the Philippine government to reroute the bridge to minimize damage to the ecosystem.
SAMAL ISLAND, Philippines — Its official name, the Island Garden City of Samal, tells you all you need to know about this bucolic township off the coast of the southern Philippines. It’s an established tourist destination just offshore from the large city of Davao, and is known for its nature-based attractions such as beaches, waterfalls, a sanctuary for giant clams, and the world’s largest colony of Geoffrey’s rousette (Rousetteus amplexicaudatus), a species of fruit-eating bat.
A favorite getaway for Davao residents as well as other domestic and foreign tourists, the island can be reached from the city by passenger boat for less than $1 in about 10 minutes. Taking a car across involves a longer trip by ferry.
This narrow passage of water, home to the popular Paradise Island Park and Beach Resort, is also the site of a coral reef that runs 300 meters across and 50 wide (980 by 160 feet), known as the Paradise Reef. The reef hosts 79 species of hard corals, 26 species of soft corals, and at least 100 species of reef fish, according to a study commissioned by the resort owners.
But a massive bridge project, meant to boost tourist traffic from the mainland to Samal, threatens to wipe out Paradise Reef if construction pushes through, according to marine biologists and environmentalists. They’ve called on Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to order a rerouting of the $400 million China-funded project to save the coral garden.
A vital ecosystem
Originally proposed 40 years ago, the Samal Island–Davao City Connector (SIDC) project was finally inaugurated in October 2022 at a groundbreaking ceremony attended by Marcos and the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian. The construction contract was awarded to China Road and Bridge Corp. (CRBC), a unit of state-owned China Communications Construction Co. Its Philippine partner on the project is the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
Ninety percent of the funding is in the form of a loan from China, signed toward the end of the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte. Once completed by the 2027 target date, the 3.98-kilometer (2.47-mile) dual carriageway would allow vehicles to make the crossing in just five minutes, compared to a trip of roughly an hour by ferry, which includes the waiting time.
In the process, however, the bridge will cut across Paradise Reef, and run through land owned by the Rodriguez-Lucas family who have for the past 35 years operated the landmark Paradise Island Park and Beach Resort.
Paradise Reef is a precious coral garden with significant importance to the marine biodiversity around Samal Island, says marine biologist John Michael Lacson.
Lacson strongly recommends rerouting the bridge to save the reef ecosystem. “Paradise Reef is a spawning site — kind of like a bank that keeps hundreds of different kinds of precious coins that were collected throughout history. Spawning is when the bank multiplies those coins and dispenses them into the ocean. The future of coral reefs on the western side of Samal Island depends on this bank,” he said.
In January this year, Lacson took this Mongabay contributor on a guided snorkeling tour of Paradise Reef, which teems with corals and various fish species. Giant clams could be seen dotting the reef and a table coral believed to be more than 100 years old.
If the bridge is built through the site currently proposed, Lacson says the reef won’t survive the five-year construction period; the sedimentation and siltation from the dredging and construction activity will smother the coral polyps through the natural tidal current and kill them.
“The very same current that brings life to this reef will result in its death,” he tells Mongabay.
Lacson’s concern is echoed in the project’s final environmental impact analysis, prepared by advisory group Ove Arup & Partners Hong Kong Ltd. and published in October 2020. The report classifies the bridge as an “environmental critical project” because of its potential significant impacts on the local marine ecosystem.
“The largest potential impact foreseen would be during construction,” the EIA says. “Sedimentation and siltation would be a crucial source of risk and impact.” It adds that marine habitats and organisms in the area are at potential risk as resuspended sediments can settle and suffocate the ecosystem.
Lacson also says that a 10-square-meter (108-square-foot) portion of the coral reef has already been destroyed by the anchors of vessels used to drill boreholes for the geotechnical survey; in all, 97 boreholes will be drilled on and offshore ahead of construction.
Those responsible must held accountable, Lacson says, noting that the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 outlaws any activity that damages coral reefs.
Calls to reroute the bridge
On the Davao side, the bridge runs through the village of Hizon, a designated marine protected area with known coral communities, and will connect to Samal in the village of Limao, cutting across the Paradise Island and Costa Marina beach resorts, both owned by the Rodriguez-Lucas family.
The project’s EIA notes that construction over the sea would destroy and disrupt soft corals and patches of hard corals on both sides of the bridge, and also identifies disruptions to seagrass meadows, fish habitats and natural sedimentary habitats. However, the developer’s environmental management plan, which forms part of the EIA, says the project’s impact on soft and hard corals “can be addressed by removing quickly any debris” and proposes regular monitoring of the reef.
The engineering, geological and geohazard report for the project also notes that a sinkhole lies adjacent to the location of the bridge in Samal, and that areas along the coastline exhibit clear indications of limestone dissolution features. These geological features could compromise the integrity of the bridge. However, the EIA says there are “engineering solutions that could address the problem.”
The government has rebuffed fears about the environmental impact of the bridge project. Emil Sadain, senior undersecretary at the DPWH, said in a statement that the final routing of the Samal-Davao bridge “has been exhaustively studied with most beneficial effects in terms of technical, financial, economic, environmental and social impacts.”
Lower-impact alternatives exist
In 2016, the Japanese government through its Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) commissioned a study on a potential Davao-Samal bridge. It identified an old shipyard, now called Bridgeport, as a suitable landing point for the bridge in Samal.
The span would be shorter and cheaper than the Chinese-backed SIDC project, at 2.62 km (1.63 mi) and around 16 billion pesos ($295 million at current rates).
Ramon Lucas, a spokesperson for the Rodriguez-Lucas family, says the METI routing would have been the best option in terms of both cost and environmental impact. The family owns a property close to the shipyard and offered to donate it as an alternative landing site to spare Paradise Reef in front of the beach resort, says Lucas, a lawyer.
In December 2019, the family commissioned a team led by marine biologist Filipina Sotto to conduct a study of the marine biodiversity in three sites in Samal: the chosen landing site, the site proposed by METI, and the property the Rodriguez-Lucas family offered to donate.
They found that the government’s chosen landing site had the healthiest coral, with 36.3% live coral coverage, or LCC. The next healthiest was the site offered by the Rodriguez-Lucas family, with 25% LCC, followed by the METI site, with LCC of just 7.8%. This indicates that either of these alternative site would result in less ecological damage than the plan proposed by the government. Building the bridge as planned, the team of marine biologists wrote, “will definitely cause irreparable, irreversible and incalculable damage to the best marine ecosystem in Samal Island that will have adverse ecological impact to the Davao Gulf as a key marine biodiversity area.”
The project’s EIA, which used a different methodology, rated the live coral coverage at the chosen landing site at just 20.2%. Sotto and her team say the 2019 survey conducted by Ove Arup “was largely incomplete, misleading, deceptive and highly inaccurate.” Ove Arup & Partners did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.
The call to reroute the bridge is backed by the Sustainable Davao Movement (SDM), a coalition of at least 20 environmental organizations. And an calling to “Realign the Samal-Davao Bridge,” has gained almost 8,500 signatures since launching three months ago.
Carmela Marie Santos, director of student group Ecoteneo and SDM’s point person for the Save Paradise Reef campaign, has appealed to President Marcos to order the rerouting of the bridge to save Paradise Reef, and to the DPWH to listen to the clamor of environmental groups.
She says Marcos has repeatedly talked about the need to address climate change and the importance of environmental conservation. “We hope that he will walk his talk as far as the current alignment of the Samal-Davao bridge is concerned,” Santos says.
In his speech at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Samal-Davao bridge, Marcos made no mention of the environment, focusing instead on the bridge’s economic benefits.
Environmentalists and the Rodriguez-Lucas family, however, say they’re not losing hope that their pleas will be heard. They’ve vowed to try all the legal channels available if their appeals to reroute the bridge project are ignored, but acknowledge that it will be an uphill battle.
“There will be a marine ecosystem that will be destroyed if the project will proceed,” said Lucas, the family spokesperson, likening the reef to a treasure of gold. “I hope and pray our government will be enlightened and listen to reason.”
Images: Bong S. Sarmiento for Mongabay
Bong S. Sarmiento is a journalist based in the southern Philippines.