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Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Boracay closure case: Zabal vs. Duterte

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Paul Tena
Paul Tena is an alumnus of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of Politixxx Today and he also traverses into fiction writing in his spare time. Sometimes he goes by his pen name JPE Tena. His debut novel, The Lore Kingdom, was named an Honorable Mention in 2021 Lampara Prize. For more information, you may reach him via tenajpe@gmail.com.

The Facts

Claiming that Boracay has become a cesspool, President Duterte first made public his plan to shut it down during a business forum held in Davao sometime February 2018. This was followed by several speeches and news releases stating that he would place Boracay under a state of calamity. True to his words, President Duterte ordered the shutting down of the island in a cabinet meeting held on April 4, 2018.

On the other hand, Petitioners Mark Anthony V. Zabal and Thiting Estoso Jacosalem claim that ever since the news of Boracay’s closure came about, fewer tourists had been engaging the services of Zabal and Jacosalem such that their earnings were barely enough to feed their families.

On May 18, 2018, petitioners filed a Supplemental Petition stating that the day following the filing of their original petition or on April 26, 2018, President Duterte issued Proclamation No. 475 formally declaring a state of calamity in Boracay and ordering its closure for six months from April 26, 2018 to October 25, 2018. The closure was implemented on even date. Thus, in addition to what they prayed for in their original petition, petitioners implore the Court to declare as unconstitutional Proclamation No. 475 insofar as it orders the closure of Boracay and ban of tourists and non­residents therefrom. Is there an intrusion into the autonomy of local government units in the Boracay rehabilitation project?

Petitioners’ Arguments

As to the substantive aspect, petitioners argue that Proclamation No. 475 is an invalid exercise of legislative powers. They posit that its issuance is in truth a law-making exercise since the proclamation imposed a restriction on the right to travel and therefore substantially altered the relationship between the State and its people by increasing the former’s power over the latter.

In their Supplemental Petition, petitioners aver that Proclamation No. 475 unduly impinges upon the local autonomy of affected Local Government Units (LGUs) since it orders the said LGUs to implement the closure of Boracay and the ban of tourists and non-residents therefrom. While petitioners acknowledge the President’s power of supervision over LGUs, they nevertheless point out that he does not wield the power of control over them. 

Respondents’ Arguments

In sum, respondents emphasize that the issuance of Proclamation No. 475 is within the ambit of the powers of the President, not contrary to the doctrine of separation of powers, and in accordance with the mechanism laid out by the Constitution.

Respondents insist that Proclamation No. 475 does not unduly transgress upon the local autonomy of the LGUs concerned. Under RA 10121 (otherwise known as the Philippine Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Act of 2010), it is actually the Local Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council concerned which, subject to several criteria, is tasked to take the lead in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from the effects of any disaster when a state of calamity is declared. In any case, the devolution of powers upon LGUs pursuant to the constitutional mandate of ensuring their autonomy does not mean that the State can no longer interfere in their affairs. This is especially true in this case since Boracay’s environmental disaster cannot be treated as a localized problem that can be resolved by the concerned LGUs only. The magnitude and gravity of the problem require the intervention and assistance of different national government agencies in coordination with the concerned LGUs.

Ruling of the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court held: “It must be noted at the outset that petitioners failed to present and establish the factual bases of their arguments because they went directly to this Court. In ruling on the substantive issues in this case, the Court is, thus, constrained to rely on, and uphold the factual bases, which prompted the issuance of the challenged proclamation, as asserted by respondents. Besides, executive determinations, such as said factual bases, are generally final on this Court.”

Furthermore, the Supreme Court opined that Proclamation No. 475 is a valid police power measure. To repeat, police power constitutes an implied limitation to the Bill of Rights, and that even liberty itself, the greatest of all rights, is subject to the far more overriding demands and requirements of the greater number.

The Gist

With the issue of intrusion on the local government units, the Supreme Court noted that the alleged intrusion of the President into the autonomy of the LGUs concerned is likewise too trivial to merit consideration. Contrary to petitioners’ argument, RA 10121 recognizes and even puts a premium on the role of the LGUs in disaster risk reduction and management as shown by the fact that a number of the legislative policies set out in the subject statute recognize and aim to strengthen the powers decentralized to LGUs.This role is echoed in the questioned proclamation.

In addition, the Supreme Courted cited the case of Metropolitan Manila Development Authority v. Concerned Residents of Manila Bay in coming up with the decision. Accordingly, the Supreme Court explained that, the High Tribunal in the afore-mentioned case called out the concerned government agencies for their cavalier attitude towards solving environmental destruction despite hard evidence and clear signs of climate crisis. It equated the failure to put environmental protection on a plane of high national priority to the then lacking level of bureaucratic efficiency and commitment.

The Supreme Court further elucidated that there is an obvious similarity in Metropolitan Manila Development Authority and in the present case in that both involve the restoration of key areas in the country which were once glowing with radiance and vitality but are now in shambles due to abuses and exploitation. What sets these two cases apart is that in the former, those mandated to act still needed to be enjoined in order to act.

Therefore, the Court concluded: “xxx In order for the now staunch commitment to save the environment not to fade, it behooves upon the courts to be extra cautious in invalidating government measures meant towards addressing environmental degradation. Absent any clear showing of constitutional infirmity, arbitrariness or grave abuse of discretion, these measures must be upheld and even lauded and promoted. After all, not much time is left for us to remedy the present environmental situation.”

Conclusion

Intrusion of the local government’s autonomy in this particular context is unfounded. A challenger, to support his or her claim, must clearly substantiate the law and the facts applicable in order for them to claim that there is, indeed, breach of the constitutionally enshrined principle of local government autonomy. The premature and uncorroborated conjectures of the petitioners were inevitably struck down for their weightless allegation against the disputed proclamation.

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