Benham Rise is a large piece of pie, sitting astride the eastern coast of Luzon. Measured at 13.4 million hectares, the underwater plateau is actually larger than the Luzon land mass.
Formed as a result of volcanic activity millions of years ago, the underwater plateau is composed mainly of basalt with large amounts of manganese deposits. Manganese is an essential ingredient in transforming iron into steel. It is suspected this formation could contain tremendous amounts of natural gas, perhaps even oil. Basalt, for its part, is the prescribed material for building airport runways.
We have known about this geological formation for decades, although nothing was done about it until the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The underwater plateau was first explored, although in a crude fashion, by American surveyor Andrew Benham. At that time, there was little by way of technology to support undersea exploration. Today, we can more accurately map the contours of this formation using sonar and submarine research vessels.
In fact, it appears the Chinese have begun doing that. Earlier this month, our defense officials announced the presence of Chinese research vessels in the area. Antedating that, a research expedition led by a UP team was sent to that area.
Back in 1982, after many years of negotiations, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was adopted. The Philippines was among the first countries to ratify that convention.
In 2001, in the course of a workshop participated in by the UP Institute of International Legal Studies, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Mapping and Resource Information Authority (NAMRIA), it was proposed that the Philippines explore the possibility of laying claim to the area as part of our extended continental shelf within the framework of Unclos. NAMRIA proceeded to do the required hydrographic surveys for the claim.
In 2007, the Technical Working Group tasked with preparing the claim was created. This was a pioneering claim, after all. It required the best science to support it.
Then DENR Secretary Lito Atienza played a major role in adopting the strategy for the claim. Political kibitzers, especially from the Senate, wanted the country to file an omnibus claim, putting Benham Rise and our South China Sea claims in a single package. Atienza opposed that strategy, arguing that the South China Sea reefs had contending claimants while only the Philippines was laying claim to the Benham Rise. That claim could take decades to process if different claims were bundled together. The country could actually lose its claim in the process.
Then President Macapagal-Arroyo quickly grasped the wisdom of Atienza’s preferred strategy and gave it her full support. The scientific evidence, after all, supports our argument Benham Rise constituted an extension of our continental shelf. From the results, we now know this was the right strategy to take.
On April 8, 2009, the Philippines formally filed its claim to the area before the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). On Aug. 15, 2009, the Philippine team made its formal presentation before the CLCS.
Finally, on April 12, 2012 the CLCS approved the Philippine claim. That approval enlarges the area over which we now exercise sovereign rights by 13.4 hectares. In terms of possible extractable resources, this is probably more important than the reefs in the South China Sea we are laying claim to.
This week, Lito Atienza will file at the House a bill organizing a Benham Rise Economic Commission. This proposed agency will exercise administrative jurisdiction over our new territory, prescribe rules for its exploitation and enforce environmental standards. It will coordinate the various activities undertaken by other government agencies involved in doing research in the area.
It is time we move fast and secure our hold over this area. Benham Rise will be an important contributor to a more prosperous future for our people.
Leticia Ramos-Shahani succumbed to disease early yesterday morning. She was one of our finest diplomats and public servants. She remained lucid and never lost her sense of humor to the end.
The many eulogies expected to be delivered the next few days will extoll the many facets of her lifework. In her waning days, one retired diplomat tells us, Manang Letty constantly mentioned her work to realize the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) as the high point of her career.
Back in 1973, working for the UN Commission on Women, Letty argued the need for a specific convention that will highlight the struggle against discrimination against women. At that time, many UN delegates, particularly from Europe and North America, felt that the Universal Declaration on Human Rights sufficed to address all issues of discrimination.
Despite the initial resistance to the idea of a CEDAW, Letty soldiered on. She enjoyed the support of delegates from developing societies who felt no less than a formal convention was necessary to compel governments to adopt policies on education, labor and reproductive health that explicitly combats discrimination against women.
Among the early allies Letty won over was the Russian delegate to the Commission on Women, Tatiana Nikolaeva. Together, they kept pushing for the adoption of a CEDAW.
At that time, in the depths of the Cold War, Filipino diplomats were under strict instructions to refrain from speaking with Russian diplomats. That is why, despite all her groundbreaking work as a diplomat at the UN, all Letty got from the DFA at home castigating her for “insubordination.”
Letty’s stubbornness, an outstanding family trait, paid off after seven years and the CEDAW is now part of our civilizational heritage.