The rise and dangers of Philippine reclamations

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: Philippines

Publishing organisation: Rappler

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-09-02

Language: English, Filipino

Authors: Raizza Bello, Michael Bueza, Jee Geronimo


Raizza Bello is an independent journalist doing in-depths and investigations on the environmental, post-conflict, and human rights issues. For over two years, she has been collaborating with Rappler on various multimedia stories, building a niche on reclamation reporting.

Michael Bueza was Rappler’s data curator until July 2022, and a former researcher and writer. He worked on data about elections, governance, and the budget.

Jee Geronimo is Rappler’s environment editor. Before joining the desk in 2018, she covered the education, health, environment, and agriculture sectors as a multimedia reporter for 5 years.

Project description:

This two-part series, which maps and analyzes over 187 reclamation projects, investigates the controversial rise of reclamations in the Philippines throughout the decades. It examines how projects that build new land and infrastructure in bodies of water enjoy much support, even without studies and data on its real economic and social impacts. These in-depth reports also break down the growing role of national and local governments, as well as private businesses and corporations, in the reclamation industry, and how the lack of transparency and misregulations within the system threaten many coastal communities especially vulnerable to the climate crisis.

Impact reached:

Despite their long-term environmental and social costs, reclamation issues are still difficult to visualize and engage audiences and stakeholders in given the lack of data available and tangible narratives on its real-world impacts. Because of this gap in critical examination, the practice has spread nationwide without public accountability, and has gone largely unchallenged.

In response, this original data journalism report intended to offer solid baseline figures, easy-to-digest visualizations, and an in-depth analysis of the arguments constantly floated in the highly divisive reclamation space.

Following the publication of the series, environmental and fisherfolk groups in the Philippines such as PAMALAKAYA have heavily cited its findings to lobby for the protection of the marine areas and the abolition of the Philippine Reclamation Authority. The issue of reclamations as well as the number that Rappler used in the report (187 projects) have figured in the Philippine Senate’s legislative discussions.

Noticeably, some mainstream and alternative media organizations have picked up on reclamation reporting, citing similar figures from our data story. An established local documentary show with a wide network and online reach also produced an episode tackling Philippine reclamations, using similar visuals from our reports.

Civil society (i.e. Sagip Coron) and policy groups (i.e. Legal Rights and Natural Resources Center) fighting illegal reclamations, as well as independent consultants and scientists, have approached our team, asking permission to use the data stories as reference for policy writing and recommendations, and further studies on the subject.

In terms of online engagement, the two-part series has a total of 17, 723 page views and 966 interactions on Facebook as of January 17, 2023. Other distribution tactics such as e-mail messaging, Twitter posting, and Instagram sharing via the team’s and network contacts’ personal and professional accounts have not been accounted for.

Techniques/technologies used:

To harvest the data for this story, our team initially determined specific variables needed – namely locations, proponents, sizes, and statuses of dump and fill ventures – to map and analyze past, ongoing, and proposed Philippine reclamation projects. The process of data gathering and verification entailed requesting and cross-checking various available government data on reclamations, accessing a niche book and research on the topic, going over multiple online documents, and verifying details with grassroots sources such as fisherfolk, community organizers, environmental advocates and non-government organizations.

These data sets were then organized in a Microsoft Excel for initial data crunching and analysis. The partial insights were discussed by the team to further improve the data curation, and plan the visual and text analysis of the reclamation reports. Among the variables added were the type of reclamation, notable issues, and public-private partnership (PPP) status. Our team also particularly used OCR to convert some PDF files into text and Google Spreadsheets to clean the data.

During the final stages of data gathering, latitude-longitude data of the approximate locations of the reclamation projects were manually collected since these were unavailable from other sources. Once the data sets were complete, the tables were plugged into Flourish and Datawrapper to create the final visualizations – resulting in three maps, three charts, and a process infographic.

Important note: On the map, known projects are displayed using markers with varying diameters depending on the size of the project in hectares, while projects with little to no information are displayed using square markers of the same size.

Context about the project:

In the Philippines, reclamation issues remain underreported despite their growing threats to the environment and local communities already affected by the pandemic. This is due to the lack of transparency and inaccessibility of supposedly public government data on reclamations; the gaps in journalists’ and communities’ technical and scientific expertise; the security risks that come with visiting reclamation sites that have police and military presence; and the resource constraints (time, finances, specialization) that limit many journalists and newsrooms from pursuing niche reporting.

This data story was a result of two years of covering the reclamation space, having built theoretical and practical knowledge and an intimate, diverse network of trusted sources who were either affected by or immersed in reclamation disputes. This report intentionally sought to address lingering thoughts after every reclamation coverage: With the rise of dump and fill projects nationwide, how much of the Philippine waters are being or could potentially be destroyed in the name of undefined economic progress? What are the long-term consequences of such trade-offs without genuine studies and data on the collective impacts of reclamations?

The attempt to answer these queries through this two-part series took seven months, from the research to writing and editing, as our team had to navigate the complexities of reclamations, the incompleteness of data, and the tense political climate at the time of its production.

Specifically, we had to manually determine other information such as the latitude-longitude data, types of reclamations, and PPP status to have a more accurate picture of the state of reclamations in the country. There was also a chunk of missing data on the sizes of dump and fill ventures that were yet to be declared by proponents, according to the government, which made it difficult to complete the maps and other visualizations.

The story production coincided with the Philippine national elections and its campaign season, too, which limited and delayed data and source access and led our team to work on the story amid a change in governments.

Despite all of these, the series – since its publication – has become of timeless use and value, being a pioneer and a niche report discussing Philippine reclamations on a large scale and with a historical perspective. Publishing the story under a new administration prompted various stakeholders – scientists, policymakers, environmental groups and advocates, and coastal communities – to continue raising awareness on reclamation issues, reevaluate the practice, and explore efforts to study its impacts moving forward.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Reclamation projects are environmental threats that merit more nuanced and in-depth coverage since it gravely impacts many facets of public interest, such as disaster risks, shelter, livelihood, governance, and social welfare. Excellent reporting on such complex topics, however, requires journalists, editors, and media organizations to study and follow the issues closely, immerse themselves on the ground, and provide the financial and logistical support needed.

It is also crucial for media to collaborate with experts from other disciplines – fisherfolk, scientists, lawyers, and visual designers, to name a few – and build on and reference important existing work so that journalists can elevate the quality of storytelling and contribute new knowledge on a topic or an issue.

Our data story project is a result of that hard work, intentionality, and process. The team envisioned to do journalism that not only challenges long-held yet not evidence-based notions on reclamations but also provides open data that can be genuinely useful for stakeholders, especially communities that bear the brunt of ill-planned and illegal reclamations in the Philippines.

Although it takes deep grit, patience, and time, niche and big picture reporting – especially with the use of solid data – can lead to more impactful and timeless reports. In our case, the use of reclamation mapping and data analysis in our reporting shows that works of journalism can inform the public of the grave impacts of reclamation projects while also giving them the tools needed to act on one of the country’s pressing environmental issues.

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