Environmental ‘politics’ hurting Palawan : 25-year-old law failed to protect Palawan from destructive development projects 

in Photo: El Nido in Palawan is the gateway to the Bacuit archipelago, a group of islands with steep karst cliffs.

Is Palawan safe from destructive development projects? Apparently not, even with Republic Act (RA) 7611, or the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan Act, in effect for a quarter of a century now.

Lawyer Gerthie Anda-Mayo, executive director of the Palawan-based Environmental Legal Assistance Center (Elac), said 25 years after the law was signed on June 19, 1992, by the late President Corazon C. Aquino, destructive development projects continue to threaten Palawan, an island-province described as the Philippines’ “last ecological frontier” and consistent winner in global polls for the best island in the world.

RA 7611, in essence, should have provided for the adoption of a comprehensive framework for the sustainable development of Palawan.

However, Mayo said 25 years hence, the law failed to prevent the destruction of the province’s rich ecosystem, as she cited the continuous mining operations and conversion of vast tracts of forest lands into agri- and agro-forestry plantations. Lately, Palawan is even being targeted for the construction of an underwater-themed park ostensibly “to promote marine wildlife protection and conservation.”

The same law, which should have extended protection to Palawan’s biodiversity and ecological beauty, was cited by the province’s lawmakers in requesting the removal of some of Palawan’s natural wonders from a long list of protected areas (PAs) covered by the proposed Expanded-National Integrated Protected Areas System (E-Nipas) Act.

All about politics

“It is annoying. We are saddened and dismayed that our politicians decided to withdraw our protected areas from E-Nipas,” Mayo said.

The Elac, she said, will come up with a position paper on the issue and appeal to the province’s legislators to reconsider their decision to have the five Palawan PAs “deleted” from the E-Nipas coverage.

She was referring to the El Nido Managed Resource Protected Area, Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary, Malampaya Sound Protected Landscape and Seascape and Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park. These were stricken off the list upon the manifestation of Palawan lawmakers led by First District Rep. Chicoy Alvarez.

Mayo said legislators representing Palawan, including some provincial officials, failed to appreciate the fact that E-Nipas can help ensure the benefits of maintaining PAs will go to the province.

Once it becomes a law, the Protected Area Management Boards (PAMB) will have the power to expand the buffer zone of the PA without Congressional approval.

“The buffer zones of these protected areas have not yet been determined,” she said, adding that the establishment of the buffer zones will require an act of Congress.

Mayo said any existing infrastructure facilities in these PAs, including those within the buffer zone, can be regulated through the PAMB and the Office of the Protected Area Superintendent, which acts as the park manager.

Development activities can be regulated in a manner that it will not put at risk the present and future generations. Non-governmental organizations will also have more seats in the PAMB. This means a broader, transparent and responsible management mechanism, she said.

Mayo also noted that the E-Nipas law will impose stiffer penalties and fines to deter environmental crimes.

Sadly, she said this will not happen soon, with the omission of the five Palawan PAs.

Encroachment

“Right now, we noticed the encroachment and expansion of plantations in these protected areas. It would have been okay if it is banana or coconut, as long as it is not in forest lands. Now, we are seeing…palm and rubber plantations expanding,” she lamented.

According to Mayo, once covered by E-Nipas, the Palawan PAs will be covered by strict management regime with a broader participation of civil society organizations (CSOs) who have a slot in the PAMB, the highest policy-making body of a PA.

Without the E-Nipas, the management of these PAs remains with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a body independent from any government agency, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

This means that the PCSD can eventually decide to allow mining, agri or agro-forestry plantation, or even construction of a theme park in these areas that threaten to destroy terrestrial or marine ecosystems.

Mayo said the SEP law, which created the PCSD, should have paved the way for the governance and implementation of, and provision of policy direction to, the regulatory body. Ironically, the SEP law only allowed more businesses to abuse special permits granted in the name of “sustainable development,” citing the case of the Ipilan Nickel Corp., a nickel-mining company, which is now the subject of a class suit for alleged illegal cutting of trees covering 25 hectares of old growth and secondary forest in Brooke’s Point, Palawan, in violation of the Forestry Code and the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.

The SEP, which is supposed to promote sustainability and improve the quality of life of present and future generations, is now actually being blamed for the destruction of the province’s rich ecosystem, thereby causing undue injury to people whose way of life is adversely affected by these destructive development projects, Mayo explained.

On August 9 the PCSD eventually revoked a special permit it issued to Ipilan, but not after the damage to old growth and secondary forests within and outside its mining tenement has been done.

No less than former Environment Secretary Regina Paz L. Lopez had appealed to her successor in the DENR, Secretary Roy A. Cimatu, to stop the destruction of the forest in Brooke’s Point.

The revocation of the special permit came a day after Acting Presiding Judge Ramon Chito R. Mendoza of RTC Branch 49 handed a decision granting the application for Temporary Environmental Protection Order filed by a group of farmers.

In its order dated August 7, 2017, Judge Mendoza also ordered Ipilan to implement rehabilitation measures in the said areas.

The plaintiffs filed the case in connection with the clear-cutting of swaths of forests allegedly undertaken by Ipilan in barangays Maasin and Ipilan in the town of Brooke’s Point sometime April this year.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order Ipilan to pay P10 million in moral damages, P10 million in exemplary damages, and nominal damages upon the discretion of the court and P500,000 in attorney’s fees, P500,000 in litigation expenses, and the costs of the suit.

The impacts of illegal clear-cutting of a 25-hectare forest land by the mining company, Mayo said, are sure to be felt by the people living in the area. Marginalized as they are, the people will further suffer from the loss of 25 hectares of forest.

Members of the Palawan indigenous community, she said, lost their source of herbal plants, rattan and honey, and even their sacred grounds have been desecrated by the massive cutting of trees.

According to Mayo, the PCSD is highly politicized. The PCSD, she said, is predominantly run by local politicians who, in the first place, allowed destructive developments like mining and the environmental destruction experienced in Southern Palawan.

“The fact that we have a SEP law, which is 25 years old, what has happened to Palawan?  We have a 60-percent poverty rate.  The province is rich in natural resources, but most of the people are very poor. This only means one thing, the law failed to benefit the poorest of the poor,” she said.

Worse, Mayo said, on top of the massive destruction of the forest ecosystem, most of the development projects, such as the operation of plantations, did not help improve the living conditions or boost the income of the small farmers.

Mayo said 12 cooperatives in a plantation of palm and rubber are experiencing financial trouble and huge debts because the plantations are not earning.

Palawan, she said, has a very fragile ecosystem. Unlike before, Mayo said, Palawan is now vulnerable to climate-change impacts like any other islands in the country experiencing flash floods, landslides and sea-level rise.

With the SEP law and PCSD deciding the fate of Palawan, it could just be a matter of time before the people in the province would start feeling the brunt of environmental destruction and the ill effects of climate change.

Image Credits: Roland Nagy | Dr eamstime.com