Palawan is known as the last frontier in the Philippines because of its pristine forests, lakes and rivers, entrancing waterfalls, corrals and diving grounds as well as the expanse of white beaches, flowers with colors of the rainbow, fish and animal life, bountiful islands and entrancing resorts from El Nido to Amanpolo, Sunlight to King’s Paradise.
It is a living testament to the wonders of God’s creations. If you are a nonbeliever, a trip to the islands of Palawan would likely change your mind and you may miraculously affirm the greatness of the Divine Providence as you go through the Underground River abounding in wondrous architectural designs of Nature carved through the centuries, viewing the neatly arranged islands of Coron and Busuanga, and the multicolored fishes eating from your hands in Honda Bay.
The province is a tourist haven, a place for those driven by a sense of adventure and that certain magic that delights the irretrievable romantic.
The imported governor
I was in Puerto Princesa a few weeks ago trying to determine how Palaweños react to the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), since Palawan is included in the territory of the Bangsamoro substate or region. As ost of the people in the other parts of Mindanao, Palaweños reject the BBL. Their rejection is as strong, if not overwhelming, as they rejected the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao in the plebiscite during the Cory years.
They were enraged then but even more enraged now against the BBL. But the rage is even greater when you ask them about the emerging rape of the environment in Palawan. The possible rape of Palawan is brought about by the power in the hands of Governor Jose Chaves Alvarez, popularly known as JCA.
JCA is not a Palawan original. He is a native of Cagayan de Oro City, the capital of Misamis Oriental where I was Opposition governor during martial law. Governor Alvarez was not JCA then, he was known as Pepito, the guy who married one of the daughters of Pedro “Oloy” Roa. Oloy became one of the biggest loggers not only in Misamis Oriental but in the whole of Northern Mindanao. He later went with his son-in-law Pepito to Indonesia to expand his logging business. Oloy oozed with a lot of money, later propelled himself to become governor of Misamis Oriental, later as City Mayor of Cagayan de Oro, and still later as congressman of then lone district of Misamis Oriental.
Pepito, now JCA, did not go into politics in Misamis Oriental. He plunged into business, not only in Misamis Oriental and Indonesia but also invaded the business enclaves in Manila and later Vietnam. Because of his business acumen, he built his own business empire, hobnobbing with the moguls of the Marcos administration and some leading business personalities then like Elena Lim of NEC, Philippines.
Governor JCA must have seen the tremendous business opportunities in Palawan that he decided to run for governor of that province. He failed in his first attempt but succeeded in the second. With Niagara of money, now Pepito lords it over Palawan but for the Hagedorns – former Mayor of Puerto Princesa Edward Hagedorn and Congressman Douglas Hagedorn.
War on the environment – Newcomer vs. The Originals
Long before the emergence of Governor Alvarez in Palawan, the Hagedorns were the acknowledged political leaders of the province. Once you mention the City of Puerto Princesa, even in casual conversation in this country, everyone gloats about the cleanliness, discipline, and the beauty of the city attributable primarily to then City Mayor Edward Hagedorn.
But the political landscape is changing in Palawan because of the loads of money Governor PCA wields. I found in my random interviews with Palaweños in Puerto Princesa two weeks ago that the Governor has impressed the public that nobody can beat him and his group. This claim or boast is backed up by the money of the governor. But money cannot buy everything, especially if one commits a serious policy mistake that harms the environment and the people. Most especially, if the people have populist leaders like Edward and Douglas Hagedorn coupled with established environmentalists like lawyer Tony Oposa and ABS-CBN mogul, Gina Lopez, as well their allied national environmentalist organizations.
The area of battle is the House of Representatives where Congressman Douglas Hagedorn is doing a lot of spade work against the long arms of Governor JCA and his group who are determined to make a mess of the Palawan environment for mining operations and a lot of other extractive business activities which are likely to ruin Palawan as the last frontier. The environmentalists in Palawan and in the country are up in arms against Governor Alvarez and his crowd.
Center of debate is House Bill No. 6141 which seeks to provide greater protection to the environment, especially for national protected areas. The original bill, as approved by the House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources headed by Congressman Francisco T. Matugas of Surigao del Norte, included the Palawan protected areas on the list. Like the working of a theft in the night, as the saying goes, five environmental areas were deleted from the list, according to knowledgeable sources, through the initiative of Congressman Franz Alvarez of the first congressional district of Palawan, a nephew of Governor Alvarez, and Governor Alvarez himself.
The protected areas deleted from the list are – El Nido Managed Resource Protected Area, Malampaya Sound Protected Landscape and Seascape, Mt. Matalingahan Protected Landscape, Puerto Princesa Subterranean River Park, and Rasa Island Wild Sanctuary. Why the delete those from the list when they should be included in the prospective Enhanced National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENIPAS) which would strengthen the twenty-three year old NIPAS Law, Republic Act No.7586. The Alvarezes argue that the Palawan protected areas are already protected under Republic 7611, so why include them in the prospective ENIPAS law.
The main problem of the Alvarez argument is that – it is indisputable that under the provisions of the prospective ENIPAS law, the protection is much broader and the penalties more severe. If the Alvarezes are really interested in environmental protection and preservation as they claim to be, why object to a double barreled protection? The perceived Alvarez motive, ulterior or otherwise, is to open these areas to extractive activities like mining and the like which will inevitably result in their destruction.
Congressman Douglas Hagedorn, whose re-election, in my interview of a good section of constituents in his district, is as certain and relaxing as a walk in the park, has this to say in his move for the reconsideration of the position of the House Committee on Natural Resources, in his letter to Committee Chairman Matugas:
1) Restoring Palawan’s Protected Area in the original list; and
2) Including a statement in the Repealing Clause of House Bill No.6141 to make R. A. 7611 (Strategic Environmental Palawan (or SEP) of Palawan consistent with the ENIPAS, i.e.,’Provisions in R. A 7611 that are unclear or inconsistent with the provisions of this law are hereby repealed or modified.’
The Alvarezes proposal to exclude Palawan has provoked anxiety and outrage among environmentalists. Speculation is rife that, if Palawan were excluded, local government executives would be able to manipulate the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) and twist the SEP to allow, among others “regulated mining” in protected areas – an activity banned by the ENIPAS.
Congressman Hagedorn has a valid point and this is shared by the environmentalists in Palawan who made the following declaration:
“We believe that the new NIPAS law complements the Strategic Environmental Plan of Palawan (under the Republic Act) because both laws recognize the need to conserve biodiversity. We, therefore, urge the House of Representatives to pass HB 6141, including all of Palawan’s protected areas in the NIPAS, without further delay.”
This is a battle worth watching. Unless the House of Representatives will toe the Alvarez line, which is suicidal, the Hagedorns and the people of Palawan will win. Otherwise, if for some reason, Governor JCA prevails, this would be another convincing argument for a revolution – peaceful and constitutional, that is.