- The coronavirus pandemic has halted a planned vote on whether to split up the biodiverse province of Palawan into three smaller ones.
- Those in support of the proposal say breaking up the country’s biggest province into more manageable constituencies will allow officials to better address poverty and development issues.
- But critics say it will exacerbate bureaucratic bloat, allow the ruling elites to grab more power, and harm both the management of natural resources and welfare of indigenous peoples.
- They say the argument that the province is too big to properly manage is flawed, given how officials have largely been able to execute pandemic responses, and that the real issue is political will.
PALAWAN, Philippines — A landmark vote on dividing the biodiverse Philippine province of Palawan into three smaller provinces has been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s given critics of the move a chance to press their case that splitting up the province could prove harmful to natural resources management and the welfare of indigenous groups.
The plebiscite, initially set for May 11, would have given nearly half a million voters in Palawan the choice of whether or not to accept Republic Act 11259, which would split the 1.5-million-hectare (3.7-million-acre) province — the biggest in the country — into three smaller ones: Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental and Palawan del Sur.
Proponents of the act, signed by President Rodrigo Duterte in April 2019, say dividing the province will fast-track public access to government services and spark growth in this region of the country known for its rich biodiversity and model ecotourism practices.
Once ratified, the towns of Brooke’s Point, Roxas and Taytay would be upgraded into the respective capitals of the new provinces, and Puerto Princesa, the current capital, would be an independent city. Residents of Puerto Princesa would not be eligible to vote in the plebiscite or in any elections for provincial positions, according to Republic Act 11259.
Pushing through with the plebiscite as scheduled, however, is “impossible at the height of the spread of the COVID-19,” the Commission on Elections (Comelec) said in a memorandum dated April 7.
Coronavirus cases in the Philippines reached 10,794 with 719 deaths as of May 10. In Palawan, there have only been two confirmed cases as of April 26, but the entire province has been under lockdown, known as an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), since March 17.
Under the restrictions imposed by the lockdown, the deployment of personnel and election materials is “logistically impossible,” Comelec said, meaning the plebiscite is suspended indefinitely. As early as March 25, the commission had already suspended all preparatory activities leading up to the plebiscite, shelving the 80 million pesos ($1.6 million) allotted for the preparations.
Anti-division coalition One Palawan has welcomed the announcement to delay the vote. “The quarantine period can be useful for the Palawan people to contemplate on what is happening around them,” campaigner Cynthia Del Rosario told Mongabay. “Dividing the province has become irrelevant [at this time] as it could only spell another bureaucratic bloat and waste.”
One Palawan and other opponents of the partition say the plan was borne out of political maneuvering instead of popular demand. Proper public consultations and feasibility studies supporting it were not carried out, they say.
Critics say they are concerned that dividing the province would cement control of resources with oligarchic families and weaken environmental authorities’ ability to protect the natural ecosystems in the province. These sensitive areas could potentially be shared by different provinces, One Palawan says.
Palawan boasts 690,000 hectares (1.7 million acres) of natural-growth forest that is home to 422 species, 39 of them endemic. It also has the largest marine protected areas and critical habitats in the Philippines, and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The province’s keen attention to sustainable development has prompted the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to allow local authorities to manage key protected areas under the oversight of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).
The division plan isn’t clear on how these management schemes will be affected, anti-division groups say, as studies have not been publicized. Some civil society groups were not invited for public consultations, and online and offline debates between politicians and local environmentalists unfold against the backdrop of aggressive development. This fight that started on social media has since reached the nation’s highest court.
Micromanaging poverty, development
The province’s scale is the main reason for the division, says Palawan Governor Jose Alvarez. “We experience difficulty in managing our large province,” Alvarez said on the cable news show Rundown on April 13, 2019. “Today, the whole province [is] the biggest province in the whole country. We are doing what is best for the province. It’s not gerrymandering.”
The size makes it difficult for the provincial government to provide basic services like public health care, education and transportation to the most remote villages. These amenities are concentrated in the provincial capital Puerto Princesa, declared a highly urbanized city since 2007. With a population of more than 255,000, out of the total 1.3 million in Palawan, it’s also the province’s economic hub, home to more advanced health care facilities, international airport and seaport, national government agencies’ field offices, universities, and malls.
Access to social services is not the same for residents in other towns across the sprawling archipelago, many of whom must travel four to five hours by sea and another eight hours by land to experience these services.
“From our house atop a mountain, we would walk for more than three hours to the national road to catch a bus for another four- to five-hour trip to the city,” Beto Calman, a penglima (customary leader) of the Palaw’an indigenous group, told Mongabay. “But life’s difficult so that rarely happens here. Going to the city is already a luxury for us who don’t always have money and just subsist on forest resources to survive.”
The province is home to 100,000 indigenous families who rely largely on the region’s natural environment. The Palaw’ans live in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (MMPL) in southern Palawan. The mountain is the province’s largest terrestrial protected area, spanning 120,457 hectares (297,656 acres) across five towns. It’s also been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Palawan isn’t lacking in either fiscal or natural resources. The province banks on its tourism prowess, which generated 83 billion pesos ($1.6 billion) in tourism services and investments in 2018 alone. The province’s revenue share from the national government — provincial allotment from earnings from large-scale industries — is 3.2 billion pesos ($63 million) this year. With total assets of more than 11.27 billion pesos ($223 million) as of 2018, Palawan is the ninth-richest province in the Philippines.
But the poverty incidence rate is 54%, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). Local officials point at geography as the prime driver of poverty. Under a divided Palawan, new sets of local government officials can focus on the most vulnerable and abandoned sectors, Alvarez said.
Each political subdivision would downscale each provincial government’s constituents to around 400,000. According to Alvarez, this will give rise to new capitals with additional elective, appointive and support staff positions to fast-track the delivery of services to the remotest areas. The provinces will also receive higher revenue allotments from the national government of at least 1.5 billion to 2 billion pesos ($30 million to $40 million) every year, according to Alvarez.
“Having three provinces in more compact geographic areas with fewer constituents to serve and equally fewer municipalities to supervise will be better suited to pursue the general welfare than a single province,” he said in a press statement, adding that the move will allow the “micromanagement of poverty and development.”
Civil society groups, in doubt
Dividing Palawan is not a new idea; it was introduced in the 1960s by Monching Mitra, a Palawan congressional representative. Similar proposals were echoed in the early 1990s up to the late 2000s, with provincial lawmakers passing measures calling for the division. Each time they were thwarted by lack of support in both houses of Congress.
Alvarez mounted a strong push to revive the proposal in 2016. Reportedly the country’s richest governor in 2015, thanks to a logging business in neighboring Indonesia in the 1970s, Alvarez met with municipal mayors, barangay (ward) heads, and local business people to gather support for the bid. At the same time, three Palawan congressional representatives pushed for the division at the House of Representatives.
In December 2017, the provincial legislature passed a resolution in support of the move. The bill breezed through Congress, passed by the House in August 2018 and the Senate in November that same year. President Duterte signed the bill into law on April 13, 2019, setting into motion a rigorous debate among residents.
“There will always be a cost, it’s not just benefits,” environmental lawyer Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center, told Mongabay. “Without these studies, how can you plausibly, logically state that the division of Palawan will ultimately result in the economic development of the three provinces? This is still wishful thinking.”
The Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI), the province’s largest coalition of civil society groups, called the law “problematic” and said it would perpetuate nepotism and political dynasties.
PNNI and the provincial government have been at loggerheads for years over a string of environmental issues, in particular the latter’s support for high-impact projects: from palm oil and coconut investments in forested tribal lands, to building a coal-fired power plant near a protected area, to a six-lane highway for which trees had to be cut down.
“If the motive for this division is good, then its results will be sound,” PNNI executive director Robert Chan told Mongabay, “but if its intent is evil, then nothing good can come out of it.”
“What is the motive for dividing the province? Is it to provide better basic services? Or to prolong the dynasty of the incumbent?” Chan said. “Note that this is the governor’s last term. And to divide means he can run anew in any of the divided portions. And put his kin in the other two.” (Under Philippine law, elected officials can only serve a maximum of three consecutive terms in the same position.)
One of Alvarez’s daughter, Amy Alvarez, is the mayor of the Palawan municipality of San Vicente; another daughter, Pie Alvarez, was the previous mayor. The governor’s nephews also hold pivotal posts: Franz Alvarez is a congressman, while Juan Alvarez is a provincial board member.
Alvarez denied the allegation that he planned to use the division to run for another term. “I asked framers of the law to remove a provision which says after my third term I can still run as governor,” Alvarez said in the Rundown interview. “I said no. It’s not a matter of political convenience.”
Another of PNNI’s objections centers on public participation — or lack thereof — leading up to the passage of the division act. There was a series of “public consultations” in municipalities, but PNNI says these were “not much-publicized, massive and inclusive” to get the real pulse of the majority of locals.
“Why is civil society doubtful? Throughout the whole process, from its inception in the Provincial Board to deliberations in Congress, we have never been invited to present our side much less interpolate this legislation, despite PNNI’s board resolution opposing the same,” Chan said.
Critics: pandemic negates geography bottleneck
On June 26, 2019, One Palawan took its case to the Supreme Court, hoping a writ of prohibition would render Republic Act 11259 null and void.
The coalition alleges the law contains provisions that go against the Philippine Constitution and the Local Government Code, including amendments to the natural wealth-sharing agreement, non-consultation of the general public, and exclusion of Puerto Princesa residents in the consultation and in the plebiscite.
The court has yet to decide on the petition. One Palawan also launched an online petition nearly two years ago that has since gathered more than 48,000 signatures. On the ground, residents are split over whether to divide. But with the cancellation of the vote amid the pandemic, residents have more time to consider the move, groups say.
For the indigenous Palaw’an tribe, their decision rests on easy access to public goods and services, infrastructure and industry development, and a steady stream of cash income, among other benefits touted by pro-division groups. But what’s missing, they say, are the trade-offs.
“We want quick access to government services, but we fear that the division plan could negatively affect the way of life of marginalized locals, especially like us natives,” said tribe leader Calman, who is also the president of the Organization of Indigenous People for Action in Palawan. “If aggressive development creeps into this biodiverse mountain range where we live, that could result in the demise of our cultural traditions deeply rooted in the forest.”
The pandemic is also a good time to assess the efficiency of local governments in deploying services to villages in a time of crisis, One Palawan’s Del Rosario says. It also highlights the importance of having unified governance in the deployment of services at such a time, she says.
The pandemic has pushed public officials, from the provincial down to the barangay level, rushing to the aid of their constituents, including indigenous peoples. “Geography isn’t the challenge but political will,” Del Rosario said, adding that political will is what ensures goods and financial assistance can reach even the remotest sites in the province.
“The crisis also shows the people that the quality of leaders they put in office actually matters,” Del Rosario said. “Some local officials have excelled in delivering assistance to their communities while some were just a big disappointment. It also shows that the [current] system in delivering basic services is already in place, underscoring the barangays for being pivotal in the fight against COVID-19.”
Calman and other Palaw’an natives say they are wary that the division plan may open up their home — the “mother province” — to the rest of the world, an unwelcome development they regard as a threat to their culture and survival.
“Now that there’s this contagion, we impose our own lockdown to ensure all of us would survive,” Calman said. “When this is over, the plan might push through. And if it really happens, we expect to see more people, especially from foreign countries who may bring in diseases our body system cannot fight off. This may not be the last pandemic we would experience. What would our future be if there’d be another?”
Banner image of members of the Batak tribe fishing in Palawan. Image by Robin Moore/Global Wildlife Conservation
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