Clear and critical danger
As their name indicates, Philippine cockatoos can be found only in this country—but they are now a critically endangered species. The birds used to be widely found on many islands; by 2008, however, their number was down to less than 1,000, with about a quarter of the population now concentrated on Rasa Island and its surroundings in the municipality of Narra in Palawan. Rasa is a declared wildlife sanctuary and is of global importance for conservation because of not only the Philippine cockatoos but also the high number of threatened flora and fauna.
On Feb. 22, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) gave the green light to a plan to build a 15-megawatt coal-fired power plant in the eastern coast of Narra fronting Rasa Island about a kilometer away. The PCSD granted the so-called Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) clearance to the power facility to be put up by the Consunji-led DMCI Power Corp. This clearance is provided for by a special law that applies only to Palawan (Republic Act No. 7611) and is a condition prior to the grant of an environmental compliance certificate by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The PCSD is chaired by Palawan Gov. Abraham Mitra. Its members include the lawmakers representing the two districts of Palawan; representatives of the Office of the President, DENR, National Economic and Development Authority, and Department of Agriculture; the city mayor; the president of the League of Municipalities of Palawan; the head of the Liga ng mga Barangay; and representatives of the Palawan Provincial Board, nongovernment organizations, military, business, tribal sectors, and the Philippine National Police provincial command.
Conservation groups were quick to denounce the PCSD action. Elizabeth Maclang, advocacy officer of the Palawan NGO Network Inc., which has a seat in the council, said powerful politicians had influenced the vote to allow the project despite the formal opposition of the municipality of Narra, conservation groups, and even the PCSD’s technical evaluators. “This decision also shows the failure of the SEP Law … considering that political and personal interests hold sway in the council,” she said. She warned that her group would challenge the PCSD decision in court.
Indira Dayang Lacerna-Widmann of the Katala Foundation Inc. (the Philippine cockatoo is called “katala” in Palawan) expressed “deep shock” at the PCSD decision, which she described as “a reflection of political maneuvering and vested interests …. that completely ignor[ed] scientific evidence and social acceptability.”
Experts say the coal plant will result in bird casualties due to collisions and electrocution at the feeder power lines. Even more seriously, they note, the power plant will block the flight path of the birds from Narra on the mainland to Rasa, which will result in a reduction of the carrying capacity of the island for the species because parent birds will not anymore be able to provide sufficient food to their young.
Those who live close to the proposed project site also face health risks. The community’s primary means of livelihood is fishing, and thermal pollution from cooling water fallout can lead to adverse effects in the marine ecosystem. Also, the impurities in coal include heavy metals like mercury, which is known to accumulate in marine food chains and, if ingested, can lead to severe health problems involving the immune, circulatory, digestive and nervous systems.
Because of the serious impact of the project and the opposition it generated early on, the PCSD technical staff had presented its evaluation and recommendations to the council’s environment and natural resources committee headed by former Palawan Vice Gov. Dave Ponce de Leon. The recommendations consisted of 15 mitigating measures, including a relocation of the site (Narra had reportedly offered another location for the project), complete trapping of carbon emissions through reforestation, a cleaner source of coal, better monitoring, and a plan for rehabilitation after the plant is abandoned. But none of these was considered in the PCSD’s decision.
Given that most decision-making bodies rely on their technical staff to present intelligent and well-studied recommendations, what could have driven the PCSD to set aside the 15 mitigating measures and approve the plan to build the coal-fired power plant? The people, and not only of Palawan, deserve an explanation.