Palawan’s (un)sustainable development
PUERTO PRINCESA — Having lived in Palawan for over a year and having come and gone over the past decade, I can attest to its natural beauty: from the spellbinding forests of Cleopatra’s Needle and Mount Mantalingahan to the stunning beaches of El Nido and Coron. Even while walking along Puerto Princesa’s acacia-lined streets, one cannot help but be charmed by the island’s relatively pristine state.
This beauty, however, is facing numerous threats, a fact raised by President Duterte — who visited recently. Calling the island’s attractions a “crown jewel,” he told Palawan officials: “Itong (lugar) ninyo, linisin ninyo. Huwag ninyong overload. Bantay kayo d’yan. (Clean up your place, don’t overload it. Guard it.)” He also called on the officials not to allow hotels to be built near beaches, and warned that “nobody can claim ownership” of the island’s coastlines.
While the President was being feted by local politicians, scholars were likewise discussing the environmental state of Palawan, in the annual conference of the Ugnayang Agham-Tao (Ugat) — the association of Philippine anthropologists. Held at the Palawan State University (PSU), its theme could not have been more apt: “Doing Anthropology in Times of Environmental Crisis.” Among the issues raised were the impact of environmental changes (and laws) on indigenous peoples and the accommodation of mining projects by moving Environmentally Critical Areas Network zones.
Doubtless, many Palaweños have benefited from economic growth: PSU graduates are choosing to stay in Puerto Princesa, where the growing tourism and service sectors have opened up more career opportunities; or elsewhere on the island, with mining and other industries. The city’s amenities, meanwhile, have made it a more attractive place for professionals to settle in or retire.
But there are also questions about the price of this so-called “development.” With its population tripling over the past 25 years, Puerto Princesa is showing signs of urban congestion, from burgeoning informal settlements and worsening traffic to recurring power outages and rising cost of living. “The city is losing its character,” one of my friends laments, referencing the trees, now gone, that used to be part of the landscape. “Soon we will look like any other Philippine city.”
As the elections draw near, I would like to challenge Palawan’s local officials to put environmental conversation and long-term planning at the heart of their policies and programs. Alas, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development has lacked the political support to implement its mandate, and local officials have been slow to act on environmental concerns.
For his part, President Duterte speaks of the need to protect Palawan, but he must realize that significant threats to the province include the island-building in Kalayaan and the illegal poaching by Chinese fishermen in the West Philippine Sea. Thus, in light of his subservience to China, he must also direct his challenge to himself. Moreover, given the potentially grave environmental consequences of dividing Palawan into three provinces, I urge him not to sign this move — which reeks of gerrymandering — into law.
As for my friends in Palawan and all Palaweños, I know it is too much to ask them to follow the footsteps of the late Dr. Gerry Ortega, whose murder in broad daylight is a continuing reminder of the risks involved in activism. But supporting environmental organizations, patronizing sustainable tourism initiatives, and voting for officials who genuinely have the island’s interest in mind can all make a big difference. So can academic work that affirms, to borrow from the Ugat conference theme, “our interconnectedness” with nature and documents the threats to our shared fate.
It is time to arrest Palawan’s unsustainable development before it’s too late to undo the damage wrought by human greed and irresponsibility—not to mention political complicity and neglect. Indeed, whether we are leaders, citizens, scholars or friends of Palawan, the legacy we should strive for is not that that we “developed” the island—but that we left it as beautiful as it once was.
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