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What’s the plan for Palawan?

05:03 AM September 04, 2019

When Congress passed House Bill No. 8055 dividing Palawan into three provinces, not a few of my “kasimanwa” (provincemates) were surprised. In a blitzkrieg operation marked by hush and speed, the bill was approved overwhelmingly, sponsored nonetheless by our three congressmen. Then, it was promptly endorsed to the Senate, where it was embellished with three articles and nonchalantly approved. Now, it is law (Republic Act No. 11259), and as the saying goes, “You can’t fight City Hall.”

However, as one born and rooted in the dismembered province, I invoke my sovereign right as a citizen to say my piece—
with due respect, of course, to the proponents of the bill and others who aspire to become governors, vice governors, board members of the new provinces. Since we were not born yesterday, there was a strong sense that issues larger and more compelling than complaints about difficulties in governance were behind the bill’s passage. Resuscitating an idea that never took off in the past for lack of palpable popular clamor would require concerted moves and a powerful force in command.

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Recent events are unraveling and revealing that force: the controversy over the West Philippine Sea and the country’s hunger for investments. The drawing-board partitioning of Palawan was just a convenient side issue because of its proximity to the disputed West Philippine Sea. Kalayaan (Pag-asa Island) is a municipality of Palawan.

The Americans made good use of its strategic location during World War II by building the Palawan Air Base in Canigaran (the precursor of today’s airport) and the vast Naval Seaplane Base that extended from the pier area to Calero. The two facilities served as war depots and replenishing bases for military hardware and troops, a vital role that helped the Allied forces win the homestretch battles in the Pacific.

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Such function, however, is not in our wish list for the province. Palawan must never be a magnet for aggression or a playground for international bullies.

Foremost of our concerns are: (1) what the government envisions for Palawan vis-a-vis the West Philippine Sea; and (2) what kind of investments (foreign and local) will be allowed in its internal waters. Daily reports are alarming and worrisome. For instance, will Pogos (Philippine offshore gaming operators) be allowed to occupy the 1,800 islands? What if drug traffickers, smuggling syndicates and seaborne criminals masquerading as “investors” make the islands their refuge and base of operations? What if miners and loggers bring in their weapons of environmental destruction—bulldozers, backhoes, chainsaws, etc.—to shave our forests, screw over mountains and pollute our beaches and waterways? Can the local police, with their vintage weaponry, cope with and match the firepower of these groups?

Lest I be accused as a prophet of doom, one can just look at what’s happening now in Cavite, Cagayan and Zambales — provinces closer to the center of defense establishments. Opening Palawan to freewheeling commerce and unbridled urbanization is a double-edged venture that needs further study.

Palawan is environmentally fragile. All it needs today is enhancement of its natural assets and a different kind of (infrastructure) development module, one that respects its existing endowments, and not disrupt the peaceful and sustainable life of its people. In the urban areas, the basic needs are: a stable power and water supply, improved municipal ports and strategic road networks. If Congress wills it, here is where funding should be prioritized. The private sector can do the rest. For instance, island-hopping does not require cemented roads. Let our skilled boatmen and ferry operators make money.

Despite being treated like a distant cousin (literally) by past administrations, even depriving it of its just share of the Malampaya gas royalties, Palawan has thrived and evolved into a tourism jewel. Given its tremendous wealth above and below the sea, it can take off economically if properly administered, because 1) it is earthquake-free; 2) killer typhoons shy away from it; and 3) there is no social unrest or costly pocket wars. Best of all, it has been declared as “the world’s most beautiful island” by Condé Nast, a travel-rating authority.

To the world of science, Palawan’s rich and rare biodiversity and iconic geographical wonders offer a wealth of material for scientific study and research.

In its pristine state, Palawan is already a national treasure. If it cannot be properly developed and protected, then it should be left alone for the enjoyment of succeeding generations of Filipinos.

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Eva Maggay-Inciong used to serve as private sector representative for Neda Region IV (Mimaropa) and later co-chair for Calabarzon in tandem with Gov. Hermilando Mandanas of Batangas.

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