Saving the last ecological frontier
Part of the Foundation for the Philippine Environment’s (FPE) first Sarihay Award for journalists were out-of-town trips to FPE project sites. Four of us chose to go to Palawan, the others went to Surigao del Sur and Negros Occidental. If you’re a journalist, you know you would be on a working trip, and you hope to stumble upon some surprises on the rugged terrain or at the end of the road.
This was my seventh visit to Palawan. I had been to Puerto Princesa several times, Coron, the disputed Spratly Islands (Pag-asa Island is a municipality of Palawan); Iwahig Penal Colony, Culion (for the writing of the coffeetable book “Culion Island: A Leper Colony’s 100-Year Journey Toward Healing”), the refugee camp of the Vietnamese and where many were resettled.
Do I have bragging rights? Oh, sorry, I’ve never been to any of the exclusive, dollar-charging luxury islands in Palawan, not even to the famous El Nido.
Last week, FPE flew us to Puerto Princesa and took us on long road trips to Roxas and San Vicente towns. We stayed briefly in Port Barton, a breathtaking beach hideaway in San Vicente that I hope would not become a Boracay or, some locals hope, would not be like El Nido.
Port Barton is literally at the end of the road that cuts through a forest. What used to be a logging road (before the logging ban) that leads to Port Barton will be fully paved soon, and become like the endless ribbon of roads that run parallel to the beaches on the left and on the right of this sliver of an island that is Palawan.
But we were not tourists. First stop was the herbal processing plant of Palawan Center for Appropriate Rural Technology (Pcart). The small plant converts into powder the dried herbs produced by remote communities and bought by pharmaceutical/nutraceutical companies.
Lagundi, sambong, banaba, tanglad and guyabano are grown by Pcart’s local partners. We did visit a community that grows these plants in order to augment their income. An elder explained that the plants are best grown in a remote, pollution-free area like theirs. The people showed us the wood-fired drier that can dry 20 to 25 kilos of lagundi per day, which are worth P3,000. The drier is owned by the Abaroan Small Farmers Association. The growers take turns in using the drier.
A one-fourth hectare planted with lagundi can yield 200 kilos of dried leaves worth P30,000 every three to four months. With added income from herbs, families need not resort to slash-and-burn farming or collection and sale of endangered species.
We also visited a community of 42 households, mostly migrants from the Visayas, that produces sugar and syrup from coconut sap (tuba). Their newly gathered sap or unfermented tuba is immediately processed and turned into coco sugar.
Here’s the ABC of tuba and coconut sugar: Coconut sap drips after a still-encased coconut blossom is cut. Cutting for extraction is done every morning on the same blossom. The mananggiti or tuba gatherer places a container into which the sweet sap drips and leaves it there. He returns several hours later to bring down the sap. We’re not talking of one tree here but many.
Trees from which sap is extracted do not yield nuts because their flowers are “bled” daily. If not consumed or processed immediately, the sweet sap ferments and, by late afternoon, becomes the heady brew called tuba. It can also be turned into vinegar. So it is important that the newly collected sap is cooked right away and turned into coconut sugar which costs more than raw brown sugar and refined white.
We also met with Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) para-enforcers, they who guard against the destroyers of the forests and the seas. We met with a community leader—a woman whose name I will not mention—and her team who are deputized to apprehend violators and seize instruments of destruction. At that time they just came from a court hearing. They spoke with apprehension about mining and the 14-kilometer stretch of beach called Long Beach (where we met) which will be turned into a high-end resort strip, a playground for the rich and famous, to be complemented by a new airport nearby.
We had interesting meetings with environmental lawyers—PNNI executive director Robert Chan and Environmental Legal Assistance Center (Elac) executive director Grizelda Mayo-Anda (whom I have known before she became a lawyer, and the wife of Inquirer correspondent and jazz musician Dempto Anda). When we arrived at Elac, we found Brooke’s Point Mayor Mary Jean Feliciano seeking legal help for her town that was under threat from open-pit nickel mining. She promised to keep me informed.
But if I may save one of the best for last, it would be what I call the “museum of environmental crimes” or the Palawan Environmental Enforcement Museum. This is Chan’s pride and “discomfort” zone; this is where more than 600 seized chainsaws are exhibited as a two-story-tall Christmas tree and used as fence posts, rows of them.
There’s more—seized firearms, dynamites, cyanide, big trucks, tricycles, boats, including a huge Malaysian boat on the museum grounds that, I thought, could be turned into a café. Also exquisite hardwood now used as a multipurpose stage. While we were gawking at the deadly items, a para-enforcer arrived with a newly seized chainsaw. We asked about the old scars on his arms…
The museum and the courageous para-enforcers who risk life and limb deserve a feature story of their own. I will write it.
Let me end by saying that Palawan is the province with the most number of declared protected areas in the country. It has its own special environmental laws. It is hailed as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier. Last, not lost.
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