Palawan, the Philippines’ last frontier

Palawan, the Philippines’ last frontier

France Bequette

In Puerto Princesa, capital of the Philippine province of Palawan, the new town hall offers a panoramic view over Honda Bay, the turquoise blue sea and a string of islands bordered by white sandy shores. The presence of a rusting and heavily loaded logging truck right in front of the building strikes a jarring note. It has been parked there deliberately. The massive logs, cut illegally, were seized with the truck and put on show to remind the inhabitants of Palawan island that logging in virgin forest is now strictly forbidden.

Palawan, the largest of 1,768 islands that make up the province of the same name, is dubbed the “last frontier” because of its location on the southwestern edge of the Philippine archipelago, not far from Borneo. Covering approximately 14,000 [km.sup.2] and stretching eight to 40 kilometres across, the island consists of a 425-kilometre-long mountain range (highest peak 2,085 metres above sea level) and plains covering about 118,350 hectares.

From the air, the island looks very green, seemingly covered by lush vegetation. But appearances can be deceptive. The fate of Palawan’s forest is a snapshot of what has been happening in the Philippines since logging in virgin forest was banned in 1991. According to the current Under Secretary of State for the Environment, Palawan lost 19,000 hectares of forest every year between 1977 and 1988. At this rate, the island might have been stripped of more than 50 per cent of its 780,000-hectare forest cover within 20 years.

The fight to save the forest

Despite the important economic interests bound up with the logging trade, ecologists launched a campaign in 1988 and soon mobilized public opinion in favour of defending the forest. A leading environmental group, the Haribon [“King of the Birds”] Foundation (named for the Monkey-eating Eagle, an endangered Philippine species), drafted a petition calling for a total logging ban. It collected one million signatures and was presented to former President Corazon Aquino. Three years later, logging was banned by law. A battle had been won, but not the war. In the late 1980s, illegal timber exports were estimated to total about $800 million annually, approximately four times the officially recorded earnings from forest-product exports.

Illegal logging is still going on today. Near the truck placed symbolically in front of Puerto Princesa town hall, the police pile up confiscated loads of timber. The ecologically minded Palawan Sun newspaper reported that in the space of two months earlier this year, authorities on the west coast seized timber with a retail value of 381,196 pesos ($15,250).

Deforestation can have far-reaching and devastating consequences, as Palawan’s governor Salvador P. Socrates stressed when he visited two towns ravaged by flash floods in September 1995. “Our problem is that there are no more trees to stop the water from coming down the mountain,” he said. Besides provoking floods, deforestation removes the fine layer of earth covering the mountainside. Swept away by water, the silt cascades from denuded lands into the island’s fishing grounds and settles on coral reefs, which in turn are suffocated.

Dynamite and cyanide

A danger of another kind is threatening Palawan’s marine life, renowned for its beauty and great variety of algae, fish, molluscs and shellfish. A number of fishermen in the area are using dynamite and cyanide, two illegal and destructive practices. Dynamite kills fish but also damages coral reefs. Cyanide paralyzes fish so that they can be caught alive and then sent by plane in water-tanks, three tons at a time, in order to supply aquariums or restaurants in the Far East, where the consumption of certain fish such as lapulapu is believed to bring prosperity and longevity.

In Hong Kong, random tests for cyanide carried out on live fish sold in restaurants have shown levels below the permissible amount set by the World Health Organization for drinking water. But whether eating fish caught using cyanide is 100% safe still remains to be proved. In 1987 the Hong Kong government banned cyanide fishing in its territorial waters, but the problem has not gone away.

In Palawan the law in this field is also difficult to enforce, despite heavy sentences for offenders. In March 1996, six dynamite fishermen, locally known as bumbongeros, were arrested in Cuyo with 80 kilograms of fish and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The same month, 21 cyanide users were given ten-year sentences.

The Tubbataha Reefs national marine park has not been spared. Located 180 kilometres southeast of Palawan in the middle of the Sulu sea, it stretches over 33,200 hectares. It was created in 1988 and proclaimed a World Heritage Site in 1993. Every year, visiting divers from all over the world observe the damage caused by destructive fishing practices around the two atolls lying at the heart of the marine park, which is exceptional on account of its abundant and highly diverse corals (300 types) and 400 species of fish. A research and marine ranger station has been set up to chase poachers and illegal fishermen. A patrol team of eleven is stationed in Tubbataha for two months at a time. Their living conditions are tough and funding is tight, despite backing from several organizations, including the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) and Conservation International.

Protective measures

Created in 1992, the PCSD established an Environmentally Critical Areas Network in order to regulate and control the use and management of the province’s natural resources. A mine exploited near Honda Bay, for example, caused mercury poisoning in fish and shellfish. Several inhabitants of the small port of Santa Lourdes were also affected. The mine was closed and a long-term plan was adopted to provide health care for the villagers and to find alternative means of subsistence to fishing.

In an effort to encourage preservation, the network is also seeking to make forest dwellers the owners of their environment. The PCSD is studying the possibilities of delivering ancestral ownership certificates to three indigenous peoples, the Batah, the Tagbanuas and the Palawan. All live in upland areas and practise slash and burn agriculture. They also hunt, extract resin from almaciga (which yields a type of copal), exploit rattan and harvest wild honey. In 1995, a scheme to protect Palawan’s tropical forest was finally drawn up. Among the sites included in the plan are the St. Paul Subterranean River National Park (known for its magnificent underground river) and its adjacent communities, as well as those around the Irawan watershed near Puerto Princesa.

In these last two vicinities, the Pista y Ang Kageban, or Festival of the Forests, has been celebrated for the last six years on 23 June. At this year’s event, 30,000 people led by Edward Hagedorn, Puerto Princesa’s outspoken mayor and environmental activist, arrived at dawn to plant 100,000 tree seedlings of different varieties, thus bringing to 700,000 the total number of trees planted in the capital and its surrounding area. Founded in 1970, Puerto Princesa well and truly lives up to its claim of being a “clean and green” city. As for the island of Palawan, it has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1990, as the maps handed out by the tourist office point out. This distinction is, however, news to most of the island’s inhabitants.

What is certain is that Palawan has narrowly avoided an ecological catastrophe. The last frontier faces many threats but it is spared from violence, mushrooming concrete constructions and pollution. It can only be hoped that the developing tourist industry will not harm the local culture, the luxuriant vegetation, the rivers and crystal-clear cascades, the endless beaches and an underwater world that is among the most beautiful in the world.


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