Road to Paradise: Palawan’s environment and tourism development

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Our story begins with a road trip to paradise—a 360-kilometer drive from Palawan province’s bustling capital of Puerto Princesa to El Nido, where not even the rains of a signal number one typhoon could cast a pall over the beauty of the beaches and forests the Philippines Graphic passed and stopped at.

Palawan is one of the last bastions of virgin forest, as well as of biodiverse and pristine shorelines and seas, in a country where logging has decimated our forest canopy so that there is so little primary forest left.

Palawan is also a province where the natural resources are still abundant: It is rice-self sufficient and its bounty of marine life provides fresh seafood for tourists and locals alike.

As a tourist area, Palawan has plenty to offer tourists—this is, after all, the province where the posh Amanpulo resort is located, and it boasts of some of the most beautiful beaches in the Philippines—and the Philippines has many of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It is a place that has intact remnants of our past as a Spanish colony that one can see in the old churches, a Spanish fort that once defended the province’s shore off the coast of Taytay town, and cuisine that combines the best and freshest ingredients with plenty of local flair.

As primed for eco-tourism as Palawan is, there remain many things that need building for the province to reach its full potential: Sturdy roads, efficient drainage systems, water-treatment and sewage facilities, additional airports—all of these added to the regular and regularly-growing needs of the province’s natives for medical facilities, schools, and government offices.

The Graphic took a road trip, traveling between Puerto Princesa and El Nido (and back) to see and document how these infrastructure projects are progressing. But, wait, there’s more. The Graphic also sat down with the representative of Palawan’s first district, where beautiful El Nido is located, to talk about matters of tourism, infrastructure, budget allocation and environmental protection.

Philippines Graphic: We know the funding for infrastructure projects goes straight to the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) now. What are the partnerships and linkages you engage in to make infrastructure projects—roads, bridges, drainage, flood control—happen in your area?

Palawan Rep. Franz Alvarez: The DPWH has an office in our district. It is the DPWH that identifies the infrastructure project our district needs—in the different municipalities, on the highway, or for the whole district. They submit their list of priority projects for these areas every year. As the representatives of our district—we, the mayors, barangay captains and, even, ordinary citizens—also talk to the DPWH to request the projects we need in the district. We also give these requests to the DPWH to add to their list of projects that need funding in the annual General Appropriations Act (GAA).

Our job [as congressman] is that, at each budget hearing, to ensure that the DPWH listing gets the needed funding. If we won‘t help or move—and there are nearly 300 of us congressmen—that list will remain merely a list.

Where are these allocations taken from?

The Department of Budget and Management (DBM). The General Appropriations Act (GAA). It is not taken from the Internal Revenue Allotment fund of local government units (LGUs) because the IRA is not enough for these things. The IRA is often less than P100 million. The projects we have to implement to completion can reach a cost of billions of pesos. One kilometer of road can cost between P30 million and P35 million.

This is for the heavy-duty roads that can bear the weight of cargo-laden trucks?

Yes. The good thing that former DPWH Secretary Rogelio Singson did with our roads is that he made them thicker and wider. His rationale was this: Thinner roads are cheaper roads, but you will need to repair them more often. Why not make them thicker and sturdier so you can forget them and move on to other vital projects?

Having traversed the highway from Puerto Prinsesa to El Nido, I’ve seen that the development of roads is good, but I’ve also seen several blind corners and stretches of road without safety signs. I’ve also seen public beaches where there are no lifeguards and, at night, just one or two safety buoys are visible. How do you intend to catch up to the safety needs in these areas? I know this is mainly the responsibility of the LGUs, but are you also going to look into that?

We are not remiss in giving reminders about these to the LGUs. You need to have lifeguards on the beaches—not just one or two, but three. There have been drowning incidents in the past, and when they happen, they come out in the media and we wind up with a black-eye on our tourism. We knock ourselves out promoting [Palawan as a tourist destination], then that happens.
We are not remiss in coordinating with the LGUs. But I feel that the LGUs may not be able to immediately fill those needs. We will still persist, because these things are very necessary.

Will the same thing be applied to road safety? New roads are coming in and a good road safety campaign would go hand in hand with these new roads.

We have already made a proposal to ask for this [road safety signs] from the Road Board. Road safety campaigns are under the purview of the Road Board.

Unfortunately, the Road Board has gotten wrapped up in a lot of controversies and may be abolished. Now we need to find an alternative solution or source of funding for those road signs. There were already signs, especially on the curves and potentially slippery areas, but they were removed—possibly because of the signs’ age because they are old, even the railings and cats’ eyes are in need of replacement.

We will seek out new funding to restore these safety features our roads need.

Will these fall under the LGUs or DPWH?

DPWH. The LGUs cannot afford these things.

As for the road safety education campaigns, will these fall under the LGUs?

They will be spearheaded by the LGUs implementing them, but the LGUs will be doing this in partnership with the national government.

Things like this entail cost and the LGUs want to do them, but their hands may be tied because of funding limitations. LGUS have a lot of things they need to spend on, too.

On the legislative aspect: You have a very pristine district, environmentally speaking, and you want to capitalize on this. What legislation do you look at making?

Palawan has many protected areas, so we are filing legislation to maintain these protected areas. We are trying to refine earlier legislation that took a shotgun approach to the classification of land in Palawan.

We are referring to the NIPAS (National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992).

What they did with NIPAS was to designate protected areas. What should have followed after six months was that the areas that should be removed from the protected area list—residential and commercial areas, for example—should have been reclassified. They seem to have just made the law, so we have such a law, and then left the work of setting aside and listing the areas that should be reclassified for later.

The reclassification of these areas to be segregated and put under other land use classifications from the protected areas did not happen. Now the situation is that we have communities and town centers within places declared as protected areas under the [NIPAS] law.

A classic example of this is El Nido. At least three-fourths of El Nido is classified as a protected area. Even the town proper is classified as a protected area. This should not be the case. The mountains and seas should be protected, but areas settled by people who are residents and who use these places for agricultural and commercial purposes should no longer be classified as protected areas.

All of Palawan has to contend with this. So we are finishing work on a bill that covers all of Palawan to rectify this problem and to fine-tune the classification of land here. Palawan’s three congressmen are all working together for this to happen. We believe that if the three of us work together, we will be heard better than if we make individual and separate efforts for the same solution.

This is the clamor of all the people of Palawan: We need to reclassify the land of Palawan and clarify these classifications. Land that has been in the hands of Palawan’s families has been occupied by them over generations, yet they cannot have these lands titled because of the existing NIPAS law’s provisions. That is the only land these people have. Some of families have been tilling these lands for 50 years, yet they have no ownership over these parcels of land. All they have to prove ownership are tax declarations—without land titles naming them as owners, these pieces of property can be taken from them very easily. They need this security of land ownership so they can pass their land on to their children and grandchildren.

Let’s once and for all define which places are protected areas—make them into national parks—and classify the rest of the inhabited areas properly. The LGUs are also losing money as a result of this because they need to rely on income taxes and cannot collect the proper land taxes for lack of land use and zoning classifications.

When we were trying to get these concerns addressed with the NIPAS law, I wound up taking flak. I was accused of being against the protection of the environment. This was even used against me in the last election. No matter what my explanations were, I was accused of having vested interests.

I just chose to remain silent. I answered those accusations a few times, and, after that, if they really don’t want to believe what I said, then there is nothing I can do about it. As far as I am concerned, I am doing everything I can do to meet what the people need. The potential of these areas would be wasted, otherwise.

So you are, essentially, balancing the needs of the environment and of the people in your district?

Yes, and this is a very delicate balance. It is very difficult.
Our first aim is to provide for the needs of our people. However, we cannot sacrifice the needs of our environment. Palawan is the last frontier. If this frontier is destroyed, where will the people go?

Tourism is our number one industry, it is the source of livelihood of so many Palaweños.

Down the line, as you develop tourism in an area, the problem of long-time tourist areas is overdevelopment. How are you going to prevent overdevelopment in your district in terms of tourism growth?

One way is to build a master plan. In the town of San Vicente, for example, we began a project two years ago which was bid out and we tapped [architects] Palafox [and Associates] to craft a tourism master plan for all of San Vicente that contained land zoning, sewage treatment—everything, including water treatment—as well as how to preserve the town’s 14 kilometers of white sand beaches, preservation that I know our governor extended to cover the town center.

San Vicente airport is nearly operational, and, in the near future, investors will be coming in. We now have a blueprint for development that whoever will take over can use—whether they are our allies or not. It is replicable.

If you are a good mayor and you want to improve your area, it is so easy do it now. It is clear: If someone wants to establish a business and is applying for a permit, you have the master plan to guide your decision whether or not to grant that business a permit. If, for example, the permit they are seeking is for a junk yard, why will you put this in a tourism area? You will have a master plan to refer to that will tell you that you cannot put that there.

In a lot of tourist areas, the communities limit the number of tourists according to what the environment can bear. They measure the environmental impact of their tourism footprint. Do you intend to do this? They close off some beaches in California and Hawaii to allow these beaches to recover from tourist activity. It is the same way with well-known mountain resort areas. Will you be doing the same thing here?

Actually, in Coron and El Nido, they already do this. They measure the carrying capacity of each island and area in their jurisdiction. They have plans to close off some areas to allow for maintenance and environment recovery.

Each LGU is involved in making their own ordinances to this end. They also give us in Congress copies of these ordinances. Our coordination is done through the provincial council.

If what you are doing to make a template of sustainable and environment-friendly tourism is replicable in other places, are you going to create a model that can be brought to other tourism areas?

If we see that what we are doing in Palawan is replicable in other areas, then, yes. But, again, each tourist area has its own characteristics. We can bring whatever may be applicable from our experience, our best practices, to other tourist areas.

Do you believe this can be used to strengthen ties between LGUs, perhaps even to craft part of our national identity?

Yes. I am vice-chair of the [House] Tourism Committee. Of course, during hearings, we share the best practices we have found in each province. At that level it is possible to talk about what is and is not applicable in a given area. This is where we can see that.

Two years ago, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) laid down a deadline for cultural mapping across all LGUs. Nobody complied. Are you going to work to complete cultural mapping of your area so the NCCA can provide support for the documentation of your cultural resources?

We will relay that to the LGUs at the provincial level.

The Palawan tourism council already includes our cultural and heritage sites in their tourism promotions.

I will relay that missed deadline to the provincial council. I did not know that nobody complied with the NCCA deadline. If I am not mistaken, the provincial tourism council already began compiling a list of cultural and heritage sites to include in their tour packages—though they are a private sector group.

That will definitely help improve the tourism in Palawan, especially in areas that are not known for their beaches, like [the municipality] of Taytay. You don’t go to Taytay for the beach, and there aren’t too many resorts there, but if you see the [Fuerza de Sta. Isabel] fort there, taste the cuisine, then you can boost this place as a tourist destination. This will help the LGU.

Taytay is easy to include in a road trip—it is only an hour away from El Nido. It can be your side-trip.

All your beaches in Palawan’s first district are public. Is this true?

Yes [nods].

How are you going to maintain tourism in these beach areas, seeing as there are no privately-owned beaches?

Actually, several people have already bought [beach-front] property there or applied for shore lease. However, even if this is the case, they cannot bar people from entering these areas and you cannot, may not, stop people who want to swim there. LGUs need to strengthen and firm their resolve to enforce this, to resist privatization of the [public shorelines].

Beaches are mined for the silica sand used to make glass. Should mining be a concern in your area?

In my district, no. Definitely no. It is not a concern. We will not permit there to be any mining [activity]. Tourism is our number-one industry, especially in the first district. Mining and tourism cannot co-exist.

Not even ethical mining?

No. Ayoko talaga (I really don’t want this)

There used to be silica mining in Palawan, in Roxas, but that is no longer being done. I will never agree to that.

If mining is a no-go, how about industry? Where tourists will go, shopping malls will follow, hotels.

It will depend on the design. It will also depend on the location. We are not closed to that. You cannot stop development. But, again, we should not sacrifice the protection of the environment for development, so it will really depend on things like the design and location of these facilities.

Will you be requiring environmental impact studies prior to construction?

That is already a given for us. Every development in Palawan requires that. In protected areas like El Nido, these are already part of the requirements for construction, including environmental compliance certificates (ECCs). They need all that.

What will you say to people who will visit your district for the first time as tourists?

I wish tourists would stay for more than three days. Three days is really not enough. Tourists usually stay in Palawan for three to four days, and that is not enough to absorb all the beauty of Palawan. Just getting to El Nido takes several hours of travel.

At three days, you lack time to just see El Nido. You’ll be so tired without even having visited the outlying islands. There are so many places to visit: The islands off the shores of San Vicente, El Nido, Taytay. Then you can cross to Coron, to Ginapacan, to Culion—which has historical significance because they have an old church, a museum and that is where the leper colony was once located. Then there are in Busuanga, Calauit island. On the eastern side, you have Cuyo.

I hope they plan for longer visits, or come back more often. G



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