Palawan: A Story of Ecological Conservation, Fishing, Tourism, Development & Corruption
As the airplane descended on Palawan’s capital city, Puerto Prinecesa, I could see the jungle-covered mountains and groupings of small islands surrounded by the enticing clear blue-green shimmer of the South Sulu Sea.
After leaving the postage stamp airport, I was immediately greeted by tricycle taxi drivers (imagine a motorcycle attached to a side car with little more than an umbrella covering the top), one of which brought me to a local motorbike rental shop. I tried a few bikes and then selected my steed for the month: A 125 cc Honda XRM. The XRM is known for its versatility as a solid street bike with a stomach and teeth for rugged terrain. Over the next month, that XRM would take me through lush rainforests where monitor lizards the size of grown men would race in front of me (barely escaping the wrath of my tires), along undeveloped dirt roads strewn with rocks and potholes that wrap around coastlines so remote that Jack Sparrow couldn’t find them, down to small fishing villages where I occasionally employed a boatman to escort me into the aquatic abyss. The islands of Palawan are an ecological playground that will leave any nature-loving adventurer yearning for a longer recess.
Palawan, located roughly 370 miles southwest of Manila, is known as the Philippine’s last ecological frontier. The archipelago was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1990 and is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet. Palawan is crawling with wild jungle, home to more than 1,700 flowering plants and an estimated 422 different land and aquatic vertebrates like the Palawan Monkey, the Philippine forest turtle and the Reticulated Python. Some of Palawan’s treasures include rare and endemic wildlife, like the Malatgao River caecilian and the Palawan toadlet, both of which were recently discovered after scientists deemed them extinct several decades ago. The world’s longest underground river hides beneath the jagged karst mountains of Sabang, and the Tubbataha reef provides refuge to over 600 different fish and 380 species of coral.
Palawan’s stunning natural beauty and ecological diversity make it a hotspot for tourists on the South East Asia travel circuit. In 2014, the region attracted roughly 1.2 million visitors and aims to bring in three million in 2016. The local government and Palawan Tourism Council have partnered with airlines to serve the anticipated flux of visitors. They are also expanding air and seaport access and paving the island’s many dirt roads.
The magnificent nature that attracts tourists also reels in subsistence and commercial fishermen, as well as profit-driven developers. Unfortunately, industries that are driving Palawan’s economy also threaten its ecological resources.
“We are destroying the very thing that sustains us,” says Mavic Matillano, Program Manager for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Puerto Princesa.
To better understand Palawan’s growing pains and how it will balance inevitable development with environmental conservation, I journeyed throughout the northern region of the main island, conducting interviews with key stakeholders and exploring its expansive natural beauty.
A Brief History
In the last 25 years, Palawan’s fishing and tourism industries, as well as its population, have grown steadily. You can see development happening before your eyes. As I rode my Honda XRM along winding coastlines and mountainous rainforest, I passed beachside wooden huts perched on stilts and fishing nets strewn over crooked fences in unplanned villages where no one knows what a zoning code means. In contrast, the next town over displays guarded resorts with infinity pools and tourists asking for faster Wi-Fi and iced coffee and complaining about sandflies. The island is in a tangible state of transition.
Palawan is also experiencing environmental changes. Patrick Regoniel, an environmental science professor at Palawan State University, explains:
“[R]eef health peaked between the 1980s and mid-1990s, which attracted an influx of fishermen from other provinces within the Philippines and China. Environmental degradation and species depletion accelerated in the mid to late 1990s largely due to overfishing and illegal fishing practices,” such as dynamite explosives, cyanide, Muro-Ami fishing, compressor diving, and trolling with small nets. “The truth is that we need more empirical data on the environmental threats posed to the island, climate change and species interactions are also likely affecting ecological wellbeing.”
In Palawan, fishing has been the primary livelihood practice for local populations and decreasing fish supplies poses a food security risk to local fishermen and their families.
As Chan Lee, owner of Pem’s Guesthouse and longtime resident of Taytay, puts it, “On the islands, it is survival of the fittest… There is no other option, just to fish, and when there are so many other fishermen, they may catch small fish or use illegal methods. If you use dynamite you can catch maybe 100 kilos of fish… It is easy money.”
Today, officials claim that local government has clamped down on illegal fishing by implementing strict policies and deploying the ocean watchmen, known as the “Bantay Dagat”; although in remote islands far from watchful eyes, fishing practices are less regulated.
Fishermen who break the law risk serious consequences. “Illegal fishermen can face up to six years in prison and a 200,000 peso (roughly $4,300 USD) bail,” said Sergeant Farro of the Port Barton Police Department.
Even with a decline in illegal fishing, overfishing still puts pressure on fish and coral populations. According to Albert Ladica, the Port Manager at Roxas, a fish export hub of Palawan, the average fisherman is Catholic and has between five and seven children. Ladica suggested that promoting birth control is a potential avenue for preserving aquatic fauna and flora.
The Roxas government ran a family planning project in 2007 to distribute contraception and information to local populations. “Birth control pills and, in remote areas, vasectomies were starting to catch on,” reflected Ladica. However, despite its success, the program ended shortly after due to lack of funding. Even the Pope is advocating “responsible parenthood” and, in a 2015 speech in Manila, told people they don’t have to fornicate like “rabbits.”
Demand for fish exports, both nationally and internationally, also puts pressure on local aquatic ecosystems. Ladica estimates roughly 60 percent of the fish in the region is exported off the island. Andie Caspar, a fish exporter in Roxas, said that Chinese markets put a high price on certain fish, especially the red Lapu Lapu (coral trout), which he sells wholesale for over 3,500 pesos a kilo (roughly $75 USD), sometimes more. During peak times, like the Chinese New Year, the fish can be sold for upwards of 10,000 pesos (over $200 USD) to fine dining patrons.
Tourism: A Double-Edged Sword
Alternative livelihood options can alleviate some of the stresses on local aquatic ecosystems. In tourist centers like El Nido and Port Barton, the local economy is changing to become increasingly centered on tourism. Local boatmen are shifting towards tourist boat travel and island hopping because it is more lucrative than fishing.
As Mavic Matillano of the WWF says, “Tourism is a double-edged sword. It can minimize pressure on fishery resources by altering the economy but puts stresses on the reef in other ways, such as increasing the amount of liquid and solid waste, destroying corals by boat anchoring and trampling them during snorkeling and diving. If it is not managed well, the beaches and corals can be destroyed.”
The influx of tourist dollars also changes the market value of staple commodities for local people.
“Tourism affects the price and availability of fish for Palaweños,” said guesthouse owner Mr. Lee. “During peak season, top quality fish like the Yellow Fin Tuna and Tanigue (Mackerel) are all sent to tourist destinations like El Nido where they can be sold for top dollar. The only fish left for the locals are low to mid quality catches.”
As I walked through the open-air markets of Taytay, I noticed baskets of small dried fish and an abundance of smaller fresh catches but very few fish over a foot in length. Mr. Lee noted, “The price of fish increases. For example, during the off-season you can buy a kilo of squid for 100-130 pesos ($2.15 to $2.80). During tourist season, squid costs 170 to 200 pesos ($3.65 to $4.30).”
The double-edged sword also cuts into local politics. “Tourism is the most profitable industry, we welcome tourists,” said Filipe Acosta, Barangay (township) Captain of Port Barton. Both Port Barton and El Nido have Eco-Tourism Management Fees (ETMF), which go towards beach cleanup, installing mooring buoys to prevent boats from dropping anchor near coral reefs and other eco-tourism related activities. But there is a lack of planning to integrate subsistence fishermen and farmers who don’t live in tourist hubs into the economy.
A local shop owner who wished to remain anonymous said, “Sometimes the fishermen use illegal small nets. Filipe Acosta is an elected official. If he confiscates the nets he won’t get elected… Somehow we need to find a way to get tourists’ money into the pockets of small scale fishermen. In turn, tourists will see much nicer coral and fish.”
Other community members question where the Eco-Tourism management fees are actually spent and say that the “Bantay Dagat” are “pa mota mota,” or “with mucus in their eyes.”
Some regions claim to promote programs that attempt to include marginalized populations into the growing economy. For example, El Nido is promoting the Rural El Nido Development Plan, which is intended to stimulate the local rural economy by bringing tourists into more remote areas to experience the traditions and culture of the region.
The Looming Threat of Corruption & Corporate Monopolization
Environmental conservation and equitable development come down to local leadership. “Some of the leaders view natural resources only for their extraction value, whereas others care strongly about ecological sustainability,” said Matillano. The Philippines has a long history of corruption and exploitation, which poses a threat to equitable development and environmental conservation to this day.
While exploring a remote beach near El Nido, I befriended a government employee. As we sat on the sand watching the teal green waters and clouds wrestle with island mountaintops, we spoke about the future of this special place. He expressed concerns that corporations such as the Ayala Land, Inc., and politicians like businessman-turned-Governor Jose “Pepito” Alvarez, will privatize the region’s most valuable islands and coral reefs. This could exclude local fishermen from offering boat tours by funneling tourism to all-inclusive resorts.
The government employee explained that there has been corruption in building permit acquisition, land grabbing and bribery by politicians who offer empty promises and buy votes from poor villagers for as little as 300 pesos (roughly $6.50 USD). The local official refused to share his name due to fear for his own life. “I know the plan and there is nothing I can do about it,” he said while digging his fingers into the sand. “If they knew I was sharing this information with you…” he looked up at me and swallowed the lump in his throat, “I could lose my life.”
Ayala Land, Inc., which has been buying up islands near El Nido, promotes slightly different sentiments. The corporation currently owns the El Nido Resorts, comprised of four private islands, and an additional 325-square hectares to be developed as the Lio tourism estate.
In a press release, Antonin Aquino, a company representative, said, “We want to show how a development like Lio can, and will be able to benefit the people living in the area. That it is possible to establish Lio without disrupting their way of life and destroying the natural resources of the place.” Lio is scheduled to open in 2017 and will host corporate retreats and wealthy tourists. Locals are skeptical of Ayala’s altruistic motives.
Others also echoed fears of violence and corporate takeover, especially in relation to the current governor, Mr. Alvarez, the wealthiest elected official in the Philippines. Alvarez made a substantial portion of his money from the logging industry, then transitioned to other ventures after some logging practices were banned in the 1990s. His more recent businesses include Columbian Autocar Corporation, which is the sole distributor of Kia motors in the Philippines. A longtime resident recounted rumors that if you worked in his logging factory and lost your chainsaw, you better not return to work because you would be the next tree to fall.
Speaking Alvarez’s name was a bit like mentioning Lord Voldemort. When I asked a hotel owner in Roxas to speak about Alvarez’s involvement in island development, she refused to comment, saying that she does business with the family and does not want to “stir the waters.”
Alvarez also took a stance to support the development of two coal-fired power plants in southern Palawan’s Narra and Aborlan. Development in these areas would threaten the Rasa Wildlife Sanctuary and the Malunao fish sanctuary respectively. In response to students protesting the projects at Western Philippines University in 2014, Governor Alvarez cut funding to the scholarship program!
Alvarez’s political influence is significant and expanding. In addition to his appointment as Governor, his nephew, daughter and brother hold positions as a congressman, mayor of San Vicente and the candidate for the Mayor of El Nido, respectively. Even discounting the rumors of violence, Alvarez’s history and reputation have led locals to question whether he is genuinely interested in the long-term sustainability of the island’s biological diversity or the wellbeing of its residents.
Other influential business interests also threaten the island’s chance for equitable development and its ecological diversity. For example, the S.M. Corporation is buying large amounts of land in the soon-to-be-developed Napsan region along the mid-western coastline with the intention of erecting luxury apartment buildings that they are planning to call “Little Hong Kong.”
Despite stresses posed by fishing, tourism, development and corruption, Palawan still maintains spectacular natural beauty and biological diversity, especially underwater where 50 percent of the world’s coral species can be found. Some sources claim it as the most beautiful islands on the planet, which I was fortunate enough to experience firsthand.
There is an active civil society, academic community and government officials fighting to preserve Palawan’s unique ecological wealth. These eco-warriors protect the island’s environmental diversity through policy regulation and zoning codes.
For example, the entire island has a designated Environmentally Critical Area Network (ECAN), a compilation of core environmental zones. Intended to serve as the heart of conservation for specific ecosystems, each core zone is a restricted area maintained for spawning, coral reef protection, mangrove system management and other preservation efforts. In El Nido, Mr. Arvin Acosta, the chief tourism officer in the region, explained that the proposed Comprehensive Land and Water Use Plan will restrict development on both the land and sea. He also mentioned a proposed Carrying Capacity Ordinance, which if it passes will limit the number of visitors allowed at certain environmentally sensitive locations. The Municipal Council will decide upon both policies by late 2016.
Dr. Regoniel of Palawan State University reflected on the need to educate elected officials and developers and incentivize “science-based policymaking and avoid the hit and miss approach.”
“Conservation comes down to local governance,” said Matillano of the WWF. “Local leaders need to recognize the real value of natural resources and not only think about returns on investment. They must understand and support the investments needed to sustain Palawan’s biological diversity and the industries that rely on it.”
When asked the best ways to promote conservation efforts from government and businessmen, Matillano responded, “In this day and age, money definitely talks. Knowing the potential monetary value of these resources in their natural state makes it easier for stakeholders to appreciate its importance. Even aesthetics can now be valued in fiscal terms. If we can show them the financial benefits of protecting natural resources, there are better chances that they will listen.”
There are various initiatives in place to monetize the value of the island’s biological resources such as Payment for Ecosystem Services programs and a comprehensive cost benefit analysis of the coral reefs in northern Palawan, currently being conducted by the Palawan State University, in conjunction with U.C. Davis and the University of Queensland.
Palawan is at a crossroads. Its bounty of ecological resources and biological diversity make it a stronghold for preservation efforts and a growing economy. Unfortunately, its natural resources attract industries that potentially threaten the sustainability of conservation initiatives. Another harsh looming threat is that of climate change; some scientists predict that if we do not slow down the rate of global warming, the planet’s oceans may be too warm for coral by mid-century. Hopefully, with good governance, stringent enforcement and equitable environmentally responsible development, Palawan will continue to house some of Nature’s most beautiful and diverse ecosystems.
* Special thanks to Emily Sumner for video footage and exploring this beautiful island with me.
** Thanks to YesYesDiving in El Nido for the underwater photos.
*** Some quotes have been altered for clarity and brevity.