Expanding Palawan’s national highway from two to six lanes could boost the province’s economic growth, but concerned citizens and civil society groups are wary that it may come at the expense of the environment.
Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), a non-government organization (NGO), warned the superhighway project could trigger an “environmental disaster”, stating that it is “poised to inflict irreversible damage on the natural environment of the province.”
“The evident rush to undertake this project, its brazen disregard of the established procedures designed to mitigate negative environmental impacts is a cause for concern for anyone who cares about the integrity of our province’s fragile environment,” ELAC said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Targeted for completion in three years, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) kicked off the P30-billion superhighway project in the second quarter of 2017.
No permits, impact study
The big-ticket infrastructure project — part of the national government priority program — traverses El Nido town in the north to Bataraza town down south, spanning 600 kilometers of the entire mainland Palawan.
Construction already started in portions of southern Palawan, a few months after Palawan Governor Jose Alvarez announced last March that President Rodrigo Duterte approved his request to finance the multi-billion project.
ELAC said that any project proponent, either government or private entity, is first required to get environmental permits from mandated regulatory agencies before they are undertaken.
But the DPWH project, according to ELAC, has pushed through although it has yet to secure necessary government permits, such as the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) clearance with the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), and Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC), among other permits, with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).
“Government projects are not exempt from the required SEP and ECC clearances,” lawyer Robert Chan, executive director of umbrella group Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI), said.
ELAC said the proponent should have conducted a comprehensive assessment of the environmentally sensitive areas, extensive inventory and valuation of trees and other natural resources that will have to be destroyed, and mitigation measures to minimize or avoid environmental damage.
“Clearly, no consideration has been made on the expansion plan’s impact on the sensitive natural environment of Palawan,” ELAC stated.
“While we recognize that roads are part of the development and can contribute to facilitating travel and communication, they have a damaging impact if not planned well and studied carefully.” the statement added.
Saving Acacia Tunnel
An online petition has recently been launched asking concerned government agencies to save giant Acacia trees that form a tunnel-like canopy along the national highway in Barangay Inagawan, Puerto Princesa City.
“Local and foreign tourists, as well as commuters who pass through Acacia Tunnel are in awe of its breathtaking beauty,” read the petition, which now gaining nearly 7,000 online signatures since it was posted over the weekend.
The petition has asked the concerned national and local government agencies to hire excellent environmental planners who will “find a practical but brilliant solution to avoid the destruction of Acacia Tunnel.”
“One way is to shift the superhighway; create a tunnel in that area or build a high bridge similar to the MRT (Metro Rail Transit) and other bridges in large cities all over the world,” the petition suggested.
Biodiversity loss, climate change
While the petition only focuses on the Acacia tunnel, the long stretch of highway covered by the project also implies that hundreds or even thousands of roadside trees across the province may have to be felled, making some species of animals and plants lose their habitat.
Palawan, dubbed as the country’s last ecological frontier, “cradles more than 38% of the Philippines’ total wildlife species,” PCSD data show.
Some of this unique wildlife dwell in the province’s 689,161-hectare forest which, according to PCSD data, gets deforested at an average rate of 3,200 ha. per year or 8.8 ha. a day, due to various factors, including infrastructure development.
Conservationists warned that the road-widening project may significantly affect the population of wildlife in the province.
“We expect a dramatic increase in road kills especially affecting the endemic Palawan stink badger and possibly other mammals like Palawan porcupine and Palawan pangolin,” said biologist Peter Widmann, Science director of Katala Foundation Inc. (KFI).
“Many studies indicate that if roads are built, the separated populations cannot interchange, leading to inbreeding and possibly local extinction,” explained Widmann of KFI, a non-government organization (NGO) actively conserving the Philippine Cockatoo and other threatened endemic wildlife in Palawan.
ELAC emphasized that Palawan has been named as “World’s Best Island” for the second year in a row by Travel + Leisure magazine “not because of its infrastructure but because of its natural, pristine beauty and biodiversity.”
“These natural characteristics will be destroyed if roads and other infrastructure development projects will be pursued without any careful planning including comprehensive socio-economic and environmental assessments,” ELAC stated.
Environmentalists pointed out that when trees are chopped down, the carbon dioxide they had absorbed are released into the atmosphere, worsening global warming and climate change that also drive species loss.
“We already have enough trouble due to pollution. Growing trees and vegetation is the only way to remove carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” the petition added.
So far, an inventory of roadside planted and naturally-growing trees that will be hit by the project has yet to be conducted, according to Forester Felizardo Cayatoc, Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Officer (PENRO).
Trees fall below 15 centimeters in diameter will be earth-balled or extracted and then transplanted to the edge of road right-of-way, said Cayatoc.
He added that those go beyond 15 centimeters in diameter will be cut down. Each tree felled should be compensated by replanting 100 tree seedlings.
PNNI’s executive director Chan has since slammed the project, saying it is “a shameful microcosm of Palawan governance.”
“It is obviously a move to make money in the guise of development, and at the expense of the environment,” he said. “In the process, decision-making and projects like these end up being prevalent contributory factors to climate change.”
Anticipating economic boom
Chan believes that the road-widening project is unnecessary “because at best the traffic is located at the crossings of each municipality and not on the freeway stretch.”
“What then will Palawan gain from this development? Are we just accommodating the contractors, quarry operators and engineering companies who will greatly benefit from these construction activities?” ELAC stated.
Governor Alvarez, who also chairs the environmental regulatory body PCSD, however maintained that the wider roads would provide ease of travel and will boost the local economy, as it will encourage more tourists and also speed up the movement of agricultural and fishery products from the rural communities across the province.
“Its completion will accelerate the development and inclusive growth of Palawan in the coming years,” Alvarez said.
Lawyer Gil Acosta Jr., provincial information officer, said the provincial government is anticipating an economic boom in the next 5 to 10 years, and undertaking this infrastructure project now is a proactive way of preparing for it.
The provincial board is set to meet with DPWH district engineers, technical staff of PENR Office and PCSD this month to help the proponent in facilitating the permits and other requirements.
ELAC, on one hand, has urged the government to “put on hold any preparatory activities related to the building of the six-lane road,” until the required assessments and relevant studies like economic necessity and financial feasibility, as well as stakeholders’ consultations, are undertaken.