Managing dissent, lessons from environmental debates

Redempto Anda

The Palawan provincial government was not too pleased with the decision this week of the House committee on natural resources to reinstate Palawan into the list of protected areas that will be proclaimed as national parks through congressional action. The committee, meeting in an executive session, decided to dump an earlier version of the House bill and replaced it with one that is similar to the original bill filed in the Senate by Sen. Loren Legarda.

The Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (ENIPAS) aims to shortcut the tedious process of officially proclaiming protected areas. In lieu of completing the 13-step process prescribed by the current NIPAS law, (this includes, among others, technical and scientific assessments of the proposed parks’ natural attributes, community level consultations with stakeholders, a presidential proclamation and finally a congressional legislation) the Legarda bill completes the process in one fell swoop. It also “enhances” NIPAS by empowering the multi-sectoral body charged with managing these parks.

Barring any further debate in the plenary, the proposed legislative measure is expected to soon hit the bicameral body for consolidation and signing into law by the President.

The provincial government wants no part of the measure and had lobbied to extricate from it in the House’s counterpart version. It argued that the measure will constrict development projects and disenfranchise land holders within the confines of the declared parks, preventing them a chance to have their lands released and titled.

Capitol called for public meetings in El Nido and in Brooke’s Point in a bid to shore up support to its stand. On the other hand, protected area stakeholders in the province’s NIPAS sites and the Palawan civil society campaigned through social media and voiced a loud demand to have Palawan be reinstated in the House measure.

The ENIPAS bill further drove the wedge between civil society and the provincial government, a bitter polarization initially triggered by the controversial coal plant project which Governor Alvarez and the provincial government initially decided was its own political battle to wage on behalf of the project’s private contractor, DMCI.

Rep. Franz Alvarez, in a local radio interview, indicated that the provincial administration will continue to fight against Palawan’s inclusion in ENIPAS in Congress and raise its perceived flaws during the plenary debates in the House. The province is reportedly planning to hold another public meeting in Taytay where the Malampaya Sound protected area is located.

Obliquely addressing the overwhelming response of Palawan’s protected area stakeholders and civil society, Governor Alvarez, during an interview by a local radio station, feigned disinterest on whatever form the bill will finally end up but didn’t mask his continued dislike at the original measure and its supporters in civil society.

Capitol apparently isn’t in a mood to thaw relations with its detractors, judging by the tone of the debate. Civil society, obviously celebrating its moment, is equally in fighting mood. So, expect more fireworks on this debate as the ENIPAS bill goes through the final stage of the legislative mill.

Looking back at Palawan’s long history of environmental struggles, never was the division between the province’s civil society and the local government been more pronounced that now. In the mid 1990’s, there was a debate in the PCSD over a proposed cement plant in Espanola, a project that was tacitly backed by public officials but protested by indigenous communities and NGOs. Then Governor Salvador Socrates handled the debate in a manner that allowed him maintain a close dialogue with civil society.

Even former Governors Joel T. Reyes and Abraham Mitra had their own struggles with local stakeholders on issues about mining but the intensity of these conflicts was a tad milder compared to how things are now.

In his recent interview, Gov. Alvarez was coy and unmindful of the widespread criticisms over his controversial policy positions, comforting himself by stressing that he is pushing for the interest of the poor barrio folks who voted him into office. It’s a demeanor that snuffs out any hope for dialogue, or hopefully just an honest expression of sincere irritation at being called out.

 

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