“Sa opisina ko ginawa ang batas na yan.”
That statement was a rather bold assertion made by Governor Jose Alvarez at this week’s Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD). I was listening to a voice recording of his rant against NGO lawyer Bobby Chan when towards the end of the tape, this blurt caught me by surprise as this was new information.
Unfortunately no one in the meeting was daring enough to interpellate the governor to clarify what he exactly meant since he was referring to the formulation of the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan or Republic Act 7611.
The statement was left hanging. The governor also volunteered that a “Ganapin” was in fact in his office and was showing him the draft.
That Ganapin must have been former DENR Undersecretary Delfin Ganapin, who was indeed instrumental in the crafting of the SEP law in the early 1990s. Dr. Ganapin was a regular source to me when I was covering the environment beat for the defunct Manila Chronicle. He now heads a grant facility of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) based in New York but constantly checks in on what’s happening with SEP in Palawan.
The SEP law was enacted by Congress as a special law for Palawan to primarily protect its natural heritage. Its mantra was “sustainable development”, a concept that essentially meant proper utilization of natural resources. Its principal sponsor in the House was the late Speaker Ramon Mitra, while its champions in the Senate included then senators Orly Mercado and Heherson Alvarez.
The SEP law is highly touted by its framers, Delfin Ganapin including, as it boasts of a science-based approach to development. In principle, SEP identified areas of protection as well as areas that may be utilized for exploitation or development. They named it ECAN or environmentally critical areas network, a classification system where land and coastal areas were mapped as either strict protection or no-go zones or utilization areas, with various sub classifications underneath them e.g. buffer areas, controlled or restricted use. Old growth forests, for instance, are automatically classified as strict protection zones, meaning they should be preserved intact. Areas with high biodiversity, such as intact coral reefs are also automatically declared core zones.
I was covering Congress when that law was passed. It was certified as urgent by President Corazon Aquino and it breezed through the chamber without the usual plenary fireworks that went with urgent bills. It was different however in the Senate where it got into intense grilling. It was Mercado and Alvarez who pushed hard to include a permanent commercial logging ban in the province.
The log ban affected all the existing concessions in the province, the biggest of which was that of Gov. Alvarez based in San Vicente. In his early media interviews, he had claimed that he in fact lost his investment with Pagdanan Timber when the log ban was imposed.
Gov. Alvarez’s belated emergence into Palawan’s political scene has introduced a new narrative to the SEP story. He was evidently involved as one of the key players in the history of the SEP law and he has a story to tell. This includes his claim previously covered by media and published – that he gave up the Underground River as part of his mining concession.
As he now head the PCSD however, Gov. Alvarez’s assertion of how he understands SEP and how it must be implemented is being challenged by civil society which claims that the leadership is interpreting it the wrong way.
This debate and dynamics is displayed in the emotional conflict between the governor and the civil society on the issue of mining and the establishment of a coal fired power plant in Palawan. Gov. Alvarez asserts that these development projects are needed and must be allowed. The civil society says otherwise.
Governor Alvarez unfortunately brought the debate to its lowest point last week when he lost his composure and challenged Atty. Chan to a fist fight instead.
Delfin Ganapin and the original framers of SEP must find these developments quite interesting.