Chinese company-owned luxury destination Sunlight Ecotourism Resort in Culion. | Photo from Dempto Anda.

The civil society group Save Palawan Movement (SPM) on Thursday called for an independent investigation on the 2018 settlement agreement between the provincial government of Palawan (PGP) and the Chinese company-owned luxury resort Sunlight Ecotourism Resort in Culion over an environmental case.

The SPM, in a statement, accused the provincial government of “evident mismanagement of” a P120 million fund paid by the company as part of the agreement, in exchange for the dropping of charges against it.

The SPM was reacting to the Commission on Audit (COA) report which questioned the handling of the fund by the provincial government that it said should have been held in trust by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

“There was no clear explanation in the COA report on the part of the provincial government how and what purpose these funds were spent,” the SPM statement said. “The COA findings must be looked at by proper government agencies including the Ombudsman with utmost urgency,” it added.

The compromise agreement forged in 2018 involved the payment by the resort of P250 million that the COA said was to be placed in trust for PCSD but was treated differently by the PGP.

“The fund is to be maintained in a trust fund intended for the restoration and rehabilitation of the environment, as well as for monitoring and enforcement of environmental laws according to RA 9147,” the COA report stated.

“However, the Provincial Accounting Office treated the amount collected as ‘Guaranty Deposit Payable’ instead of ‘Trust Liabilities,” it added.

The SMP claimed the fund was not used for what it was intended.

“SPM is concerned that the settlement of the environmental case involving Sunlight Resort in the amount of P120 million was not utilized for environmental rehabilitation as it should have been. We demand that this must be further investigated,” the SPM said.

Jovic Fabello, the spokesperson of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), said they deferred to the Provincial Government of Palawan (PGP) on the handling of the funds.

“We defer to the PGP on what actions it will take dito sa audit observation memorandum ng COA. But we would make sure na ‘yong pondo na nakuha sa Sunlight, for sure naman ay nasa trust fund, to come up with reforestration and wildlife projects,” Fabello said in a phone interview.

The capitol has not responded to inquiries from Palawan News and did not reply to private messages on its social networking sites.

The case against the resort stemmed from a raid In April 2015 conducted by provincial government enforcers on the facility, armed with a search warrant issued by the Palawan Regional Trial Court (RTC). It led to the confiscation of an estimated 100,000 board feet of banned species of lumber in the resort’s stockyard and the determination that the structures were illegally built.

The provincial government of Palawan took over the facilities as multiple charges including environmental cases were filed against the company. In 2018 a P120 million settlement was entered into between the local government and the private luxury resort to drop the criminal and administrative charges over illegal logging and other environmental cases.