Politics continue to influence decision-making on environmentally sensitive projects in Palawan, including mining and energy being extractive industries, despite a special law that protects the environment, according to civil society groups.

Marking the 30th year anniversary of the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) or RA 7611, environmental groups called for a “depoliticization” of the membership of the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) in order to effectively implement the law’s mandate.

Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda, executive director of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), and Cynthia Sumagaysay-del Rosario of One Palawan, who are convenors of the Save Palawan Movement (SPM), said they have been advocating for reforms to the SEP law because of how local politics have influenced decision-making and contributed to the degradation of forests through mining, monoculture plantations, and infrastructure projects that were poorly planned.

“The SEP law has been rendered inutile, sa 30 years na ito,” Sumagaysay-del Rosario said Friday in the press conference “SEP Law@30, Anyare?” called by the civil society groups.

She cited as an example the granting by the PCSD of a SEP clearance to the controversial coal plant project of DMCI Power Corporation, claiming that the decision contradicted sustainable development philosophy and contributes to climate change threats.

“Nakadalawang sulat na yong kakampi nating ELAC sa kanila, tinatanong [kung] anong status ng coal plant — last year and this year sumulat, pero ang sulat walang sagot. Kaya namin tinatanong, anyare sa SEP? Parang balewala ang SEP law,” she said.

Anda, on the other hand, said the SEP law is still “relevant” because it is “unique to Palawan” and the only one of its kind in the country.

It is fundamentally good, she noted, citing the fact that it is the only law to provide for a total commercial logging ban, the only law to classify natural forests as core zones, and the only law prior to the passage of the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA) to establish tribal ancestral zones encompassing land and water.

Through the years, however, mining projects have encroached upon natural forests and protected areas, and the PCSD has awarded clearances to Ipilan Nickel Corporation (INC) and MacroAsia Corporation (now Calmia Corp) for mining activities within the Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (MMPL).

They said that regardless of the fact that the PCSD Strategy and Action Plan of 2014, which was crafted with the help and support of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), includes the strict implementation of a no-mining-expansion policy, mining companies have expanded before it even expired in 2020.

“Depoliticize PCSD — bawasan ang pulitiko, lagyan mo ng scientist, lagyan ng academic representatives, lagyan ng katutubo, kababaihan, magsasaka, mangingisda, at NGOs. Kasi kung hindi mo mababago yung composition niya, very political pa rin,” Anda said.

“Walang mangyayari kasi all the decisions ay based on political whims and caprices. So, paulit ulit naming sinabi yon,” she added.

The concern is that if political leaders dominate pushing for changes to the law, the three main safeguards she highlighted — total commercial log prohibition, natural forest as core zones, and tribal zones — might be lost.

She is optimistic, nevertheless, that they will be able to find supporters in the Senate and House of Representatives.

“So kung babaguhin man ang SEP law, maganda na ang kuro-kuro ng iba’t ibang sector ay makuha pero alagaan natin yung mahahalagang provisions doon tulad ng total commercial log ban, yung core zones sa natural forest, at yung tribal ancestral zones, pati yung ECAN (Environmentally Critical Areas Network), at i-depoliticize,” she stated.

“If we have the likes of Sen. (Risa) Hontiveros — buti na lang nanalo siya — if we have champions right there, I think may pag-asa tayo. Baka naman sa Kongreso din, may pag-asa tayo. Let’s not lose hope na baka may makuha tayong kakampi – hindi lang sa Palawan na congress persons kundi sa labas,” she said.

At present, the PCSD is composed of the governor and vice governor of Palawan, mayor of Puerto Princesa City, president of the League of Municipalities of the Philippines Palawan chapter, president of Liga ng mga Barangay Palawan chapter, undersecretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, undersecretary for special concerns of Department of Agriculture, Deputy Director-General of the National Economic Development Authority, and the executive director of the PCSD Staff.

IPs call for respect for IPRA law
The IPs who attended the SPM press conference also called on the PCSD to respect their rights stipulated under Republic Act No. 8371, or the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997.

Rolando Ponoy, the leader of the Pala’wan IP community in Quezon, asserted that mining has already devastated their ancestral domain, upon whose resources they rely.

“Kaunti lang ang nakapag-aral at nagtratrabaho sa minahan. Mas pa rin sa amin ang umaasa sa biyaya ng kabundukan. Paano naman ang aming lupaing ninuno na winawasak ng mga minahan?” he said.

Maica Saar, IP youth leader in Brooke’s Point IP, said their future is bleak due to the unjust and ineffective implementation of the SEP law, which does not respect their rights.

If the law is not amended to include high regard for their culture and traditions, her and future generations can expect a province with no more natural resources to depend on.

“Nangangamba kami sa aming kinabukasan kung magpapatuloy ang hindi makatarungang pagpapatupad ng SEP law,” she said.

PCSD’s response
In response to a request for comment, PCSD Staff executive director Atty. Teodoro Jose Matta agrees that the 30-year-old SEP legislation must be updated, and personally, that there should be “less politics inside the Council”

He indicated that recommendations to revise the SEP act are welcome. In fact, it is their agenda in the new congress, as they intend to request “more powers” for the staff in order to transform the PCSD into a “really policy-making body.”

“Kulang ang ngipin. Kahit nga sa SEP clearance kulang ang ngipin. Marami kaming nakitang gap na hindi naisip 30 years ago. Ito na rin siguro yong gap na nakikita ng stakeholders, pero yon na nga, pinag-aaralan pa rin how to best solve it,” he said.

He said that calls for nominations of NGO representatives to the Council had been circulated, but only one name had been submitted so far.

“We’ve been calling for nominations for the last four months, walang gustong mag-nominate,” he added. “Ang maganda sana may ibang nominations rin, sana not only the NGOs na usual.”

Regarding the inclusion of a scientist on the Council, he explained that it has a scientific advisory body comprised of the country’s premier scientists to analyze and evaluate matters pertaining to the implementation of the SEP law.

Matta emphasized that they now have a bill for the revision of the SEP law, but everything will follow the proper channels of action, such as the legislative process so that technical reviews and assessments can demonstrate the need.

He clarified that the PCSD did not grant any SEP clearances to mining operations and other businesses encroaching on the MMPL despite claims to the contrary.

“Walang sakop ng MMPL. We would not allow that — that’s not something we would tolerate. Naka-incorporate sa mga SEP clearances ng mining companies yong ECAN zoning, and they have to respect the core zones. Hindi sila basta basta makakapasok,” he said.

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