PN file photo

(This story was produced with the support of Internews Philippines.)

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY―The island province of Palawan, dubbed as the country’s “last ecological frontier”, had been consistently embroiled with environmental issues.

At the center of the controversies were the southern towns of Narra and Brooke’s Point, in which both of its local chief executives were suspended from the office in the last 2019 term.

The environmental management, protection, and preservation is closely linked to local governance, which exercises discretion over exploitation of natural resources and development under their direct dominion.

As the campaign season for local polls began late March, the candidates’ track records were placed under public scrutiny as a litmus test of political will and capability to make decisions and stand by it.

More than 1,000 locals of Brooke’s Point, composed of indigenous peoples and farmers from across the town, protested against the mining activities in front of the municipal hall. (Photo taken on April 5, 2022 courtesy of Faith Allen Galicia-Archie)

Narra town, located approximately 98 kilometers south of Palawan’s capital, Puerto Princesa City, is known as the “rice granary” being the primary producer of rice in the province.

It is also one of the key biodiversity hotspots in the province where Rasa Island, a protected area, can be found― home to the largest population in the wild of the endemic and critically endangered Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia).

Farmer-turned-town mayor Gerandy Danao is among the most prominent local leader in the province. He had served 14 months of suspension from the office after the Palawan provincial board found him liable in several administrative charges in 2020.

Danao was suspended on May 25, 2020 and only returned to office on November 26, 2021 from conviction on administrative charges for grave misconduct, gross negligence, and conduct prejudicial to the interest of service filed against him by the Narra municipal council.

The cases linked to violation of Anti-Graft and Corrupt Practices Act which involved complaint for granting permit to operate a cockpit arena in the village of Antipuluan without permission of the municipal council; mismanagement of Narra Municipal Water System; and failure to submit the 2020 executive budget on time and failed to implement a municipal ordinance allocating funds intended for the COVID-19 response measure.

Environmental advocates from different non-government sectors in Palawan gather for silent protest against coal-fired power plant (Photo taken in September 2019 / Palawan News file photo)

However, Danao maintained that his detractors merely used technicalities to oust him from the office after he openly challenged the provincial government’s development projects―mining and coal-fired power plant.

For Danao, the riff between him and the veteran politicians started as early as 2019 when he first assumed office―dismantling a 30-year hold of the Demaala political family.

Among his first acts as a local chief executive was the denial to issue a mayor’s permit to the coal-fired power plant facility of the DMCI Powers Inc. in the village of Bato-bato in 2019.

Dana was faced with pressure especially at a time when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has already issued an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) and the issuance of strategic environmental plan (SEP) clearance by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

In the latest legal twist in embattled Danao’s bid for re-election, the Citinickel Mines and Development Corporation (CMDC) has filed another case at the Anti-Red Tape Authority (ARTA) against him for not issuing a mayor’s permit for the company in 2019.

In May 2017, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, ordered Ipilan Nickel Corp. (INC) to stop its tree cutting activities following an ocular inspection of the company’s mining tenement. (Photo taken on May 24, 2017 courtesy of DENR)

Danao insisted that the non-issuance of mayor’s permit was proper and he was likely to issue an order for the closure of the company if they do not settle the P94 million tax deficiency for the year 2012 until 2015.

Challenging Danao’s re-election bid is Prince Demaala IV, hoping to revive the political family’s reign.

Demaala claimed Danao’s “mass character charisma” is a simple ploy to haul votes, pointing out that elected leaders must possess knowledge and skill in handling critical decisions to strike a balance between development and environmental proection.

Demaala was among the municipal council members behind the administrative raps against Danao. The mining activities and plan to erect a coal-fired power plant was first introduced under the leadership of her mother, Lucena, who fell short of re-election by a narrow margin against Danao in 2019.

With 39,424 registered voters and is considered as an election hotspot, Narra’s fate is caught between the rivalry of a beleaguered newcomer and a political clan bet aiming for a comeback.

Brooke’s Point
The municipality of Brooke’s Point, about 195 kilometers south of Puerto Princesa City, is considered as the province’s “food basket”, providing majority of the agricultural produce for Palawan.

Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (MMPL) with over 120,457 hectares encompasses five southern towns, including Brooke’s Point. It is home to at least 13 newly recorded plant species and 25 animal species, some of which are endangered, rare or endemic.

Brooke’s Point, bounded by Sofronio Española in the north, Bataraza in the south, Rizal in the west, and the Sulu Sea in the east, is one of Palawan’s main economic centers outside Puerto Princesa City, with its economy primarily based on agriculture.

Ipilan Nickel Corporation cuts down over 50,000 trees and allegedly encroached Brooke’s Point watershed that supplies over 20,000 residents in six barangays. (Photo taken in August 2017 courtesy of Mary Jean Feliciano)

Brooke’s Point town mayor Mary Jean Feliciano, a long time environmental lawyer, was ousted from the office on July 28, 2021 serving her yearlong suspension from office, following an order by the Office of the Ombudsman that found her guilty of oppression or grave abuse of authority for stopping the operations of a mining company in her town in 2018.

The Ombudsman ruled that Feliciano’s actions against Ipilan Nickel Corp. (INC) were “oppressive and unfair” when the mayor issued a closure order, a cease-and-desist order, and a demolition order at its mining site that straddled four villages in Brooke’s Point in 2018.

About two months after being removed from the office, her successor, Vice Mayor Georjalyn Joy Quiachon, has granted a mayor’s permit to INC citing the mining company has substantially complied with the requirements set forth by law.

The civil unrest became apparent when locals were vocally upset about the move which resulted to staging of multiple protests.

Quiachon claimed the protests were “disrespectful”, citing that while she acknowledges and respects the move of the residents to express opposition in the mining activity in town, the residents should be in the proper venue not in the form of a rally.

Anti-mining residents, mostly composed of indigenous peoples (IP) and farmers from villages across the town, had consistently rejected mining activities pointing out that it had caused damages to their crops and decreased the quality of water supply for the entire town.

Feliciano has been instrumental in stopping INC’s operations even as the company was able to extend its mineral production sharing agreement until 2025 through the DENR.

After hitting her three-term limit as a local chief executive, Feliciano is aiming for the vice mayor post, vowing to continue to fight for the rights of the farmers and agriculture workers because “it is what is right and good for all.”

Local businessman Nomie Lagan seeks to challenge the electoral landscape of Brooke’s Point by running independently, bringing his anti-mining stance and pro-agriculture plans.

Despite going up against political veterans in the May elections, Lagan wants to bring his business expertise to the table by providing employment opportunities to the town and strengthening the local agricultural sector.

Brooke’s Point’s 42,032 electorate is about to choose a new local chief executive to lead the charge in a long-standing battle between mining and agriculture.

[This is the first part of a special election series by Palawan News, with support from Internews Philippines, on the local politics in Narra and Brooke’s Point.]