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PCSD seeks stronger protection of lowland areas under current zoning system

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development Staff (PCSDS) said it will be revising the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of Republic Act 7611 or the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan (SEP law) pertaining to its Environmentally Critical Areas Network (ECAN) zoning, to give more attention to the protection of important lowland areas.

PCSDS executive director Atty. Teodoro Jose Matta explained on Tuesday (April 27) that urgent environmental issues such as illegal settling, illegal logging and tree-cutting, and illegal construction in lowland areas are key factors why they will be working on a new IRR in the next 30 days.

“This year, mag-a-adopt kami ng emergency revisions ng aming IRR to retake these [critical] areas, lalo na ang mga lowland, ‘yong mga 200 to 500 meters ang elevation. Kasi ngayon, 500 meters and up lang ang restricted use zone. We want to retake lost forests and do replanting, gagawing rehab areas ‘yan, gagawin naming restricted zone,” he said.

“Ang deforestation as long as lowland [areas] are concerned, it’s one of the primary reasons for revising our IRR. Hindi na pwedeng i-tolerate ang mga kaingin, deforestation because of human settlements,” he added.
 
Matta admitted that revisions to the current IRRs on the use of lowland forests are long overdue. He added that various stakeholders have been calling for revisions because of various problems such as threats to biodiversity, illegal human settlement, and illegal construction in lowland areas. The Council will also take into consideration the potential impacts on agriculture and tourism that will happen under the revised policies.

“Noong January 2020, Governor [Jose Ch.] Alvarez said na ‘yong IRR, our law, has not been revised in more than 15 years. Noong na-review namin, nakita namin na maraming ‘di na angkop at kailangan nang i-adjust kasi nag-e-evolve ang problema. These past six months, naririnig namin from stakeholders na kailangan natin i-adjust [ang policies]. ‘Yong mga near mangrove areas, bases ng mountains, ito ang mga talagang magaganda ang biodiversity. Unfortunately, that is where agriculture, human settlement, and municipal development also go,” he added.
 
Under existing policies of ECAN Zoning, lowland areas with slopes at an angle less than 18 degrees and below 300 meters of elevation are classified as “multiple use zones.” Under the current ECAN guidelines, timber extraction, agricultural activities, and infrastructure development can be done in this area, which makes it prone to abuse and environmental degradation.

In mid-February, scientist and conservation expert Neil Aldrin Mallari said in a live talk hosted by international Non-Government Organization (NGO) Oceana, that the current ECAN mapping is “flawed” because of its bias towards high elevation areas classified as “core zones.”

Under the ECAN policies, core zones cannot be used for any purpose because of their environmental, cultural, and historical importance. Mallari explained that contrarily, the most flora and fauna species in Palawan are found in low elevation areas, and will continue to be at risk for extinction if lowland areas are not adequately protected.

Another conservation expert, Indira Widmann of Katala Foundation, Inc., an NGO that works directly with the PCSDS on conservation efforts, also said in an interview Monday that protecting lowland areas means protecting vulnerable plant and animal species in Palawan.
 
“Habitat destruction is the main threat to our species. Lowland forests are important habitats of threatened species and equally threatened as the species that could be found,” said Widmann.

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