Academics and scientists, weighing in on the planned political division of Palawan into three separate provinces, have warned against its dire implications on the province’s biodiversity and economic stability.

In an online forum Tuesday organized by the international conservation group Oceana, experts raised concerns about the impact of a divided Palawan on the management of its important natural habitats particularly its all-important “lowland forests”, its current fisheries resources and its economic viability.

Dr. Aldrin Mallari, one of the country’s top biologists specializing on Palawan, expressed concerns the political division of the current single province will hinder efforts to correct what he claimed was a flawed zoning strategy that results in a rapid loss of the province’s lowland forests, placing many of its endemic plants and animals in the brink of extinction.

Economist Ferdie Blanco warned about an increased rate of poverty in Palawan, pointing out a historical narrative that smaller provinces that detached themselves for a main province had generally suffered a “laggard economy” that bred an increased poverty.

Another science specialist, Diuvs de Jesus, warned of a “fish war” among the newly created provinces due to a resulting unequal access to fisheries resources emerging from a divided Palawan.

A “flawed” ECAN strategy

Dr. Mallari criticized Palawan’s current zoning strategy that delineates mainly the higher elevations as “core zones” or strict protection areas, stating that this needs to be addressed under the overall environmentally critical areas network (ECAN) strategy under Republic Act 7611 that covers the entire Palawan as a singular unit.

Mallari warned that the division of the province will hinder efforts to correct such flaw and will “accelerate” the deterioration of important habitat areas for most of the species in the mainland that needs protection, particularly lowland forests, which he claimed is not adequately being protected under the current strategy.

“Our plants and animals do not regard political boundaries. What they are looking for are yung ibubuhay nila . There is big mismatch between the ECAN zones and the ‘survival envelopes’ of many species in Palawan,” Mallari said.

He noted in particular that the current ECAN zoning system was “biased” towards high elevation areas to the detriment of lowland forests where many endemic species thrive.

“Our core zones are mismatched. Our ECAN zoning is biased on high elevation areas this is a death certificate for many plants and animals which are dependent on the lowlands,” he added.

He pointed out that Palawan has been losing 2,630 hectares annually to deforestation and called for an integrated approach to managing its ecological resources.

“It is the size of 60 SM complexes annually. Rather than spend time adding more provinces, we should try to unify our islands,” he said.

“Fish wars” among created provinces

De Jesus warned that the creation of three provinces will politicize the fisheries resources in the province and could trigger competition among the new provinces.

“The broader supply of marine resources (will) become depleted and the ‘frontier closes’. Competition for control over these marine resources will likely intensify,” De Jesus said.

De Jesus cited from a study conducted by Michael Pido in 2018 entitled “Access to fisheries in the maritime frontier of Palawan Province, Philippines” noting that there is an access and exclusion in fisheries among indigenous and migrant coastal dwellers.

He explained that regional scale relation also increases due to tourism wherein many waters of the province are promoted for tourism which displaces the fishermen. Migration and different investments in fisheries are also factors to the unequal resources that may be derived from Palawan waters.

Those who have capital, like commercial fishers, will earn more while marginalized fishermen earn less due to little amount of access to resources.

“Nandyan din yong regional scale relation na tumataas dala ng turismo, marami sa pangisdaan, sa beaches at iba’t ibang katubigan sa Palawan ay napo-promote na for tourism. Nagkakaroon tuloy ng displacement ng fishers pero kailangan masolusyunan din na kung madi-displace sila ay may panibagong hanapbuhay na mabibigay sila,” he said.

He pointed out to a study and analysis conducted by Oceana where 10 towns have been included in the Top 50 Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) boat detection inside municipal waters that includes Linapacan, Cuyo, Coron, Taytay, Magsaysay, Busuanga, Bataraza, El Nido, and Balabac in 2020.

“Makikita na in the recent years ay dumadami ang night lights na ito at ito ay pumapasok na sa municipal waters ng Palawan. Hindi lang ng Palawan kung hindi ng Pilipinas mismo at nanggagaling sa South China Sea, papasok into West Philippine Sea sa teritoryo ng Kalayaan Island Group. Parami nan ang parami,” he said.

It is one of the problems that was not given a solution since then, he stressed. Covering the fisheries issues in the province and in West Philippine Sea, there is still a weak regulation, low levels of maritime enforcement which gives an easy access of the commercial fishers and foreign vessels to municipal waters and Philippine territory.

Economic viability

Blanco, a member of One Palawan Movement, pointed out the country’s experience where small provinces created from political subdivisions have become “laggard” provinces and reported higher levels of poverty.

Citing Davao region as an example, Blanco pointed that Davao Occidental and Davao Oriental “recorded highest number of poverty incidents”, after two more provinces, Compostela Valley and Davao Occidental, were carved out of the territories of Davao del Norte and Davao del Sur in 2001.

“In every divided province, mayroong laggard province. Kahit sabihin mong lumaki ang internal revenue allotment (IRA), hindi ito mararamdaman ng lahat,” Blanco said.

Capitol reaction

Provincial information officer Winston Arzaga, responding to Blanco’s claim in a separate phone interview, said the equal IRA-sharing of the three provinces would help boost the local economy as it would promote new businesses and opportunities from across the Palawan province.

“Tataas ng 10 to 13 percent ang total na IRA ng Palawan kung sakaling mahati. ‘Yong perang papasok sa bawat probinsiya, makakatulong ‘yon sa lokal na ekonomiya kasi iikot ang pera,” Arzaga said.

Blanco, however, questioned the percentage allotment under the Republic Act 11259, or the law dividing Palawan into the provinces of Palawan del Norte; Palawan Oriental; and Palawan del Sur, with the latter as the mother province.

Once ratified by the public, RA 11259 will supercede the Local Government Code in terms of revenue sharing: from 20 percent, the provincial share will balloon up to 60 percent; significantly decreasing the municipal share from 45 percent down to only 24 percent; and the allotment for the barangays from 35 percent to 16 percent.

Contrary to Republic Act 7160, Blanco said the provincial government would receive 60 percent allocation from its IRA, or at least 300 percent larger than the 20 percent set-forth under the Local Government Code.

“‘Yong munisipyo and barangay, slashed percentage from 45 percent and 35 percent, down to just 24 percent and 16 percent (respectively). RA 7160 makes sense, because barangays are directly affected. This (RA 11259) is far from equitable,” Blanco added.

Arzaga claimed that the pro-division sentiment among Palawenos continue to grows in number in the runup to the plebiscite scheduled in March 13, citing the “effectiveness” of their information education campaign.

“Kami sa provincial government ay walang tigil na nagsasagawa ng IEC. ‘Yong mga tao, mas naliliwanagan na maganda ito para sa atin,” Arzaga said.