Back in 1984, the late Speaker Monching Mitra was running for Palawan’s lone legislative district in the Batasang Pambansa. He used to say then that Palawan is a ‘joker’. I thought it to be a joke itself at first until I pressed him about it. He explained it this way- geographically and region-wise he said, Palawan could either be in Southern Luzon, or in Western Visayas or even Mindanao. In the north, Busuanga almost overlaps Mindoro’s municipal waters; Cuyo and Cagayancillo on the east are nearer to Panay Island than to mainland Palawan, and Balabac on the southwest lies only some distance westward of the Sulu-Tawi-Tawi provinces. No wonder, he said, Palawan was a ‘confused’ province-over the years, it has been pushed from one region to another. Prior to World War II, Palawan was with Western Visayas, then was transferred to Southern Luzon (Region IV) and then to the MIMAROPA (Region IV-b). The Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP), the country’s national lawyer’s organization, places Palawan with Western Visayas. In Minsupala, an assemblage of southern Philippine leaders, Palawan is with Mindanao. A number of past plebiscites from the 1976 Tripoli Agreement onwards attempted to integrate Palawan with Muslim Mindanao but Palaweños resoundingly rejected all of them. In 2008, southern Palawan, particularly Bataraza, Brookes Point and Balabac, were at the brink of being carved out of Palawan by virtue of the so-called Bangsamoro juridical entity; happily, this was junked by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
In all of its previous regional set-up until the present, Palawan never had the honor of hosting any regional center as all of these were and are still outside the province. For instance, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Region IV-b is in Manila whereas that of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) is in Mindoro where the regional development council of the region is also headquartered.
In 2007, Palawan’s return to Western Visayas surreptitious as it was, almost got done, were it not for the provincial government’s timely opposition thereto. I recall having led a Palaweño delegation to a meeting with then President Arroyo in Malacañang during which we voiced our objections to the proposed transfer. At that time also, the plan to federalize the country was being seriously considered (as it is now). Were this to materialize, Palawan would have been only one of the provinces of the federal state of Western Visayas.
The urgency of these two proposals, adverse as they were to Palawan’s interest if approved, prompted the corresponding action on the part of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan. Forthwith, we adopted a resolution calling for the regionalization of the province with the City of Puerto Princesa as the regional center and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) already in place in Palawan by virtue of Republic Act 7611, as the administrative regional machinery thereof. We even came up with the name for the region calling it the Palawan Environmental Region-an appropriate appellation to its environmental uniqueness.
The resolution for Palawan’s regionalization actually reached the House of Representatives with then Congressmen Baham Mitra and Tony Alvarez jointly filing a bill embodying the initial steps thereof. It was referred to the House Committee on Local Governments. I recall our attendance of the committee deliberation on the bill together with our two congressmen. Certain amendments were required and from all indications, the Committee was poised to approve the bill for plenary consideration. However, for lack of material time, the bill did not see the light of day.
At this juncture, it ought to be mentioned here that obviously, a single province cannot constitute a region; nor can it qualify as a federal state. A constitutive requisite for Palawan’s regionalization is its division into three provinces with the highly-urbanized city of Puerto Princesa as a regional center. We were informed by authoritative sources at the national government that three provinces and a city could be the minimum criterion for a region.
Here comes the contentious issue of Palawan’s division into three provinces. I will write about this in my next column; for now, let me address some lingering doubts about Palawan’s viability as a region and Puerto Princesa City as its regional center. For this, we only need to consider the province-wide vibrancy of its present socio-economic conditions coupled with the upgrading of its main arterial infrastructure and its rise as a tourism preference, also noting the upcoming presence here of the regional offices such as that of the Central Bank and the Commission on Human Rights.
Palawan is a great province with incontestable attributes but despite this, it has remained through the years a modest component of some regions. It’s about time for Palawan to be a region by itself.