The SEP – for 26 years, Palawan’s environmental sentinel

June 19, 1992, a red-letter day for Palaweños, was when President Cory Aquino signed into law Republic Act No. 7611 creating the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan and establishing the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, its implementing agency. It is a unique legislation- one of its kind in the country- that balances the need for Palawan’s development hand in hand with environmental protection. It lays down as a core strategy the so-called Environmentally-Critical Areas Network (ECAN) which essentially zonifies the land and marine areas of the province to accommodate the imperatives of environmental protection and development activities. The SEP was the product of lengthy, comprehensive studies undertaken by the 1st Palawan Integrated Area Development Program (PIADP) headed by then Executive Director Roland F. Rodriguez ably assisted by his staff Deputy Director Melchor Prado, Romy Durado, now incumbent Executive Director Nelson Devanadera, and among others. Fully endorsed by Palawan’s LGU’s at that time headed by the late Governor Victoriano J. Rodriguez and its civil society groups, the SEP was then submitted to the late Speaker of the House of Representatives, the late Ramon V. Mitra and myself as congressman of the 1st district of Palawan. In May 1988, we filed the House Bill No. 10945, which was approved in a record time of six months.

It is much easier to write a law than to make it work. And yet, it took the Senate almost all of 4 years to approve the SEP bill. This, despite the fact that Speaker Mitra was my co-author for the bill. Recalling the SEP bill’s enactment brings to mind a US congressional leader’s description of law-making as being repulsive not different from sausage-making.

Non-political as it was, the SEP bill was not spared from partisan wranglings in the Upper House, where some senators were already casting moist eyes on the 1992 presidential elections. They believed that the enactment of this unique environmental bill would mean huge plus-points for Speaker Mitra’s own presidential bid.

A crucial point occupying a special place in the SEP’s enactment into law was the relinquishment by then businessman and now Palawan Governor Jose Ch. Alvarez of his 3 legally-operating timber license agreements (TLA’s) whose expiry dates were still years away at that time. Were if not for Mr. Alvarez’s giving up of his TLA’s, the SEP would not have seen the light of day. His words when he made the relinquishment are still fresh in the mind- “I may not be a Palaweño by birth, but I am a Palaweño at heart”.

The SEP’s mandate is an inter-generational responsibility. Palaweños, of yesterday, of today, and those after them would bear that heavy burden of making the SEP work.

Except perhaps for some legal pit stops along the way, necessary for taking stock and to check bearings, the SEP’s historic task of caring for Palawan’s environment as well as in helping it to develop is an unceasing effort. There are no short timetables, only long-term goals.

Over the period of 26 years of its implementation, the SEP’s journey has not been a smooth run all the way as missteps and setbacks abound all but it is a tribute to the SEP’s resiliency that it survived, emerging stronger because of them.

SEP’s core strategy, the ECAN, was put in place as the roadmap for Palawan’s local governments and along with its environmental education program is proving to be sound and dependable fundamentals for their development plans. Reluctantly received by them at first, the ECAN has been integrated with the LGU’s land and water resource development plans.

SEP’s environmental awareness program had taken firm roots in the province, community-consciousness of proper ecological balance was raised to a much higher level. Alongside direct actions against illegal tree-cutting, tree-planting activities were pretty much a part of the province’ environmental landscape since the SEP’s inception in 1992.

PCSD’s most-recent report shows that “after a long-term trend of forest loss from 1983-2010 – amounting to an average deforestation rate of 3,200 hectares per year – there is now a turnaround from the said loss. The latest 2015 statistics showed a slight increase in our forest, close forest increased by 1.4% and open forest by 1% during the period of 2010 to 2015.

In terms of biodiversity conservation, new critical habitats are either designated or are in the process of being declared/established – Cleopatra’s Needle last year, on process is the Victoria-Annepahan Mountain Range – and more areas are surveyed for this on purpose. Although wildlife poaching and other environmental crimes persist, our records showed a decreasing trend in the number of administrative and criminal cases filed in the last four years that can be attributed to higher compliance to environmental laws resulting from successful enforcement operations of the Bantay Palawan Inter Agency Task Force composed of PCSDS and its partner law enforcement agencies.”

In 2007, I wrote “Caring for the Last Frontier- The SEP Story.” There I said:

“The full writing of how far the SEP has gone to fulfill its mandate would mean the writing of a more voluminous account. It would not do justice to the SEP if it be a mere footnote in Palawan’s environmental chronicles.

But for now, it may well be said that the SEP is firmly on track in working for Palawan’s tomorrow, in the immediacy of its present, properly counselled by the lessons of the past.”

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