Palawan has two illegal logging hotspots. Logging has been the leading cause of environmental defender deaths in the province. (Image courtesy of Global Witness)

(This report is part of a 7-part series that highlights key stories and events in Palawan and Puerto Princesa City throughout the year 2021)

Palawan’s environmental narratives played only second fiddle to pandemic stories throughout the year 2021. So were other stories related to health, such as the alarming rate of teenage pregnancy and HIV incidence throughout the province.

Environmental advocates pointed out that the agenda to protect the natural environment had been “set aside” due not only to the pandemic response but also the focus of local officials on the plebiscite in May that sought to divide Palawan into three smaller provinces.

“We have to vote for leaders who can ensure that the governance of Palawan’s natural resources and environment will be improved in the next few years,” lawyer Grizelda Mayo-Anda of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) said.

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Conceptual design of the Coron-Culion Inter-island Bridge. (Photo from DPWH Sec. Mark Villar’s FB page)

She warned that Palawan’s environment will continue to face threats due to ill-planned infrastructure projects amidst the global threat of climate change.

“With just build, build, build without the use of science and consultation, then we would not be able to deal effectively with climate change and global warming effectively,” Anda said.

She pointed out that several major infrastructure projects, particularly the Coron-Culion Inter-Island Bridge, the Calategas Seawall in Narra, and the quarrying and reclamation activities in Coron, belied the administration’s priorities despite an alleged lack of assessment and public consultation around these projects.

“All of these projects have not gone through biodiversity assessments and thorough public consultations. So, in other words, the laws that provide for participatory decision-making for the use of science have been set aside, unfortunately,” she added.

An environmental para-enforcer inspects an illegally felled tree in the Pyramid Hills mining concession. (Image courtesy of Teofilo Tredez/PNNI)

In Brooke’s Point, locals protested the suspension of their mayor Mary Jean Feliciano, who was meted a suspension by the Office of the Ombudsman for allegedly blocking the Ipilan Nickel Mining Corporation’s operations.

The mining company has been criticized for expanding into indigenous peoples’ ancestral lands, despite already securing necessary permits from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and a mayor’s permit from acting mayor Jaja Quiachon-Abarca.

Feliciano is currently gunning for a vice-mayoral position in the May 2022 elections and still stands to challenge Ipilan’s operations. Anda stated that the mining issues in the south also indicate how the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), the governing body on all major environmental-related projects, is leaning towards the favorable treatment of mining companies.

“First, Executive Order 130 was issued by the Duterte administration, which lifted the moratorium on mining. And while Palawan is governed by the SEP (Strategic Environmental Protection) law, which provides under Section 9 that all-natural forests are core zones, the reality on the ground is that the PCSD has issued SEP clearances to various mining companies,” Anda said.

“But even if [these mining permits] have conditions, it is indicative, with all due respect, of the PCSD’s perspective that [they] will still allow mining in natural forests,” she added.

Health agenda
Even as the pandemic continued, Palawan faced other serious health concerns, as it reported an increase in the number of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) cases and teenage pregnancy.

Palawan tops MIMAROPA in HIV cases

For five consecutive years since 2017, Palawan remained as the top province in the MIMAROPA region, expected to breach more than 100 cases of HIV by the end of 2021.

Ynna Lauron-Doblado, project manager of the Pilipinas Shell Foundation, Inc. (PSFI), in December 2021 during the World AIDS Day at the Amos Tara Center, said that Palawan has the highest rate of increase in MIMAROPA, with 89 registered HIV cases so far, affecting people ranging in age from 15 to 25 years old.

Free HIV screening and distributes condoms on Valentine’s Day at Lacao Street corner Rizal Avenue.

“Baka sumampa tayo ng 100 kasi 89 na tayo ng August. Baka sumampa pa tayo ng 120, 100 ganyan. Oo, pataas tayo, actually sa buong region ng MIMAROPA, Palawan ang may pinakamataas na rate of increase. Dati mababa tayo, ngayon tumataas siya na medyo mabilis. Ang karamihan na affected nito ay nasa peak of their life, 15 to 25,” Doblado said.

The civic groups noted that youth, working and non-working students, men having sex with men, men having sex with women, and mother to a child were among the 89 cases recorded this year, with the number of cases continuing to rise throughout the pandemic because of the restrictions that make it difficult to monitor and gather people who have HIV infection.

According to Regina Villapa of the City Social Hygiene Clinic of the City Health Office (CHO), 62 of the 89 cases from January to August originated from Puerto Princesa City alone, with the deadly virus currently present in around half or 50 percent of the city’s barangays.

The local government’s implementation of HIV-related initiatives has also been restricted, making it difficult to reach the Puerto Princesa community of transgender women.

Despite the hurdles in HIV efforts exacerbated by COVID-19, non-governmental organization PSFI continues to contribute to substantial advances in the battle against the disease since most of the government funding allotted for the HIV program’s execution was transferred to the COVID-19 response.

Nonconsensual sex causes an increase in teenage pregnancy in Palawan

A research study undertaken by Roots of Health (ROH) in order to identify the risk factors impacting adolescent pregnancy found that young girls in Palawan were regularly exposed to non-consensual sexual activities.

Danver Paalan, ROH monitoring and evaluation manager in October 2021, revealed that the majority of the respondents felt unprepared to begin having sex with their partners.

The organization cited that nine percent of Filipino women aged 15 to 19 have started childbearing in the 2017 National Demographic and Health Survey. Seven percent of the women were already mothers, and another two percent were expecting their first child. Over 180,000 Filipino females between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year.

(File Photo)

Paalan added 33% of quantitative survey respondents felt forced to have sex or otherwise commit a sexual act before their first pregnancy, and 20% felt intimidated into having sex prior to their first pregnancy.

The findings of the study also showed that a lack of support from parents, relatives, and wider social support networks significantly raises the chance of unintended pregnancy.

Around 71 percent of respondents said they had financial assistance, while just 59 percent said they have physical help, 52 percent said they have emotional support, and 42 percent said they have spiritual support.

Several respondents indicated that they became pregnant or started a family due to a major lack of support from their families. If not addressed, even prior traumas suffered by girls and young women from their father, family, or lover might play a role if not addressed.

Over 300 students of the Roxas National Comprehensive High School (RNCHS) in Roxas municipality are shown in this photo while attending the teenage pregnancy symposium on January 21. It was organized for them by the POPCOM and the PSWDO in partnership with the Roxas-MSWDO and DepEd. (Photo courtesy of the Palawan Provincial Information Office)

Meanwhile, Regional director Reynaldo Wong of the Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) previously said that providing youth with quality service education, reproductive health education, and bridging the intergenerational gap through borderless communication may reverse the situation and prevent early unintended pregnancies among adolescents.

The PopCom together with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) ReachHealth and Department of Health (DOH) on July 22 the KONEKTADO TAYO, an online platform for parents of teens that aims to promote and strengthen the connection between them and their teens specifically on discussions about love, sex, and relationship.

“Beyond disseminating KONEKTADO TAYO, far and wide serving as a venue for mere information sharing, deepening of the subject matter discussion should be paramount to affect social behavior change and increase health-seeking behavior among male and female adolescents,” he said.

(Tomorrow: Part 3: Palawan politics amidst the pandemic)

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