Palawan para-enforcers protecting the last ecological frontier

Palawan, the county’s last ecological frontier. (File photo by J. Ellao / Bulatlat.com)

The peoples organizations and the NGOs are compelled to protect the environment because the government who should have been doing it is not really doing it.

By MARYA SALAMAT
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Known as ‘the last ecological frontier’ of the Philippines, Palawan today sports an ironic emblem for Christmas and its people’s defense of the environment. In a forum held November 29 at the University of the Philippines by environmental defenders from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, Palawan para-enforcer Teofilo Trediz shyly confirmed that indeed, they fashioned a Christmas tree made mostly of chainsaws. In other countries they use a chainsaw to cut or shape Christmas trees. In Palawan, they strung together some of the more than 700 chainsaws the para-enforcers have confiscated from illegal loggers over the years.

Para-enforcers in Palawan are local environmentalists and forest rangers tapped by the Palawan NGO Network Inc. to guard and defend the environment from illegal logging and illegal fishing or plunder of marine and forest resources. Trediz said the peoples organizations and the NGOs are compelled to protect the environment because the government who should have been doing it is not really doing it.

In defending the environment, 12 para-enforcers have given their life in recent years. Trediz blames the killings on “influential people” who, he said, coddles violators such as the illegal loggers. He rued how, since the local government became co-manager in implementing the “special environmental plan” for Palawan, they built roads to traverse right into the forests. In the south of the province, they encouraged the operation of plantations. As a result, the indigenous peoples have been forced out of their communities in forested mountains claimed by the government as timberlands. Since a “road was built to pass through the forest,” which should not be the case if the special law’s intent were to be followed, Trediz said it became doubly difficult for para-enforcers to stop the illegal loggers.

Palawan is the only province in the Philippines with a special law for environmental concerns. Republic Act 7611, dubbed as the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan (SEP), created a council manned by representatives from government agencies such as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and local government executives including the Palawan governor and Puerto Princesa mayor. Under the Office of the President, it forms the administrative machinery for the environmental plan’s implementation. It also converted the Palawan integrated area development project office as just a support staff.

But the above government projects do not seem to be the only source of pollution and destruction of the archipelagic island’s natural resources and ecosystem. Researches have revealed that US troops and the military in general are some of the world’s biggest polluters of the ocean and land.

Trediz told Bulatlat Palawan has yet to receive the damage payments from the US Navy’s grounding incident at the Tubbataha Reef in January 2013.

But, another more permanent presence of US troops is in the works in Antonio Air Base near the capital of Puerto Princesa. As per an agreement signed by the outgoing Aquino administration in March 2016, Palawan is one of the five sites of new permanent American military presence providing logistics and supporting “rotational deployments” of US troops near the South China Sea (or West Philippine Sea). The chosen site of American military base in Palawan includes a 9,000-foot World War II-era runway. As with other American military bases being built or already finished by now in the Philippines, the US military would have a warehouse to store “equipment for surveillance flights,” and likely also weapons, aside from the usual quarters for its troops.

In a phone interview, Robert Chan, executive director of Palawan NGO Network, Inc., said there are three US military bases in Palawan. They have not monitored yet if there were ongoing works in Antonio Air Base, but he stressed that there are a lot of airfields in the province. He said the Palawan governor seems more concerned with their idea of development rather than conservation of Palawan’s natural resources.

Asked how much of Palawan’s forest cover remains to this day, he said it may have remained the same, but that is no thanks to the government but to the efforts of the peoples organizations and NGOs with the Palawan NGO Network Inc. In a way, their collection of confiscated chainsaws is not just an installation art Christmas tree but a trophy of sort for seeking to preserve their forest cover.

The citizen-led confiscation of chainsaws and other equipment used to plunder the last frontier’s marine resources highlighted the local’s fierce struggle to defend Palawan’s natural resources. Like Trediz, Chan said it is the duty of the government to do that – apprehend and stop illegal loggers – but they have to do it if the government will not. On the contrary, the economic activities being promoted by the government runs counter to the goal of preserving Palawan’s environment. Its environmentalists decried the use, for instance, of rare hardwood to build hotels to cater to tourism promotion, and the expansion of plantations in the middle of protected areas.

“Prospects are bleak for the environment” in Palawan, Chan told Bulatlat. Their para-enforcers at least still encounter forest rangers of the DENR in the forest, but, not even one protector from the PCSD, the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development formed to implement its special environmental plan. The latter has the budget and the duty to protect Palawan’s environment, Chan said. But, he added, “they spend more time with activities promoting their name and comforts rather than battling illegal logging.”

“It should not be the politicians in power but rather the independent bodies who should implement the special environment plan,” Trediz said.

At the launch this Thursday of the Environmental Defenders Congress (Envidefcon), the enduring work of the environmental defenders of Palawan NGO Network Inc. was hailed along with farmers’ bungkalan land cultivation campaigns by the Ugnayan ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) across the country and the efforts of the land and environmental rights advocates of indigenous Aeta to defend their ancestral land amid government grab to build the New Clark City. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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