Citizen Action Guide to the Province of Palawan

palawan map


Palawan at a glance

Area Profile 

Palawan is an island province with a population close to 1 million. According to the 2010 National Census and Statistics Office (NCSO) data, Palawan has a population of 771,667 and its capital of Puerto Princesa City has 222,673.  

Palawan is comprised of 23 municipalities spread out in an archipelagic layout of over a thousand isles around an elongated main island straddling both the West Philippine Sea and the Sulu Sea. Puerto Princesa City is located in the central mainland and is classified as a highly-urbanized city administratively independent of the province.

Nestled in a marine environment rich in ecological resources, Palawan is the country’s top fisheries producer andthe main supplier of Metro Manila’s fish needs, based on the Department of Agriculture statistics.Its fishing grounds, however, are said to be declining in productivity due to overfishing, destruction of mangroves and coastal habitats and uncontrolled use of destructive fishing methods (World Wildlife Fund Philippines, 2011). 

Tourism in PalawanThe province’s overall growth in the past two decades has been remarkable, characterized by a fast growing tourism sector and a rapidly ballooning population. The 2010 census places the annual population growth rate at 3.64 percent, nearly twice the national average of 1.90 percent. The rapid increase in population was mainly a result of in-migration, with permanent settlers coming from poverty-stricken areas in the Visayas and Mindanao (Conservation International, 2009).

Tourism growth is attributed to the unique and highly attractive natural features of the island province, development of its different attractions, promotion efforts of government and the tourism industry, and the increasing popularity of Palawan in the global tourism trade. From 204,000 tourists logged in 2004, arrival figures rose to over 700,000 in 2012 (Palawan Tourism Office). Palawan’s main tourist draw has been the Underground River Natural Park located in the northwestern coast of Puerto Princesa City. The other major destinations were El Nido and Coron in northern Palawan.

health and educ palawanOverall, poverty remains to be a top concern. A baseline survey conducted to populate the data set of the provincial government’s pioneering planning tool, the Community Based Monitoring System (CBMS), in 2005 indicated that one in every 1,000 children aged between 0 and 4 years had died due in large part to poor health and nutrition. The same dataset showed that 9.1 percent of children 0 to 5 years old were malnourished. (CBMS Palawan, 2005)

About 58.3 percent of households were living below the poverty threshold. About 42.5 percent of households had insufficient income to satisfy their nutritional requirements. (CBMS 2005)

Recent administrations have placed education and health services as among their priority programs. Throughout the province, there are at least nine provincial government hospitals, two national government hospitals, one military hospital and nine private hospitals. The Ospital ng Palawan, managed and administered by the Department of Health, and the Palawan Adventist Hospital are located in Puerto Princesa City. The Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital in Culion is also a DOH-run hospital.

CBMS baseline data shows that about 24.7 percent of children aged 6-12 years old were not attending elementary school while 43.9 percent of children 13-16 years old were not attending high school(CBMS 2005).

The provincial government however reports that literacy rate in Palawan is high at 94 percent and is increasing by 1 percent annually because of expanding access to education. Public schools in the province consist of 623 elementary schools, 126 secondary schools and two universities. Among the public institutions are the Palawan State University in Puerto Princesa City, Western Philippines University in Aborlan and Puerto Princesa City, Coron College of Fisheries, Puerto Princesa School of Arts and Trade and the Palawan College of Arts and Trade in Cuyo, Palawan.

Law enforcement offices (e.g. Western Command, Philippine National Police Provincial Office) classify the peace and order situation as under control. Insurgency is present, but officials maintain that the leftist New People’s Army capability in the province is weak.

LGU Profile

The provincial government is headed by Gov. Jose Chavez Alvarez, a first termer who defeated re-electionist governor and three-term congressman Abraham Kahlil Mitra (Liberal Party) in the 2013 local elections. Alvarez’ ascendancy undermined the political standing of Mitra in the province, which the latter established in a career that had spanned three consecutive terms in Congress and a single term as top local executive.

The City of Puerto Princesa is administratively independent of the province. It was categorized as a highly-urbanized city in 2007 (Presidential Proclamation 1264). Its present mayor, Lucilo Bayron, served at least six interrupted terms as vice mayor to his relative, Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn. Bayron severed political ties with the latter in a bid for the vacant mayoralty post and won over Hagedorn’s wife Ellen in an intensely contested local poll in 2013.

The province’s 23 municipalities, including Kalayaan municipality in the disputed Spratlys region of the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea, have politically remained under the control of traditional local political families, with the exception of a few major towns e.g. Brooke’s Point whose elected mayor was an environmental activist.

Good governance performance of the current administration in both the Capitol and the City Hall have yet to be tested, with the 2013 Commission on Audit (COA) audit findings of financial management still to be published or disclosed. Both local governments however have emerged from radical political turnovers. The power blocs that have dominated these political domains for over a decade – former Governor Joel T. Reyes and former City Mayor Edward Hagedorn – have been relegated to the sidelines. Reyes went into hiding in 2012 after being implicated in the January 2011 murder of popular Palawan broadcaster Gerry Ortega. Hagedorn lost in the 2013 senatorial elections and was unsuccessful in a bid to retain control of Puerto Princesa City though his wife who ran for the post of mayor against Bayron. Reyes’s successor and political ally, former Gov. Abraham Kahlil Mitra, lost by a wide margin to an ascendant Jose Alvarez, a businessman by background albeit a neophyte politician.

Two special audits conducted by COA on Malampaya royalty funds amounting to a total of PhP 3.9 billion spent by the Reyes administration in Palawan showed there was massive corruption of public funds. The COA then issued disallowance covering nearly all of the projects which the provincial government and the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) administered.

The audits of the COA’s Fraud Office and Investigation Unitfound violations of the established regulations on government contracting, favoritism of certain contractors, mismanagement of funds and related findings. It recommended the filing of criminal and administrative cases against Reyes and members of the provincial bids and awards committee, and issued a notice of disallowance to most of the over 300 disparate projects funded thru Malampaya.

The Senate Blue Ribbon Committee which conducted an inquiry on the Malampaya funds in early 2013 also highlighted in its findings the ghost and overpriced projects in Palawan’s 2nd congressional district which funded the projects which then Congressman Mitra identified. The Senate Committee also concluded that the Malampaya fund anomaly in Palawan may have been the trigger of the murder of Dr. Ortega, a local broadcaster who had consistently exposed the Malampaya anomalies in the provincial government during the terms of Reyes and Mitra.

Ironically also in 2013, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) issued the province of Palawan a Certificate of Good Housekeeping under its transparency program. The program is intended to encourage local government units (LGUs) in the practice of full disclosure. 

Unlike the previous administrationswhich have benefitted from large chunks of non-Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) revenues, particularly Malampaya funds, the current administrations have relied mostly on their regular IRA to fund development projects. Palawan has an annual IRA appropriation of over PhP 1billion while Puerto Princesa City is among the top sixcities with the highest IRA appropriation of over PhP 900M annually.

The provincial government has discarded most of the social development programs which the previous administrations initiated while the City government redesigned its centerpiece programs including environmental protection which had been the trademark of the Hagedorn administration. Both LGUs have vowed for more transparency and have instituted measures to ensure more transparency in local government contracting.

Governor Alvarez, an accomplished businessman prior to venturing into politics, has repeatedly vowed to end the graft and corruption practices that had characterized the previous administrations. 

Civil Society and Media

Palawan has an active civil society sector and a modestly organized media sector based mainly in Puerto Princesa City. In the mainstream of the civil society sector are non-government organizations belonging to the Palawan NGO Network, Inc. (PNNI), civic groups notably the Palawan Chamber of Commerce, Jaycees/Rotary Clubs and the influential Roman Catholic Church that has traditionally been active in advocacies of various social concerns.

Since its establishment in the early 1990s, PNNI has played a lead role in the advocacy of community empowerment, governance and transparency, environmental protection, indigenous peoples’ welfare, and rural development in general. PNNI is actively engaged with LGUson policy issues and concerns. PNNI representatives sit in various local special bodies mandated in the local government code, including the powerful Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a policy making and regulatory agency created by Republic Act 7611mandated to promote sustainable development in the province.

Outside the PNNI mainstream are corporate-based social development projects linked to major investments in the province. Most notable among these are the Malampaya consortium’s Malampaya Foundation and Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc. which pursue social development projects in selected communities in the province under its corporate social responsibility programs.

Mining companies in the nickel ore rich southern Palawan such as Coral Bay Nickel Corporation/Rio Tuba Nickel Corporation in Bataraza and Berong Nickel Corporation in Quezon have pushed their respective social development programs in their impact communities.

The Palawan Chamber of Commerce Inc represented mainly the province’s business sector. Its members are also active in civic organizations such as the Rotary Club of Palawan and the Philippine Jaycees.

The Catholic Church, through its bishops and clergy and its social action arm, has been actively engaged in advocacies covering issues of good governance and environmental protection.

There are two media associations in the province, namely the Alyansa ng Palawenyong Mamamahayag or APAMAI (former Palawan Press Club) and the provincial chapter of the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP). The two organizations closely collaborate on common projects and initiatives. The APAMAI is the main group whose members come from all media based locally except for ABS-CBN (RNG Group) which has a de facto policy of non-participation in local media formations. NUJP is a smaller group of invited members from various media agencies.There was an initiative to form a Citizen’s Media Council in 2008 but it eventually lost momentum and has since remained inactive.Majority of media workers are connected to local and national radio and broadcast networks. Local print media are represented by two or three tabloid-sized publications that come out weekly in very limited circulation.

Palawan’s civil society in recent years has engaged in highly-charged issues of corruption and violence. Among these outstanding issues were the murder of two local journalists – Fernando “Dong” Batul (May 2006) and Dr. Gerry Ortega (January 2011). Both cases remain unresolved. The lone suspect in the Batul murder was acquitted in 2012 due to insufficiency of evidence while the main suspects in the Ortega case (brothers Joel and Marjo Reyes) have gone into hiding. Both victims, who were radio commentators in prime time programs, have tackled corruption and politics. Several other locally based media workers have received death threats in relation to their line of work and measures have been put in place by their respective organizations to avert any further violence among media workers. 

Civil society groups have traditionally engaged government toe-to-toe in intense policy issues such as environmental protection and corruption. Some NGOs undertake direct action such as enforcement, partnering with law enforcement groups to perform community-based enforcement of environmental laws. The PNNI, being officially recognized by LGUs in local special bodies such as the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD),uses its voting privilege in carrying forward its advocacy, among them the environmental protection and oversight. The groupis represented in independent monitoring bodies created by law to ensure environmental compliance of mining companies operating in the province. One particular group, the Kilusang Love Malampaya (KLM), which has a strong participation of the local Catholic Church, focused exclusively on documenting and raising public awareness on the misuse of local government funds coming from natural gas royalty. Dr. Ortega was one of the prime movers of KLM before he was murdered.

LGU-Citizen Engagement

LGUs and civil society groups have achieved positive results in working together in several specific arenas of engagement, e.g. community-based environmental management and alternative livelihood development through the promotion of community-based tourism.

Puerto Princesa City, a major tourist destination, pioneered several best examples of community-based sustainable tourism (CBST) attractions. This collaboration enabled communities to directly benefitfrom the projects that they themselves managed and operated, with the support of the City government and their private sector partners. One case study is the Ugong Rock Spelunking and Zip Line attraction in Barangay Tagabenit outside the St. Paul Underground River National Park. It is a CBST model initiated by local NGOs in the mid-1990s and followed through by the ABS CBN Foundation in the last five years, through training and management guidance. The tourist attraction has helped improve the family incomes of the local community and helped strengthen conservation efforts around the village of Tagabenit which buffers a protected area.

Other examples of productive LGU-civil society partnerships can be found in environmental enforcement efforts. Several NGOs in Palawan have established close working relationships with law enforcement agencies such as the Philippine National Police (PNP)-Maritime, the Philippine Coast Guard, and LGU enforcement arms to regularly conduct patrols, perform apprehensions of suspects and follow through with legal prosecution.

Policy conflicts, however, plague relationships between the provincial government and civil society groups. This is especially true in the case of Gov. Alvarez who has publicly expressed his disagreement with NGOs over different policy issues, including the policy towards allowing mining companies to expand their current operations, and the policy towards a proposal to build two major coal-fired power plants. In both these issues, NGOs felt that the present provincial administration has shown bias towards business interests behind these projects. The NGOs which PNNI and its key members mainly represented have been strongly pushing for a more restrictive policy climate to discourage further expansion of large-scale mining projects in Southern Palawan. In the town of Aborlan where the proposed 15-MW coal plant is to be established, organized local residents, the clergy, and an on-site academic institution, the Western Philippines University, have combined forces to defy the provincial government’s moves to grant the mandatory permits to the project.

For the first time since PCSD was formed in the early 1990s, no PNNI representative has been sitting in the powerful body that functions as a clearing house for all major projects that have an impact of the environment. The PCSD has kept postponing its decision confirming the NGO representative which PNNI endorsed. 

At the onset of 2014, the heated public debate on the coal-fired power plant in Aborlan town triggered a quarrel between Gov. Alvarez and the administration of the WPU which had earlier issued a formal position against it. Gov. Alvarez, in a public speech delivered during one of his visits to the town, announced that he was withdrawing the scholarship benefits of some 3,000 students of WPU, an attempt to pull the rug from under the public institution and exert pressure on its officials. Undaunted by the threat, the WPU administration stuck to its position.

Apparently not nuanced in the consultative processes and good governance principles, Gov. Alvarez had adamantly insisted on carrying out his personal ideas defining a framework for the development of Palawan and the priority projects that support it. There has been little, if any, public debate on such strategies to engage stakeholders and civil society. Alvarez maintains a tight grip of local executives in the municipal level, majority of whom he helped finance during the local elections. He also forged close alliance with the City government led by Mayor Lucilo Bayron.

Few debates on many issues of major policy significance are being held in the administration-controlled legislature, the Provincial Board. To begin with, there is no formal opposition group in the legislative body presided by Vice Governor Dennis Socrates, a close ally and political protégé of Alvarez.

In January 2014, the provincial board kept mum when Gov. Alvarez declared to discontinue the scholarship grant of all Capitol scholars enrolled at WPU ostensibly because of the school’s position against the coal plant. Not one member of the provincial board questioned the policy directive and its unilateral declaration.

Gov. Alvarez, in casual discussions with media, acknowledge the difficulty of forging smooth relations with NGOs but expressed confidence that his approach to governance will be justified through the positive results of his programs.

Threats and Opportunities

The rigid approach to governance which the current provincial administration laid out is a major hindrance to forging a lasting partnership on the provincial level between the LGU and civil society in general. While both expressly agree that there needs to be cooperation of all sectors of society to achieve development in the province and deliver positiveresults on the lives especially of the poor majority, there has been little effort to pursue cooperation. Despite their differences, an avenue of communication between them still remains. Palawan’s civil society groups in particular work on the principle of critically engaging the local government for its own advocacy. The provincial government by and large continues to respect the provisions of the Local Government Code on the participation of civil society in local governance.

The media sector in general remains weak and unresponsive to important challenges to help increase citizen awareness and overall transparency in government. Most of the major radio stations which have considerable reach in the rural areas are either owned or influenced by key politicians. The local tabloids have very limited circulation coverage to be significant as main source of information in the remote communities.

Impunity and the political culture in Palawan that has claimed the lives of two of its media crusaders for transparency and good governance remains in place like a virtual Sword of Damocles. While some of the key players are no longer in power, their surrogates remain in place. In the case of former Governor Reyes who is in hiding for the case of the Ortega murder, his political family and allies continue to hold sway over the Calamianes Region where they originated.

Who rules Palawan?The unresolved Fernando “Dong” Batul murder, the continuing failure of government to put Reyes and his brother to the bars of justice, compounded by the weaknesses of the local media, paint a bleak scenario for press freedom in the province.

Traditional political culture is entrenched in the province, with a small group of elite families holding virtual control of the province in the past three decades – the Reyeses of Coron, the Mitras, the Hagedorns and the Alvarezes. They are into the game of musical chairs to stay in power, shifting alliances whenever needed and keeping in the game.

Strengthening the political culture in Palawan requires a strategic approach where civil society can play a vital role. In the past, green groups have managed to prop up local candidates based on environmental platforms but these examples are few and far between. Such initiatives need to be sustained and undertaken in the long term to achieve a significant impact on provincial politics.

Here are several opportunities to help promote citizen participation in governance: 

The SEP Law as a focus of capacity building. The SEP (Strategic Environmental Plan) Law (Republic Act 7611) unique to Palawan provides an overarching policy framework of sustainable development in the entire province. Its maingoal is to ensure that economic development is achieved without compromising the rich biophysical attributes of Palawan. Projects that are resource extractive and environmentally sensitive are subjected to proper planning and environmental zoning. The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD) remains an important body where civil society needs to continue its engagement with local governments. 

While the leadership of the PCSD has kept on delaying the membership of the NGOs in the Council, it is unlikely to completely sever the sector from the policy making body. The NGOs like PNNI also vow to continue engaging LGUs for their advocacies.
The civil society needs to continually engage the PCSD to ensure that developmental thrusts and policies of the administration are aligned with the sustainable development framework for the province. 

A potential area for project intervention is on monitoring of resource extractive activities such as illegal logging, illegal fishing, mining, corporate farms and ensuring their compliance to SEP law.

Local Partnerships.The absence of a strong dialogue on the provincial level has nudged civil society to focus on the municipal level. This is an area where intervention of CSO projects can be proposed to local government units. PNNI is capable is spreading its reach to communities because it has members spread out in the various municipalities. There are opportunities to enhancing the capabilities of non-government organizations and organized communities in areas such as environmental protection/conservation and livelihood development.

Scaling Up Best Practices.The presence of civil society groups in Palawan over the last few decades have produced best practices in a range of fields including sustainable agriculture, environmental management and livelihood development. Even projects undertaken through these years by corporate interests, e.g. malaria control program of Pilipinas Shell Foundation Inc., have shown tremendous impact. The PSFI program, for instance, helped dramatically reduce the incidence of malaria in the province. Such intervention, however, will stop once the company is no longer invested in the province. Palawan CSOs and their partners may develop medium to long term strategies and intervention to scale up successful models of intervention.

Media Interventions.Two priority concerns of Palawan’s media groups are: 1) improving the quality of local journalism; and 2) economic welfare and safety of local journalists. They see these interventions necessary to allow the media sector to be a critical component of civil society.

Improving the professionalism of practicing local journalists and significantly addressing their welfare are considered key to eliminate major problems besetting the Palawan media, for instance the dependency on local politicians and new sources for financial assistance in times of need -- a course of action which obviously compromises their ethical standards. The NUJP-Palawan Chapter in particular has initiated a financial literacy and savings program to help address this need.

Several local professionals and media practitioners have expressed the need to have a community-owned media outfit, one which will be independent of political influence. Bandilyo ng Palawan and Palawan Sun tried this model a decade ago to sustain themselves, but eventually had to stop operating because of the unfavorable economic situation then. This however, can be revisited in light of new technologies and the growth of the local domestic economy.