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Palawan mining interests holding environment bill hostage?

MANILA, Philippines – The fate of around 100 ecologically-rich forests, mountains, and seascapes lies in the hands of Palawan lawmakers and officials,  environmentalists said on Wednesday, January 27.  

Opposition from Palawan personalities is a major reason why a House bill seeking to protect 101 biodiverse areas remains at the level of the House committee on rules, even if its Senate counterpart had been passed on third reading in August 2015.

The two bills, when consolidated, are intended to become the Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System (E-NIPAS) law.

The gridlock in the House of Representatives “is a result of intense backdoor lobbying by Palawan officials, led by the Palawan governor, to stop the passage of the House bill as long as Palawan’s 5 protected areas are included in the law,” Palawan-based Environmental Legal Assistance Center Inc said in a statement.

“Some congressmen connected with mining interests are trying to take out 5 protected areas in Palawan from the bill,” environmental lawyer Ipat Luna revealed in a January 27 press conference. 

Both the passed Senate Bill and the latest version of the House Bill include 5 protected areas in Palawan: Malampaya Sound Protected Landscape and Seascape, Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, El Nido Managed Resources Protected Area, Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Puerto Princesa Subterranean National Park.

But the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, chaired by Palawan Governor Jose “Pepito” Alvarez, has insisted in House hearings and letters to the Senate that these areas be excluded from the bill, saying the PSCD would rather have a separate bill specific to these areas.

But Luna alleged that the real reason is to accommodate interests of mining groups who want to explore these areas for minerals. For instance, Mount Mantalingahan is believed to be rich in mineral deposits.

Specific Palawan law vs E-NIPAS

A specific law would allow a tacit exclusion of specific zones in these forests and seascapes to allow mining and logging there, said Luna. The proposed E-NIPAS bill, meanwhile, will impose a mining and logging ban in these areas.

It is not clear why the PCSD, a government entity created for the protection of Palawan’s natural resources, would oppose a bill that would increase funding and strengthen the management of its own ecologically-rich areas.

CALL OF ENVIRONMENTALISTS. From left to right, Oceana's Edward Lorenzo, BMB chief Theresa Mundita Lim, Lorenzo Cordova from Representative Sato's office, and Pusod's Ipat Luna explain the urgency of passing the E-NIPAS bill. Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

CALL OF ENVIRONMENTALISTS. From left to right, Oceana's Edward Lorenzo, BMB chief Theresa Mundita Lim, Lorenzo Cordova from Representative Sato's office, and Pusod's Ipat Luna explain the urgency of passing the E-NIPAS bill.

Photo by Pia Ranada/Rappler

But in a letter, Alvarez told Senate bill author Loren Legarda that the existing Palawan Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) Law is enough to protect these 5 sites.

Instead of including the 5 sites in the E-NIPAS bill, a separate, specific bill would better ensure a "commensurate budget allocation from the national government which they can cascade to every Palaweño that are the rightful stewards of Palawan's natural endowments."

PCSD Executive Director Nelson Devanadera is yet to respond to Rappler’s requests for comment on the issue. 

Aside from concerns from Palawan, other issues hound the bill in the House.

The bill's sponsor, Occidental Mindoro Representative Josephine Sato, cited issues that have to be addressed if the bill is to move forward: the "lack of a sense of urgency," the fear of LGUs that control of their protected areas will go to the national government, and conflicting definitions of what a protected area is.

But the government’s own Biodiversity Management Bureau chief Theresa Mundita Lim wants the E-NIPAS bill passed.

She said she expects the bill to “increase national government investment and support for protecting and expanding our protected areas system.”

Luna said the bill can “cure the ills” of the existing NIPAS law.

One way is by elevating the protection status of 97 to 101 ecologically-rich sites.

While areas like the Bohol Chocolate Hills and Mayon Volcano are considered “protected” under the NIPAS Act, this status is temporal because they are only protected by a presidential proclamation that can be repealed any time. 

The E-NIPAS bill grants protection through national legislation, the highest form of protection for natural resources in the country.

To date, only 13 places, including Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and Mount Pulag National Park, are given this level of protection. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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