Is it too late to debate breaking up Palawan into 3 provinces?

PALAWAN, Philippines – Palawan is at a crossroads. In less than a year, the proposal  to divide the country's largest province into 3 smaller provinces was approved by both chambers of Congress, and is up for President Rodrigo Duterte's signature.

A plebiscite looks inevitable. Or not. 

Pressure groups like the Save Palawan Movement (SPM) are bent on exposing what they call the "ill intentions" behind the measure, which has the strong backing of Governor Jose Alvarez and municipal and barangay officials allied with him.

By doing so, it hopes to defeat the proposal to carve Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental, and Palawan del Sur out of the current province come plebiscite time. 

How fast did the bills get approved? On December 19, 2017, the provincial board passed the resolution supporting the 3-way split of Palawan. On March 5, 2018, congressmen from Palawan filed the bill proposing the division. It was approved on final reading in 5 months, on August 22. The Senate received the bill on August 30 and passed it on final reading in less than 3 months.

Are the proposed provinces economically viable? The provincial government said having 3 provinces “would mean 3 new growth centers” that would spur job creation, diversify the local economies, and focused development planning.

“The leaders believe that scaling down the scope of supervised municipalities will facilitate the micro management of poverty and development,” said provincial information officer Ceasar Sammy Magbanua.

Municipalities are going to be clustered according their proximity to each other as well as their prevailing major industries that would sustain the economy of the province to which they belong.

The proposed Palawan del Norte covers the island towns of Coron, Culion, Busuanga, Linapacan, and mainland towns El Nido and Taytay as its capital. This area currently relies on thriving tourism, fisheries industry, and multibillion natural gas industry off this province.

Palawan Oriental, when formed, will include Roxas as capital town and San Vicente, which both sit on mainland Palawan, as well as the island towns Araceli, Dumaran, Cuyo, Agutaya, Magsaysay, and Cagayancillo. This area banks on its promising fishing and tourism industries. It is also dependent on fruit crops production like cashew.

The proposed Palawan Sur consists of mostly mainland towns, namely Aborlan, Narra, Quezon, Rizal, Sofronio Española, Brooke’s Point as its capital, and Bataraza. It also covers island towns Balabac and Kalayaan. Palawan Sur's strength lies on its flourishing agro and mining industries.

Meanwhile, as political subdivisions of the national government, the 3 provinces are entitled to equitable shares in the proceeds of the utilization and development of the national wealth within their respective terrestrial and maritime jurisdiction.

 “If we speak of economic potential, Palawan is a powerhouse. Its local growth rate has been clocked at bristling 7% per annum for many years now,” said bill sponsor, Senate local government chairman Juan Edgardo Angara.

Amabel Liao, an economics and management professor with Palawan State University, sees the division beneficial in advancing economic development agenda, but says economic “gains still depend on the leadership” and on “political will” that gears “toward economic purposes.”

“The division of Palawan will allow focus on relevant matters, such as economic development. With focus, action could be more immediate and more efficient. Again, I emphasize that it depends on the leadership. But the division makes gains more possible,” she said.

Why subdivide the province? Local government officials who pushed for the measure have said: why not pursue the political subdivision if these 3 pass the basic requirements for the creation of a province, anyway?

Under Republic Act 7160 or the Local Government Code of 1991, a province may be created if it has a population of at least 250,000, an annual income of P20 million, and a land area of 2,000 square kilometers.

The Sangguniang Panlalawigan pointed out that each of the 3 proposed provinces would still be larger than some island provinces in the country, like Mimaropa’s Romblon and Marinduque, and also bigger than some mainland provinces like Luzon’s La Union, Bataan, Cavite, and Rizal.

But among other reasons, what pushed local officials to pursue the division of Palawan was their perceived need to “bring government services closer to the people.”

Aren’t municipal and barangay governments enough to do this mandate?

With 1,768 islands and a land area spanning 17,030.8 square kilometers – or almost 4 Cebus combined – Palawan is the largest province in the Philippines, thus presenting challenges in the delivery of basic services to about a million residents.

“Having 3 provinces in more compact geographic areas with fewer constituents to serve and equally fewer municipalities to supervise will be better suited to pursue the general welfare than a single province,” Magbanua said.

He said this would also make travel to the capitol sites more convenient, as residents seek services. For example, a resident from the southernmost island town Balabac need not travel some 8 to 10 hours to Puerto Princesa City, where the provincial capitol currently is. 

With the creation of 3 capitols, there also comes the need to put in place elective and appointive officials, a welcome development for those who aspire for government positions. The government considers this an “equitable distribution of political leadership.”

Why are groups protesting? The Save Palawan Movement said the bill is marred with ill intentions.

This coalition of civil society organizations and concerned individuals all over the province views the move as an attempt by local politicians to “perpetuate” themselves in power and “get hold of Palawan’s vast natural resources.”

SPM argued there had been “no compelling study made on the costs and benefits of a political subdivision of Palawan,” and that the division would not ensure the improvement of the delivery of basic social services.

“There is no basis to support a simplistic assertion that creating smaller provinces will improve governance,” said environmental lawyer Grizelda Mayo Anda, one of the group’s convenors.

Management and economics professor Liao agrees. “Better management though is not guaranteed by the division of jurisdiction. It doesn’t mean that since you are overseeing a smaller populace, you’ll be more effective,” she said.

SPM believes what needs addressing is the “incompetence among local officials” – “the real detriment to the efficient delivery of services.” 

A top international political risk analyst had also warned that the move to split Palawan into 3 provinces would end up benefitting China's territorial expansion move. – Rappler.com