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Amid South China Sea dispute, Philippines’ Palawan is besieged by political


  • The Philippine province of Palawan is set to decide on a law that will divide the province into three: Palawan del Norte, Palawan Oriental and Palawan del Sur.
  • Palawan stands on the Philippines’ western border and is the country’s sentinel in the maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
  • Anti-division groups have raised concerns that the split will weaken the implementation and management of environmental programs Palawan has been known for, and in the process, endanger the province’s already threatened ecology.
  • Palawan’s marine ecosystems have been under constant threat from illegal fishing and poaching by foreign vessels encroaching on its waters.

MANILA — Palawan is an outlier in the Philippine archipelago, its topography and habitat closer to that of Borneo than the rest of the country’s major islands. This so-called last ecological frontier is under siege on two fronts: internally, politicians want the island carved up into smaller administrative regions; externally, it stands as a buffer against threats from a superpower across the sea.

On March 13, half a million of Palawan’s population will vote in a plebiscite calling to split up the island into three provinces — north, south, and central Palawan — and leaving its capital, Puerto Princesa, as a separate chartered city, excluded from voting for the province’s future.

The idea, approved by Congress in 2018 and signed by President Rodrigo Duterte a year later, was met by an uproar from environmentalists and settler families who have eschewed the clan-run patronage politics practiced elsewhere in the Philippines. Critics also say the threat of breaking up the island could not have come at a worse time, with the COVID-19 pandemic compounding a maritime dispute with Beijing in the South China Sea.

The proposed divided Palawan will have Palawan del Norte, with Taytay as its capital; Palawan Oriental, with Roxas as its capital; and Palawan del Sur, with Brooke’s Point as the provincial capital. Puerto Princesa City, the existing provincial capital, will become its own chartered city.

The plan to break up the islands has, however, been applauded by political clans who have long pushed for the division; three new provinces create more political positions to farm out.

The group of congresspeople and some local government officials pushing for the division say there is higher revenue to be generated out of this undertaking. They say the split is estimated to yield a 10% increase in each new province’s internal revenue allotment (IRA), the yearly budget handed out by the national government to augment a province’s earnings. In their view, having three administrations instead of one governing the island will kill two birds with one stone: social services will be more accessible and officials will be “closer to the people.”

Opponents of the division warn of a drastic shift in the management of the natural resources Palawan is known for, raising concerns about a possible weakening of the enforcement laws that protect the province’s already threatened ecology.

Whims and wills

The island has come a long way from the penal colony that it once was, to an ecotourism haven; a shift from being a laid-back island province to an international destination for backpackers and jet-setters, famous even by Hollywood standards. For decades, Palawan banked on its natural resources and sustainable practices to provide livelihood for communities and boost its earnings, all heavily hinged on proper environmental management.

The measure being put up for a vote lays out the political structure of a new Palawan region, but remains vague on the implementation of various programs, particularly on environmental management.

The island is home to more than 400 wildlife species,…



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