Philippine cockatoo's last refuge in peril


First of two parts

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, PALAWAN—A short boat ride from Narra, a quaint town some 90 kilometers south of Puerto Princesa City, will take you to Rasa Island, the last stronghold of the endangered Philippine cockatoo.

Nestled in the sanctuary made up mostly of coral and lined with lush mangrove forests are about 260 of the world’s remaining 1,000 red-vented cockatoos known to Palawan locals as katala.

The white-feathered birds perch on trees’ highest branches and build their nests in tree holes. When food is scarce, the katalas fly to the Palawan mainland in search of food for its young.

Residents of Panacan, the Narra village closest to Rasa Island, are thus used to occasionally seeing the white-feathered birds on trees in the neighborhood.

Their experience with the katala, they say, is a perfect example of how human communities can live in harmony with wildlife, instead of competing with them for resources.

But that might not be the case soon.

Now, locals feel threatened not only for themselves but for the birds as well, amid a conglomerate energy arm’s plans to establish a coal-fired power plant near Panacan’s shores, not a kilometer away from Rasa Island.

They also fear that big business, with its promise of profit, jobs and development, could turn local leaders and even neighbors, who they expect to be allies, into their enemies.

“Nanganganib ang kabuhayan at kalusugan namin dahil sa coal-fired power plant na ipapatakbo sa aming lugar (Our livelihood and health are at stake because of a coal-fired power plant that will be run in our area),” said Rolando Esperancilla, who filed a petition via the online platform Change.orgagainst the coal-fired power plant.

Esperancilla, a fisherman, lives in spitting distance from the site where Consunji-led DMCI Power Inc. is expected to construct a 15-megawatt plant which will supply power to the Palawan Electric Cooperative (Paleco).

Citing the experience of other communities, Esperancilla said he is worried that ash, chemicals and other waste from the plant will pollute their community and drive birds and fish away from the shoreline.

“Mariin naming tinutulan ang proyektong ito pero di kami pinakinggan ni isinama sa proseso sa pag-apruba (We have strongly opposed this project, but we were not heard—and not even involved—in the approval process),” Esperancilla said.

In a move Esperancilla and other residents refer to as “a betrayal,” Panacan’s barangay council awarded DMCI with a permit for the project, one of four local permits any business venture in Palawan should secure.

The Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), a multi-sectoral body headed by the island province’s governor, has also allegedly given DMCI green light.

The quasi-government body in its April meeting in Manila reportedly lifted the conditional endorsement it had earlier awarded in February and instead gave its full approval for the project.

Furthermore, the decision was made despite the fact that the 18-member PCSD was then only meeting as an “executive committee” due to the absence of a quorum.

“Di ba dapat dumaan muna sa pinakamababang lebel bago umakyat sa PCSD (Shouldn’t projects go through small government units before it reaches the PCSD)?” asked Josefina Danao, chief of Panacan Dos, one of the village’s two barangays.

“Kahit na may approval na ang barangay council ng Panacan Uno, sa municipal level wala pang approval, sa provincial level wala rin. Bakit ang PCSD na-approve (Even if the barangay council of Panacan 1 has given its approval, there are no approvals yet in the municipal and provincial levels. Why did PCSD approve)?” she added.

PCSD, under Republic Act 7611 or the Palawan Strategic Environmental Plan Law, is mandated to ensure, among others, the “social acceptability” of business ventures in the resource-rich island of Palawan.

“The people themselves, through participatory process, should be fully committed to support sustainable development activities by fostering equity in access to resources and the benefits derived from them,” the law says.

Palawan Gov. Abraham Kahlil Mitra, however, defended PCSD’s approval of the DMCI project, saying reports reached him that it may push through even without all four local permits.

“I have yet to confirm this, but I heard that [Environment Sec. Ramon Paje] said the project may push through with only two of the four permits,” Mitra told Yahoo! Southeast Asia at the sidelines of a PCSD meeting May 31.

“Right now we have an endorsement from Barangay Panacan. The PCSD endorsement is the second,” he added, referring to the executive committee decision which is pending ratification by the council.

However, Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau Wildlife Division chief Josie de Leon, who represented the Environment department in the PCSD meeting, said she was not aware of such a directive from Paje.

In fact she doubts that Paje will make such a statement. “Sec. Paje insists that we follow the procedure strictly in all projects, so I don’t think he will bend the law for this single case,” de Leon told Yahoo! Southeast Asia.

From where they sat, de Leon, Mitra and the rest of the members of the PCSD faintly heard tensions rage outside between protesters for and against the multimillion project.

Tensions were quelled in the room where they held council, however, as the PCSD, for the third consecutive month, failed to reach a quorum with only eight voting members attending.

As Palawan stands at the threshold of a change in leadership with the election of Jose Alvarez as governor, the question on the DMCI power plant remains hanging.

“Somehow, this is also a reprieve for us, since the adjournment of the council meeting meant they can’t ratify the approval,” said Indira Lacerna-Widmann, program manager for Katala Foundation, Inc., which leads efforts against the project.

But she urged cautious optimism, noting that the PCSD can still either affirm or withdraw its support for the plant. “This buys us time, but will time change anything?” Widmann said.