The Philippines' 'Last Frontier' : What perspectives for Palawan ?

The Philippines' 'Last Frontier' : What perspectives for Palawan ?

Palawan, an archipelago of 1,768 islands, is located on the Sunda Shelf. Until the 1960s, this province had a poor reputation: a penal colony, a leper colony, malaria and piracy made it a banished land for the people of Manila, while Mindanao was a strong pole of attraction.

But in 1947, there were ethno-botanic surveys by Harold C. Conklin among the Tagbanuwa and Batak as well as ethnographic fieldwork by Robert B. Fox, followed by his prehistoric and archeological discoveries in 1962 and the excavations with a team of the National Museum (Anthropology and Archeology sections), the notorious complex of ‘Tabon Caves'. From then on, the people of the capital had a totally different perception of this island with thousands of natural species resting in the luminous beauty of the sea, between Borneo and Mindoro. Palawan was then considered with a national identity pride. Known henceforth as ‘the Last Frontier', this archipelago seems to receive special attention from the national and international community. By virtue of the 99-148 Resolution, it was proposed to the President that Palawan be classified as ‘Ecotourism Capital of the Philippines', a label to ensure its reputation as a tourist pole and also to protect the various natural and cultural components that make its uniqueness.

The three autochthonous groups are food gatherers - hunters and/or swidden agriculturists, with different languages and social organizations, with distinct worldviews. Since World War II, these ‘animistic' groups were gradually converted to Christianity by several American Protestant missions. Therefore we can distinguish the Palawan in the south, called ‘Palawano' by the Christian settlers, the Tagbanuwa, in the centre of the main island and in the archipelago Cuyo, the Batak, in the centre-north, an endangered Negrito group.

The Islamized populations of Balabac island, of the south and Batarasa area, the Molbog, the Jama Mapun have settled there since a long time and live in coconut plantations on the shore. The Tausug or ‘Suluk' and the Ilanen of the north-western coasts of Mindanao and north of Sabah, came to raid and have sometimes settled down marrying Palawan or Sama women, while the Sama Bannaran, the Sama South-Ubian, the Balangigi, moved along the coast. They form henceforth a distinct population of Islamized Palawan living in coastal areas, called 'Palawanun'.

A Catholic Christian population, native of the Cuyo archipelago and Taytay in the north is dominant. They were evangelized by the Augustins Récollets, settled in Puerto-Princesa since August 27th, 1622. Over time, these families moved down to the capital of the province. In the beginning of the XXth century, an American school teacher founded the pioneer place of Brooke's Point facing Sulu Sea. In the 1960s-1970s, a policy favoring migrations founded small villages that are still expanding today (Narra, Abo-Abo, Quezon). The Christians call themselves ‘Palaweños' and speak Cuyunon. This colonization would be incomplete without mentioning some Chinese-Filipino Christian families who also chose to settle down in these pioneer fronts. Other migrants, landless peasants and poor fishermen, move from islands to coastal areas in a daily search for survival.

In 1981, the population of the province was 380000 h. and the growth rate, 4.64% per year. The density was 27h./Km2. In 1996, it was 48h/Km2. The 2000 Census indicates a population of 755412 h., i.e. a 3.60% population growth.

At the beginning of the XX century one could observe a pristine nature, primary forest vegetation related to the 'cultural cradle' of Flora Malaysiana, and a very low population density. Today, various landscapes reveal the lucrative cut of the splendid dipterocarps of the forest in the North and South of the island as well as a new human presence. This heteroclitic population has other interests, other attitudes, other cultural practices, and other values:

- on the one hand, an agriculture of irrigated and inundated ricefields, this positive and nutritive imprint of man's work and the boost given by the various phases of the Palawan Integrated Area of Development Project (PIADP) from 1982 to 1988, followed by the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan (1992-2002) after an interruption of four years, has developed these projects.

- on the other hand, a destructive agriculture of slash and burn agriculture hardly fertile as it is conducted by new migrants who do not respect the rhythms of fallows, the fire belts, who do not take the soil damage into account and have no other objective than a day-to-day survival and a predatory behavior.

A similar attitude is prevailing among the poor fishermen of the Visayas islands (Masbate, Romblon, Aklan, Mindoro) and South of Luzon (Tagalog, Bicol, Samar) who keep on moving to other maritime, insular and coastal areas. One also observes the cutting of the mangrove, of Nipa fructicans palms, the drying out of rivers' mouths coupled with land grabbing to open extensive shrimp and fish ponds. As far as fishing in high sea is concerned, the violations of territorial waters and fishing techniques by trollers of several north Asian countries (Japan, Taiwan, China) rake up the sea bottom since decades.

These migratory densities will only keep increasing as birth control is not encouraged. There is neither control nor migration policy, as far as I know, there is no quotas. A reversible situation is hardly conceivable. It seems we are rather witnessing a Brownian movement that is more anarchic than controllable and which can only increase: political and land oligarchies are lusting after land and sea, as do poor peasants and fishermen.

During the sixteen years of Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos, Palawan was relatively preserved from the spreading insecurity. In today's political context, this archipelago is more vulnerable to raids by pirates that have resumed since 2000 and to drugs traffic coming from the South but also from Continental China. Moreover, a latent conflict, with very sudden Chinese breakthroughs, opposes several states around the Spratley Islands and their underwater potential.

Palawan still has a very rich ecological heritage, the various ecosystems form extremely beautiful landscapes with a unique scientific value. In relation to the past and the present, one observes a change in the ways of life of different social groups and the cultural relations that they have with forest, mangrove and sea. This is very worrisome for the future.

Two policies are implemented by the Government:

-The northern part of the archipelago with its natural splendor and relative security, would be kept for tourism. How to encourage a balanced eco-tourism and avoid a mega-tourism which is attractive for some seeking short term profit, which brings foreign currencies to the State?

-The southern part would be the place of an economic and industrial zone (North and South of Brooke's Point). This is where the Palawan people are living in the highlands and the foothills, while Islamized peoples live on the coast. This is where, during three decades, the Philippine Government and the European Community have made big investments and implementations to stabilize agriculture, develop irrigated rice fields, fruits and vegetables cultivation, as well as forest products gathering (rattan, almaciga resin, honey, etc.).

The construction of roads (a transversal one and one along the west coast), the development of a port in Brooke's Point and construction of an airport at Samariñana, an ‘ultra-modern' cement factory, a major nickel mine, thanks to foreign investments, all these projects would be positive if they would not contradict the Ancestral Domain Law voted in December 1998. Its aim is, supposedly, to protect this territory for the national communities, namely Palawan and Tagbanuwa communities, and try to develop agricultural production for local consumption.

Upon the request of the Government, NGOs, businessmen and local authorities, the Palawan of the foothills and first slopes of Mont Mantalingayan are involved since many years in an effort to transform agrarian techniques and develop handicrafts and other ‘cottage industries', is in it a paradoxical policy to set up heavy industry, opening up mines and quarries, on the left over forest?

It is precisely the small forest communities and maritime nomads who hold a very genuine encyclopedic knowledge on nature, an empirical knowledge together with an intangible heritage of unsuspected wealth (oral literature and music).

Gathering data and safeguarding them is already undertaken: national institutions, many NGOs, bilateral programs of the Philippine Government and the European Community countries have started the setting up of a databank in Puerto-Princesa. Filipino, American, French, Italian and German archeologists, naturalists, ethno-biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, linguists, and ethnomusicologists, have dedicated themselves to Palawan for the past forty years and published several works.

At the very start of this XXI century, it is a beautiful perspective to safeguard the teachings of the Ancestors, while projecting them in this world of modernity, for these national communities to find their place in it. The stake is none other than to ‘live together'.

Nicole REVEL