Unanimous vote against division of Palawan positive for its biodiversity

On March 13, residents on the island of Palawan in the Philippines voted a convincing ‘No’ to the division of the island intro three new provinces during a plebiscite. Palawan – often referred to as the country’s last ecological frontier – exhibits enormous biodiversity in its forests and marine waters. The proposed act to divide the province into three could have further jeopardized the remaining biodiversity.

Palawan island, a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, located in the center of the Coral Triangle, has the largest forest cover of any province in the Philippines and a high biodiversity of more than 400 wildlife species, many of them endemic.

New act to divide Palawan

In 2019, President Duterte signed an act to divide the existing province into three smaller provinces. Proponents pushing for the division say there would be higher revenues to be generated out of this undertaking. Opponents of the division raised concerns about the lack of genuine consultation of Palawan’s residents, absence of studies such as a cost-benefit analysis, increased bureaucracy and associated costs as well as a possible weakening of the environmental enforcement laws.

Initiation of the One Palawan campaign

‘Palawan’s forests and rich coastal ecosystems are already facing major threats from large-scale mining, monocrop plantation development and illegal logging,’ Maartje Hilterman, senior expert nature conservation at IUCN NL explains. ‘Over the past 2 years, our partners and other civil society groups united under the Save Palawan Movement (SPM), initiated the “One Palawan” campaign. They lobbied and campaigned against the division, because it would have meant another run for Palawan’s rich natural resources.’

According to the Save Palawan Movement, the planned division of Palawan would mean a major step-back on the real development needs of the province and its communities. The proposed act would also divide key biodiversity areas over two provinces. This would require more coordination between provinces and likely worsen the already challenging enforcement of environmental laws on the island.

Last resort

Initially, some members of the Save Palawan Movement filed a case at the Supreme Court to declare the proposed act unconstitutional, but this was dismissed. The fact that the act provided for the holding of a plebiscite, turned out to be a last resort to prevent the division of the island. IUCN NL supported partners to conduct an intensive information campaign on the background and possible consequences of the proposed division. The campaign contributed to a clear ‘No’ to the division.   

Plebiscite has opened eyes

Environmental lawyer Grizelda “Gerthie” Mayo Anda of ELAC, one of the convenors of the Save Palawan Movement and a partner of IUCN NL said the plebiscite was an “eye-opener” not just for Palawan voters, but also for local politicians. ‘It was an overwhelming victory for ‘No.’ This proves that people understand that the solution to their problems does not rest on dividing the island into three. The campaign and the election have taken on a mass character. Even the proponents of the split can learn lessons here. The people showed that they can make their voices heard once they put their minds to it.’

The unanimous vote was a relief for groups advocating for Palawan’s ecological integrity and for social justice. ‘The outcome of the plebiscite is hopeful. We will use this momentum to continue our advocacy to safeguard Palawan’s remaining unique biodiversity and natural resources,’ concludes Gerthie Mayo Anda.

Maartje Hilterman

Project Leader Asia