MANILA, Philippines—Now that he is a reformed environmental champion, Puerto Princesa City Mayor Edward Hagedorn has no qualms about admitting during campaign rallies that he used to destroy Palawan’s forests.
“We were the first loggers, the first mining claimant (in Palawan). We used to shoot down birds for no reason. We cut down trees regardless of their kind. I was a bandit before,” he said.
According to his 1996 biopic, which starred the late action star Fernando Poe Jr., before he became city mayor, Hagedorn and his brothers led a “gangster” lifestyle.
Hagedorn admits he had no plans of giving up his lucrative businesses, including illegal gambling, when he was asked to run for mayor in 1992.
When the then Palawan Bishop, who is now Pasig Bishop Emeritus Francisco San Diego, and former seminary rector Msgr. Jose Delfin asked him to sign a covenant to stop jueteng, Hagedorn recalled he merely obliged to get their support.
“I was planning to trick them. But my conscience hit me and I couldn’t do it,” he said.
Twenty-one years later, no one is more surprised than the 66-year-old Puerto Princesa mayor by the city’s and his own personal turnaround.
A changed life
“I’m very happy with how his life has turned out. He was a bad guy before. But his life has changed,” said Parañaque barangay councilor Cesar de Leon.
De Leon was interviewed at a recent campaign rally in Parañaque organized by Hagedorn’s childhood friends from his Tambo hometown where he was born in 1946.
While not one to wear religion on his sleeve, Hagedorn is unequivocal in attributing to Divine Providence Puerto Princesa’s successful turnaround from an unknown, backward city to an urbanized ecotourism showcase in such a short time.
He recalled that when he delivered his inaugural speech after his landslide win as Puerto Princesa’s first non-Palaweño mayor, he found himself rambling not knowing what he was saying.
“When I reviewed the tape, I saw that I had promised to stop all illegal activities in Puerto Princesa. Many were dismayed. I said out of gratitude I will protect the natural resources,” he said.
“That was the turning point of my life. So I think it was the Lord who put the words in my mouth,” he said.
He gave up logging and jueteng and went after the “untouchables” engaged in environmentally destructive activities.
Major attack of conscience
“I stopped when I became mayor. I just fell in love. I realized nature is very, very beautiful. I had a major attack of conscience,” he said.
Hagedorn went on to win two reelections for a nine-year term during which he earned for himself and Puerto Princesa a string of national and international awards for best practices on several fronts, including environmental protection, education and local governance.
By 1996, Puerto Princesa had become a Hall of Fame awardee as the country’s cleanest and greenest city.
At the end of three consecutive terms in June 2001, Hagedorn was able to sit again as mayor for a year because of a Sept. 24, 2002 recall initiative by barangay leaders against his successor.
To Hagedorn’s surprise, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision on November 2002, ruled that he could serve the unexpired term of the ousted mayor. Hagedorn went on to win three more terms.
Puerto Princesa formula
As his second three-term mayoralty ends in June 2013, Hagedorn is seeking to win national elective office for the first time, a last-minute decision, he said.
“I’m the only local official running for the Senate,” he points out with pride.
He said more than any of the present crop of senatorial candidates, he understands best the needs and problems of the community.
“A senator can’t do anything to make your life better except to make laws. But if the laws are not implemented by the local officials, that amounts to nothing. So no senator can claim they made lives better. But when they campaign you would think they will be the ones to do it,” Hagedorn told the leaders from all of Iloilo City’s 180 barangays who came to his campaign rally.
He shared Puerto Princesa’s “formula” for success in uplifting the lives of its residents while safeguarding the environment—discipline, peace and order, cleanliness, and people’s participation.
He said the success of any government-led project ultimately lies in the people’s cooperation.
“The people know if you’re just fooling them,” he said.
His vision: ecotourism
Dr. Pedro Francisco, the city’s chief veterinarian, recalls Hagedorn’s early efforts to literally clean up Puerto Princesa City through Oplan Linis.
Francisco recalled how when he was first assigned to the city in 1990, his classmates did not know where Puerto Princesa was.
“When they heard of Palawan, they thought of malaria and leprosy,” he said.
According to Francisco, back in 1992, Hagedorn had already envisioned ecotourism as a boon for the city.
“He said we preserve nature but we should have income. It turned out that our income lies in ecotourism. That was his vision. That’s why the vote for Puerto Princesa Underground River is a dream come true,” Francisco said, referring to the world heritage site’s being cited as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World last year.
“His vision for Puerto Princesa was very advanced. Because that was what boosted the local economy. Now that is the thrust of other local governments, of the national government,” Francisco said.
Aside from pushing for antipoverty legislation based on sustainable development, Hagedorn said he will also work to strengthen local governance if he is elected to the Senate.
“The major culprit of environmental degradation and criminality is still poverty. I want to share our experience in Puerto Princesa City on how to deal with poverty,” he said.
The mayor who has served nearly 21 years in public office said he will push for four-year terms for local executives without any term limits.
He is also for increasing the share of local government units in national revenues.
“If you’re limited to (a maximum of) nine years in office, how can you follow up a long-term development plan,” he said.
“Let the people decide. If the (officials) are not doing anything good, why vote for them? But definitely three years is not healthy,” Hagedorn said.
Hagedorn said he will also move to strengthen existing control measures such as the power to suspend and recall elected officials.
To avoid abuse of the power to suspend, he said the interior and justice secretaries should be barred from running for office while the appointing power is in office.
Hagedorn’s wife, Maria Elena Marcelo-Hagedorn, is now running for mayor against the incumbent vice mayor, Lucilo Bayron, her brother-in-law.
City of God title
Puerto Princesa City has claimed the title, “The City in a Forest.” But recently the city council passed a resolution declaring it “The City of God in a Forest,” according to Hagedorn.
“Many people asked us about that. How can you not be thankful when in all calamities, Puerto Princesa was always spared. The typhoon only hovers above us and does not land. Is that not an act of God?,” he said.
A gold dove-shaped collar pin is the only outward sign of Hagedorn’s spiritual side.
Even that pin would have been inconspicuous if it had not become a fixture of his campaign attire.
Asked if the pin was a lucky charm (anting-anting), Hagedorn said he had worn it since 1986 when he came to believe in the power of prayer through Jesus is Lord leader, Eddie Villanueva, who is also running for senator as an independent.
“I always pray that the wisdom of the Holy Spirit will be on my shoulder,” he said.
“Many things happened in Puerto Princesa which were impossible. So many things happened in so short a time, even the awards,” said Hagedorn.
“You can see the hand of God,” he said.