Saving Coron: Group rejoices over halt in reclamation project
PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Palawan, Philippines — A civic movement in Palawan’s quaint island town of Coron has a reason to rejoice after scoring a big win for the environment when President Rodrigo Duterte heeded its call to stop the 50-hectare reclamation project that threatened to wipe out the marine biodiversity in the globally renowned tourist destination.
Marion Raagas, one of the conveners of Sagip Coron Palawan (SCP), a group that aims to stop the environmental destruction caused by the Coron Bay Development Project, described the crusade as a “roller-coaster ride” as they raced against time to stop the project before it caused further irreversible damage to Coron Bay in the northern tip of Palawan, a popular diving destination and a flashpoint for marine conservationists.
“Sobrang bilis ng pangyayari (It happened so fast) and I always believe that there’s Divine providence in all these. We want to do our part for the environment, not just for Coron, but for the whole nation,” Raagas told the Inquirer in a recent interview.
Two days later, on March 24, lawyer Janilo Rubiato, general manager and chief executive officer of the PRA, issued a cease-and-desist order (CDO) against the project, directing the provincial government and other private joint venture partners to stop its operations until certain conditions were met.
The reclamation project, which was near completion, was later found to be operating without necessary permits such as an area clearance and a revoked environmental compliance certificate from the DENR, according to the initial report of the joint investigation by the DENR’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) and the PRA.
Bob Magallanes, who was born and raised in Coron and the cohead of Sagip Coron movement, said that as early as January 2021, they had been seeking dialogue with the local government in an attempt to stop the project at the municipal level but they were not getting heard.
Magallanes said the project was “poorly designed and executed,” and that it could only result in environmental destruction. “Should we reach the point where it is the youth who should pay for the current generation’s sins and cruel acts on the environment?” he asked.
Over the past year, SCP had been working hard to get the government to listen to their objection to the project and for the national leadership to declare the reclamation illegal, forfeit it in favor of the state and for government agencies to begin rehabilitating areas already damaged by the reclamation, said lawyer Julito “Sarge” Sarmiento, SCP legal counsel.
That they emerged victorious was nothing short of a miracle, the prime movers of Sagip Coron said, considering that local officials led by Mayor Mario Reyes were bent on going ahead with the project without consideration of the sentiment raised by locals.
Essentially, the anti-reclamation advocates were just lucky that Mr. Duterte had heard of the objection directly from Raagas, a member of the President’s campaign team when he ran for office in 2016.
It was Raagas who helped orchestrate the meeting between the President and Magallanes, who happened to be Raagas’ motocross buddy.
Coron Councilor Philip Andrew Astor, who chairs the municipal council’s environment committee, denied the group’s allegations that the project did not go through proper consultations with residents.
“Prior to the commencement of the 50-hectare reclamation project, covering the areas of Barangays 2, 3 and 5, necessary requirements were complied with by the provincial government,” read Astor’s response to SCP’s complaint in a letter dated March 14.
The municipal government also claimed that the project was endorsed for implementation as early as 2007 by the previous local administration.
“A project profile of the Coron Bay Reclamation Project was submitted to this office that underwent careful and thorough review before said project was endorsed for implementation in 2007 by the administration during that time,” Astor said.
Right now, however, even the provincial government, which initiated the joint venture project in 2017 under the administration of now outgoing Gov. Jose Alvarez, is no longer on the municipality’s side.
Lawyer Christian Jay Cojamco, Palawan’s provincial information officer, said the provincial government had stopped all reclamation-related activities in Coron as early as February 2021, ahead of the CDO issued by the PRA.
“Thus, even before the [PRA] issued its CDO dated March 24, all reclamation activities in the said area have already been stopped. At any rate, the provincial government of Palawan stays committed to comply with the CDO issued by [the] PRA until all issues have been resolved,” Cojamco said.
With the 2022 elections now over, Sagip Coron said that it would continue fighting to preserve the environment, regardless of who is in power.
But while a new leadership at the provincial government will take over, with Vice Gov. Dennis Socrates assuming as governor in June, Coron will continue to have the same leadership, with the reelection of Reyes, who will serve his third and last term.
Raagas, however, said there was no letup in their fight to preserve Coron.
“This is our lifelong commitment. We are not afraid to die for this. We are not afraid to fight for what’s right,” he added.
For Anabelle Roble, an indigenous peoples’ leader, fighting for the environment is a noble task not just for herself, but for the future of her community.
Roble, one of the Tagbanua leaders from the village of Bulalacao in Coron, has been consistently going up against private firms that endangered the future generations that depend on local industries, such as farming and fishing, which heavily rely on the critical environmental balance.
“Our life depends on how well we preserve our natural resources. It’s not just for us but for our children and their children’s children. We are not afraid because we are doing this for our future generation. They have to respect us because this is about our home,” she said.
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