September 23, 2009

Palawan at the Crossroads: Development and the Environment on a Philippine Frontier (edited by James F. Eder and Janet O. Fernandez)

Palawan at the Crossroads (published in 1996 by Ateneo de Manila University Press) is divided into four parts: Introduction, The Setting, Change and the Indigenous People, and Change and the Environment. The editors, Eder and Fernandez, introduce the book, laying down the anthropocentric framework that guided the selection of the case studies from American, European, and Filipino academic specialists. The paradigm centers on the Malthusian perspective of burgeoning population and its attendant limiting effect on the carrying capacity of ecosystems. The editors hint at the increasing politicization in the last frontier: “Many of the issues that confront Palawan specialists today have significant political or emotional overtones that make it difficult for any observer to be fully ‘objective’ about Palawan.” Indeed, with the passage of the Local Government Code in 1991, the broad powers devolved to local government units have made governmental policies and actions critical factors in shaping the course of development in the province.

The reduction in forest cover from 68% of Palawan Mainland area in 1985 to less than 50% at present is an indication of the intensification in logging, mining, shifting cultivation, and land conversion. The status of Palawan as a Promise Land in the 1950s propelled the influx of migrants from different areas in the country, and this trend continues up to the present even in the face of wanton degradation of resources in critical forests and coastal zones.

Nilo S. Ocampo, a historian from the University of the Philippines, opens the second part, The Setting. His essay is a brief history of Palawan, viewing this history, in microcosm, as reflective of the history of the Philippines—from cradle of civilization to a colony under foreign rulers to a sovereign republic. The histories he raised are rich and varied: from tultul, the origin myth of the Batak, to the concept of frontier going back 50,000 years from the Pleistocene and Neolithic times to the Spanish influence in the Calamianes and Cuyo [1], to the Muslim influences of the Tausug and Jama Mapun immigrants in the south, to the cultural encounters with the indigenous peoples, to the American administration in the province, and up to the identification of “quantitative and qualitative change underneath the surface” resulting to tribal extinction.

The next two papers, by Miriam S. Chaiken and by the editors, present cases of the rootedness of migrant settlers in their new setting. The first argues for acknowledgement and buildup of natural kinship as a model for frontier settlement, debunking the studies on immigration centering on disputes—interethnic tensions, competition for scarce support and resources from management entity. The second delineates at the household level the ramifications of husband-wife relationship effecting the economic strategy choices of second-generation families. Eder and Fernandez observe that “choice of strategy is not a one-time event” but rather an evolving phenomena. They also find that parents and in-laws of couples may have powerful and positive influence in the internal workings of a Palawan household, suggesting that close family ties are an invisible thread binding families to their place in the world. Finally, the editors observe that Cuyonon cultural tradition still wield a very strong influence on the economic behavior of households.

The second half of the book is concerned with “change” in the indigenous peoples (IPs) of Palawan and in the environment. The IPs are appropriately the centerpiece of the book (the shift here narrows from anthropocentric to ethnocentric) since they are the ones directly affected by the “historic transformation of Palawan.” Going indigenous is not a trend, it is a need [2], and each of the articles gives dimension to this fundamental need. Rowe Cadeliña’s article describes food-sharing among Batak households and presents a lucid connection of the decline of inter-household food-sharing to the disappearance of the forest. The coming of tourists and the infusion of more cash are also considered as threats to the Batak worldview and traditions.

W. Thomas Conelly focuses on the strategies of resource use among the Tagbanuas. He discusses the changing socio-economic environment that has confronted this indigenous group in the twentieth century, and the impacts these changes have had on their subsistence. Forest utilization was daily affected by the arrival of lowland Christian settlers who encroached onto ancestral domains, thereby creating tensions, insecurities, and questions of identity.

A series of black-and-white photographs depicting livelihood practices of Palawan inhabitants and Palawan landscapes, faces and ceremonies, follows the first two articles on the chapter on IPs. They show Palaweños in the act of collecting honey, hunting, farming in the lowlands and uplands, and fishing.

The third article on IPs is the study of Elaine C. Brown, “Tribal Displacement, Deculturation and Impoverishment.” It describes the patterns of Pala’wan agriculture being more and more unsustainable due to similar trends described in the previous articles. Brown concludes that “Pala’wan will never be the primary beneficiaries of development introduced by non-Pala’wan.” Her recommendation is for Pala’wans to be given access to education up to the college level in order for them to develop skills (e.g., knowledge of Philippine legal system) and social relations required to defend themselves and to better pursue new economic opportunities. For indeed who else, in this competitive arena of diminishing goods, have the dedication to help them but themselves?

Lanfranco Blanchetti-Revelli completes the chapter on IPs with an exposition of the Molbog’s conception of ecology, rice and debt. The tension between Christians and Molbog shapes the latter’s increasing dependence on external resources and contingencies.

The disenfranchisement of the IPs in the four articles supports the notion that the interface between the indigenous and the contemporary can never be reconciled. Perhaps only a reversal of the two roles can bring peace to the “war on the environmental resources” [3]. That is, if the non-indigene “stoops to the level” of the indigene and acts with justice and compassion, and if the indigene is “civilized” according to non-indigene standards, to the point that he can regard his “betters” as his “peers.” When the indigenous become the contemporary, then tribal extinction will be quelled, even if extinction already means the condition of irreversible loss. And what else can be done to regain what is already lost? To retrieve a soul? To resurrect the spirit?

The final chapter outlines the agenda, government and non-government, for development that has began to emerge in the last 25 years. Ricardo M. Sandalo provides a brief disquisition on sustainable development and the Strategic Environmental Plan (SEP) for Palawan. Sandalo was formerly the Executive Assistant for the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), and he was involved in the formulation of the SEP Law. In his regular column in a weekly newspaper, Sandalo [4] confessed that one of the many reasons why he left the PCSD Staff is that he can no longer stomach the abusive politicking of some members in the Council. He was ‘burned out.’ In the same article, he gave an unsolicited advice to the present director of PCSDS:

…for PCSD to become relevant, it has to constantly recognize the important role of the communities in the scheme of things that the Council is trying to do. These communities are what is meant by sustainable development’s “present and future generations.” The PCSD should always have time to hear what the communities have to say. Good governance means listening to the governed. A mechanism has to be devised by the PCSD to facilitate meaningful community participation in policy making. Conversely, communities should be able to articulate their sentiments.

The final article by Yasmin Arquiza traces the evolution of environmental movement in Palawan. Some groups and movements she mentions in her discussion include the PIADP, Haribon Palawan, Tubbataha Foundation, Ulugan Bay Foundation, Tanggol Kalikasan, NATRIPAL, local Jaycees chapter, Palawan Movement for Educational Advancement, Palawan Mountaineers, Timefreezers Photo Club, the musical group SINIKA, Palawan Songwriters’ Guild, Pista Y Ang Cagueban, 10-Knots Resort, PANLIPI (Legal Assistance Center for Indigenous Filipinos), Oplan Linis, Bantay Dagat, Bantay Gubat, Andres Soriano Foundation, and Crocodile Farming Institute. Some of these groups and their programs are short-lived; what was formerly loud is now silent. Others are still operating, while others change faces and are frontliners for new interests.

The book’s Appendix provides a compendium of Palawan research studies, the literature cited throughout the book, as well as a comprehensive bibliography. The bibliography is categorized into books, monographs, edited collections, theses and dissertations, articles in academic journals, selected articles in magazines and newspapers, and other media format. This list is particularly useful for students who are specializing on an aspect of the living laboratory that is Palawan. An update of this list would be a good undertaking, considering the amount of published material that might have accumulated from 1996 onwards.

Palawan at the Crossroads is a must-read primer on Palawan for anyone curious of what is happening in the last frontier, to its people and its environment. It presents a strong case for the precautionary principle and it champions the cause of the indigenous. The selection of the articles is by no means exhaustive, since Palawan is a complexity in all ecological and social levels, but it is representative of the current issues prevalent in the province. The studies in the book are good starting points for a holistic conservation/development perspective and for the development of sensitivity for the future of this ecoregion. They suggest, implicitly, that forthcoming studies need to delve deeper into the mud. It needs more than generate baseline data. The thesis should underscore strategies for coping with the stresses and fluctuations imposed by land use intensification and degradation, and it should tackle uncertainties and biases inherent in the field of politics, culture, human psychology, and economics.

The consolidation of all these academic studies should be a primary goal of the academe and research and development organizations. There should be a repository for these outputs in order to preserve the repertoire of environmental management options that can be gleaned from these scholarly papers. Unfortunately, it looks like the buck stops right after these works go to the printing presses. The findings, recommendations, and conclusions put forward by the specialists and consultants are seldom applied and considered by policy makers and planners. Consultants come and go, and Palawan remains afflicted with the “diminishing core zone syndrome.” That is to say: the tragedy of the commons is becoming more common.

The research and development agenda for Palawan must now begin its “dirty work.” And it must do so without qualms. It must start to “corrupt the minds” of the managers and administrators who have so much of the chance and the opportunity to map Palawan at the crossroads and at the destination.


[1] The recent discovery of a historical ruin—the Spanish Fort of Caseledan—amidst a hill forest in Linapacan, attests to the surprises still brought about by surfacing history. See “Lost 17th century fortress found" by Cheyenne Morrison, SEAIR Inflight, February-March 2005 issue, pp. 9-10.
[2] PCARRD. (1998). People, Earth and Culture (Readingsin Indigenous Knowledge Systems on Biodiversity Management and Utilization). Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development. Los Baños, Laguna: PCARRD-NCCA. 303p.
[3] It is very telling that the Nobel Prize for Peace is now being awarded to environmentalists, as in the case of 2004 winner Wangari Maathai—an African woman environmentalist espousing reforestation in her native land—and 2007 winners Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore.
[4] Sandalo, Riki M. “Summit: So Near, Yet So Far.” Bandillo ng Palawan, Vol.8, No. 6, February 7-13, 2005 issue.


  1. Thanks, Marie. I found it among my files in graduate school.