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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The Philippines’ “Last Frontier”: new possibilities for Palawan

Nicole Revel

Texte intégral

1December 2006

2Palawan is an archipelago of 1,768 islands located on the Sunda Plate. Until the 1960s, this province had a poor reputation as being a place for imprisonment and leper colony, where malaria and piracy were widespread, making it off-limits for the people of Manila, whilst Mindanao however, remained a major centre of attraction.

3In 1947, in addition to the ethno-botanic studies carried out by Harold C. Conklin on the Tagbanuwa and Batak people, Robert T. Fox also conducted ethnographic fieldwork. His fieldwork was followed by prehistoric and archaeological discoveries of the famous complex: the “Tabon Caves” in 1962 with the help of the National Museum’s anthropology and archaeology teams. From then on, the people of the capital viewed the island in a completely different way; with its thousands of natural species lying in the luminous beauty of the sea between Borneo and the island of Mindoro. Palawan became a national treasure. Now known as a “the last frontier”, it seems that this archipelago has received special attention from the national and international community. Under the 99-148 Resolution, it was suggested to the President that Palawan be classified as the “ecotourism capital of the Philippines”, to ensure its reputation as a tourist attraction and also to protect the various natural and cultural aspects that make it unique.

4The main native groups consist of the hunter-gatherers and farmers, who travel from place to place to grow their produce. Palawan is home to not only different languages and social structures, but also to distinct worldviews. After the Second World War, “animist” groups gradually converted to Christianity following several American Protestant missions. We can therefore differentiate the Palawans in the south (called “Palawanos” by Christian settlers), between the Tagbanuwas (who live in the centre of the main island and in the archipelago, Cuyo), and the Bataks, an endangered Negrito group in the north.

5The Muslim populations – the Molbog and Jama Mapun – from the island of Balabac, the Batarasa region and the south, have long settled down in these areas, living in coconut plantations on the shore. The Tausugs or “Suluks” and the Ilanen from the northwest coasts of Mindanao and the north of Sabah, came to participate in raids and sometimes settled down here, marrying Palawan or Sama women, whilst the Sama Bannaran, in addition to those coming from South-Ubian and the Balangigi, moved along the coast. They have since formed a distinct population of Muslim Palawans, called the Palawanum, living in coastal areas and on the islands.

6A Catholic Christian population, riginating from the Cuyo archipelago in the north and Taytay, dominates these islands, having been evangelised by the Augustins Récollets who had settled in Puerto-Princesa since 27th August 1622. Over time, these families moved down towards the capital of the province. At the beginning of the 20th century, an American schoolteacher founded the pioneering village of Brooke’s Point, in the Sulu Sea. During the 1960s and 1970s, a policy was put in place favouring migrants and this led to the creation of small villages that are still expanding today (Narra, Abo-Abo and Quezon). The Christians call themselves “Palawenos” and speak in Cuyunon. This colonisation would have not have been complete without the several Chinese Christian families from the Philippines, who also chose to settle down in these pioneering villages. Other migrants, including landless farmers and poor fishermen, move between islands and coastal areas in an attempt to survive.

7In 1981, the population of the province consisted of 380,000 inhabitants and the growth rate was 4.64% per year. The population density came to 27 inhabitants per km², in comparison to 48 inhabitants per km² in 1996. The census in 2000 indicated that the population had risen to 755,412 representing a growth of 3.6%.

8At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a very low population density and the natural environment was left untouched by man – the forest vegetation or “cultural cradle” boasted over 20,000 species endemic to the area according to the inventories of Flora Malaysian. Today, splendid dipterocarps found in the forests in the north and south of the island, have been cut down for lucrative purposes and a greater human presence can be felt. This heteroclite population now has different interests, attitudes, cultural practices and values. On the one hand, the farming of irrigated and flooded rice fields is a positive and nourishing imprint of human work. The boost was sparked by various phases of the Palawan Integrated Area of Development Project (PIADP) from 1982 to 1988, followed by the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan (1922-2002) four years later, enabling these projects to be developed. However, on the other hand, destructive, relatively infertile, slash and burn farming methods are practised by new migrants, whose main objective is to survive day after day, and who do not take the fallow seasons, fire-belts and soil damage into account.

9A similar attitude can be seen among the poor fishermen from the Visayan islands (Masbate, Romblon, Aklan and Mindoro) and the south of Luzon (Tagalog, Bicol and Samar) who keep moving to other maritime, insular and coastal areas. The cutting of mangroves and nipa palms, the mouths of rivers drying out, coupled with the seizure of land preventing extensive shrimp and fishing reservoirs from opening, can also be observed. Regarding fishing in the high seas, trawlers have been violating territorial waters and the fishing techniques of several Asian countries (Japan, Taiwan and China) have involved combing the bottom of the sea, for decades now.

10These migratory densities will only continue to increase, as birth control is not encouraged. There is no control over migration policy or quotas put in place, and reversing the situation is hardly conceivable. It seems that we are witnessing a Brownian movement that is more anarchic than it is controllable, and it can only became wose for political oligarchs as well as farmers and poor fishermen as they are yearning for the same land and seas.

11Throughout the sixteen years of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, Palawan was relatively protected from the increasing violence. Due to its location, this archipelago is today more vulnerable to raids from pirates that have resumed their activities once again since 2000, and also to drug trafficking from the south and continental China. Moreover, there is a hidden conflict, with unexpected attacks between certain states on the Spratly Islands over their underwater potential.

12Palawan also has a rich ecological heritage, which includes the various ecosystems from extremely beautiful landscapes, as well as holding exceptional scientific value. Over time, we have seen a change in the way of life for different social groups and the cultural rapport that they have with the forests, mangroves and the sea, a change that is worrying for the future.

13The government has implemented two policies. The northern part of the archipelago, with its natural beauty and security, will be reserved for tourism. The government sought to develop a fair ecotourism trade and to avoid mega-tourism, which is nevertheless attractive for those seeking short-term profit to bring foreign currencies to the state. The southern part of the archipelago will become an economic and industrial zone (to the north and south of Brooke’s Point), and the Palawans will live in the hills there, whilst Muslim groups will live by the coast. For the past three decades, the Philippino government and the European Community have made major investments in this area to stabilise the agriculture, develop irrigated rice fields, help grow fruit and vegetables, and gather produce grown in the forest (rattan, resins, honey and so on).

14Thanks to foreign capital, a number of constructions have taken place including a road built along the west coast and another running horizontal to it, a port in Brooke’s Point, an airport in Samarinana and a modern cement factory. All of these projects would have been a positive step forward for Palawan, were it not for the fact that they contradicted the Ancestral Domain Law, voted in December 1998. This law aims to protect national communities, namely the Palawans, and to develop agricultural production for local and foreign consumption.

15Following the request of the government, NGOs, local authorities and businessmen, the Palawans of the early foothills have been trying to transform agrarian techniques, in addition to developing handicrafts and other “cottage industries”. Is there perhaps a paradoxical policy to set up heavy industries on what is left of the forests?

16Communities of small societies in the forests and maritime nomads possess encyclopaedic knowledge of their natural environments, in addition to a wealth of heritage (spoken literature and music).

17The gathering and saving of data is already underway; national institutions, NGOs and bilateral programmes between the government and European countries have started setting up a database in Puerto-Princesa. Fillipino, American, French, Italian and German archaeologists, historians, naturalists, ethno-biologists, anthropologists, sociologists, linguists and ethnomusicologists have studied the Palawans for the past forty years and published numerous works on this topic.

18For the beginning of the 21st century, it is a wonderful concept to preserve the teachings of the ancestors, keeping them alive in this modern world so that national communities can find their place with the simple objective of learning to “live together”.

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