OCT - DEC 2003
VOL. IX   NO. 4

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It Takes a Village
Palawan shows that national parks can be managed successfully and sustainably.

by Yasmin D. Arquiza

PUERTO PRINCESA SUBTERRANEAN RIVER NATIONAL PARK, PALAWAN — Along the dusty road leading to the pier, women with smiles on their faces huddle inside tiny stalls and persuade passing tourists to buy vegetables or colorful sarong. It is a quiet weekend in October, lean season for tourists here, but the village mood is unusually upbeat.

The underground river lies beneath the breathtaking limestone cliffs of Mount St. Paul. [photos courtesy of Bandillo ng Palawan]

The underground river lies beneath the breathtaking limestone cliffs of Mount St. Paul. [photos courtesy of Bandillo ng Palawan]
The scene in the coastal village of Sabang hasn’t always been like this; there was a time when competing boatmen would quarrel in front of tourists waiting for a ride at the pier. Sabang serves as the gateway to this park, formerly known as St. Paul’s National Park, but better known simply as “underground river” to the locals. The park is the pride of Mayor Edward Hagedorn, and the most important landmark of Palawan’s capital city.

A casual chat over lunch with Leticia Aborot, proprietor of Pat & Let Cottages, reveals the reason for the optimism of the villagers. Although there are few tourists, there is money flowing in through a foreign-assisted project designed to motivate communities around the park to help in conservation work through livelihood assistance.

The funds come from a special project of the United Nations Development Program called the Community Management of Protected Areas or COMPACT. To qualify for assistance, residents had to organize themselves into a village association and link up with a nongovernmental organization that would provide them with technical assistance. In recent months, the local groups had received large sums of money for projects ranging from raising goats to selling vegetables. On the road to the pier, many of the tiny stalls had signs indicating that they were COMPACT projects.

Aborot is a member of a local cooperative that put up a store. The group has received two tranches so far worth more than P500,000, a huge sum in these parts. In return for the grant, and as their counterpart in the conservation effort, members are required to establish a nursery of seedlings for plants found in the habitat of endangered species.

Whether the initiative will last only as long as there are funds, or become sustained well into the future, remains to be seen. What is clear now is that Sabang has come a long way from being a community that was hostile to park management to slowly becoming a partner in park conservation. If things continue as they are now, Sabang may yet provide conservationists vital clues on how local communities can be involved in preserving their environment.

THE ROAD to Sabang’s salvation has been rocky. Dome-shaped St. Paul Mountain on the west coast of Puerto Princesa was proclaimed the St. Paul River Subterranean River National Park on March 26, 1971. But earnest conservation efforts began much later, in in 1988, when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) received funds from a debt-for-nature swap program.

Visitors emerge from the underground river in awe of the majestic cave and the bats that have made it their home.

Visitors emerge from the underground river in awe of the majestic cave and the bats that have made it their home.
The DENR set up the Central Park Station in the cove of Malipien and four ranger stations in the park’s periphery. A park manager from DENR was appointed, and staff was hired to initiate research. Community organizing, environmental awareness campaigns, and visitor management in the underground river were also introduced for the first time.

The World Wildlife Fund-U.S. provided funds on condition that a nongovernmental organization would help oversee it. Haribon Foundation, at that time the country’s most influential environment group, handled the task at first, but the Philippine Business for Social Progress took over the project due to internal conflicts. The tripartite arrangement was meant partly as a checks-and-balance mechanism to ensure funds would be used as specified and not wasted away for other purposes.

Birthing pains and the difficulty of coordinating the effort took a toll on St. Paul’s park management in the early days, with various interest groups routinely accusing park staff of arrogance and insensitivity. Part of the problem lay in conflicting boundaries. Due to long negligence, migrant farmers from Luzon had converted a small section of the park into productive ricefields, supplying Puerto Princesa with much of the needed staple. A logging company had also laid claim to surrounding forests, and indigenous peoples complained about losing access to their former hunting grounds.

On December 16, 1992, then DENR Secretary Angel Alcala signed a memorandum of agreement transferring the park’s management to the city government of Puerto Princesa, citing that the Local Government Code provided for devolution of powers. It was a controversial move, since under the new law, only minor protected areas such as tree parks were allowed to be devolved and not major ones like national parks. But Hagedorn’s popularity and influence allowed him to get away with the gambit. The agreement remains the main legal basis for the city government’s tenuous hold on park management.

In the beginning, Sabang and Cabayugan residents were apprehensive and suspicious of the city government’s takeover. But since then, the city government has earned the locals’ grudging respect. Tourism has grown tremendously, mainly through Hagedorn’s aggressive promotion efforts, and the host community is reaping the rewards. Visitor arrivals reached a peak of 39,979 in 1997 and complementary income-generating activities such as boat rentals and small resorts have flourished in the process.

For the mayor, however, his biggest accomplishment is the United Nations Environment, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) proclamation of the park as a World Heritage Site on Dec. 2, 1999. Less than a month earlier, a presidential proclamation had renamed it the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and expanded its size from the original 3,901 hectares, the core zone that would be strictly protected, to 22,202 hectares-with the additional area serving as buffer zone where certain economic activities are allowed.

In the late 1990s, the DENR challenged the legitimacy of the city government’s management of the park, resulting in a compromise where a department-appointed protected area superintendent would help run the park along with the city’s park manager, James Albert Mendoza. Both have their own turf, with the DENR doing mainly the patrols. But most residents acknowledge Mendoza as the person in charge.

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