PALAWAN LADIESManila, June 9, 2003 By Agnes Prieto, (STAR) Women hold up half the sky, an ancient Chinese belief goes. In Palawan, where the evening skies are chockfull of stars so clear that they seem to reflect all the galaxies and constellations, women hold up more than their share. They are feisty, gutsy, assertive yet sensitive. They are attuned to the rhythms of nature, they are inventive and resourceful as they manage life in a frontier town.

These are some women from Palawan. Their work and lives reflect life on the island, particularly in Puerto Princesa. There is an active wine and cheese club but kinilaw and gin at sunset is it for most everyone.

The city is a melting pot and has more than its share of beautiful women. The women featured here have a common factor: They all have a concern for other women (and men and children, too), for the economic empowerment of others, for the environment, for the culture and for the old traditions. They are life givers and nurturers, defenders of the environment.

Before the protection of the environment became a buzzword, there were people for whom this was already a credo.

Jane Timbancaya Urbanek grew up in Cuyo, the original capital of Paragua, the old Spanish name for Palawan. She has been using her skills as a development writer, composer, singer and radio commentator for the past 25 years to help protect Palawan’s natural assets. She recalls interviews with highly-placed officials who themselves were engaged in the smuggling of kamagong to Malaysia by helicopter!

Eventually, she got into government service with then Governor Salvador Socrates and Congressman Ramon Mitra, pioneering development communications thrusts in the province. She headed the Devcom Unit at the Palawan Integrated Development Project creating programs that would reach out to communities. She has written three children’s books – Pista e ang Kageban, Ang Kuwento ni Nanay Kwago and Udoy, all focused on opening young minds and hearts to their responsibility to protect the environment.

* * *

Ellen Hagedorn fits the typical image of a Palaweña. Wife of Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn, she remains very much her own woman, devoting her time to tourism and the provision of livelihood opportunities to women.

Her formal work in tourism began as a government employee in 1969. In 1972, she was named provincial tourism officer and became part of the Palawan Economic Development Council, which enabled her to further the cause of tourism in Palawan. Ellen recalls that when it was time to build infrastructure, she had to fight tooth and nail to prevent a road from being built all the way to the Underground River and the caves around it. The easy access would have destroyed the ecology in no time at all. They did listen to her and until now the only way to reach the Underground River is by boat or on foot.

Angelique Morato Songco, a marine conservationist at heart, is fighting a similar battle. She wrote to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo when the government interfered in a court decision to prosecute the Chinese fishermen caught poaching in the waters around Tubbataha Reef, allowing them to go free with a mere $50,000 fine instead of $600,000 and jail time.

The importance of Tubbataha Reef cannot be underestimated, says Angelique. "It is the only purely marine site in southeast Asia, which is the world center for coral diversity. All over, divers recognize the reef as an ultimate dive destination. There are only two nature World Heritage sites in the Philippines and both of them are in Palawan."

Angelique says the entry of the foreign poachers was devastating to the local folk as well. She and other concerned environmentalists had to persuade them of the need to protect the reef, to sacrifice their income from fishing and to find other sources of livelihood – and then the poaching occurred. To this day, Angelique’s letters to the President have been unanswered.

Angelique is now finishing her masteral course in Environmental and Natural Resources Management at the Open University of UP.

* * *

Dayang Macasaet and her daughter Dinggot Conde Prieto, on the other hand, concern themselves with manmade beauty. The two women established nine years earlier the Galerie Kamarikutan, which always holds exhibit openings at dusk.

"We have indigenized the concept of the art gallery," explains Dinggot, who herself is an artist and curator of the gallery. "Our challenge is to find the expression that best represents Palawan. Bacolod has its social realism school, Baguio artists focus on the indigenous, Palawan has only the nature landscapes to distinguish it."

Over the years, the gallery has been host to hundreds of canvases, sculptures, prints and installations. It has provided the people of Puerto Princesa access to these forms of expression and increased their awareness and created a venue for discussion. The mother-and-daughter team has been awarded for their service to the community. In 1998 they were given the Mayor’s Award for their contribution in preserving Puerto Princesa’s rich cultural beauty.

Flora Leocadio, a development worker, works with non-government organizations in reaching out to serve depressed seaside communities. Flora has worked with KKK, the livelihood program of the then Ministry of Human Settlements in Davao, working on micro-enterprise projects for vendors, out-of-school youth and housewives. She also worked in New York in the field of fashion.

Upon her return to the Philippines, Flora worked for the Philippine Business for Social Progress as director, then with the Biodiversity Conservation Network, then as a USAID consultant for Natural Resources Management, the last of which brought her to Palawan to manage the coastal resources of San Vicente, where the longest stretch of beach in the Philippines is found.

After deciding to settle in Puerto Princesa, Flora set up Bookcetera, a book place that sells affordable reading materials.

* * *

Cecil Socrates was living a cosmopolitan life in London when her husband, Dr. Jose Antonio Socrates, decided it was time for him to make good his promise to return to Palawan and serve. A year later, in 1991, Cecil followed him home.

In Palawan, she felt the need to do something meaningful and her husband’s work as an orthopedic surgeon helped her decide what to focus on. Cecil manages the Bahatala Rehab Center, whose main activities are focused on training, the development of modules and workshops on basic therapeutic exercises for local rehab workers and families of disabled persons. It also produces training manuals as well as provides education for all levels of rehab workers.

The center is not limited to residents of Puerto Princesa – there are outreach activities conducted by local rehab workers in other parts of Palawan. The center has dealt with the following conditions: orthopedic trauma, cerebral palsy and other conditions due to brain damage, epilepsy, stroke and other neurological conditions.

* * *

Years ago, when Sylvia Pendon was with UNDP, she helped the women of Bangladesh upgrade and update their skills in bamboo rattan basketry, loom weaving and embroidery to improve their lives. She has always had a concern for the poor and has always been involved in teaching them livelihood skills.

She also ventured in teaching handicrafts to schoolchildren and was awarded Outstanding Teacher in the ‘60s. Her focus has been on handicrafts and food preservation, which are not only suitable for micro-enterprise but also have markets abroad. Some of the children the 77-year-old Sylvia taught became part of the team in the export business she set up for her family. She not only participated in various trade fairs and promoted Philippine handicrafts, but she also became a buyer of handicrafts for a chain of stores in the US.

Like Sylvia, Czarina Lim focuses on traditional skills. She and her husband Ernie live in a house filled with colorful hand-woven cloth from silk to piña. "My husband never wanted to live in the city, so we made our homes in Baguio and Batangas, and now Palawan," she says.

Czarina was intrigued by the idea of reactivating weaving skills, so with her sister-in-law Laida and another family member, Laling, she helped put up a foundation and thus Rurungan sa Tubod (Weaving Place at the Grove) was born. Three years later, they have three weaving centers in El Nido, Poblacion and Anilawan.

Rurungan’s Princesa Piña is simple and light, showcasing the delicacy of the handiwork, the clarity and brilliance of colors.

Czarina describes her working style as management by intuition. According to her, the return on investment is measured by money in the bank – when the foundation no longer has to shell out for the business. She works with partners who take products of Rurungan on travel expos. The El Nido Foundation and the Rotary Club of Puerto Princesa are two of Rurungan’s sponsoring partners.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved