MANILA, JUNE 8, 2008 (STAR) KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson - A fortnight ago I detailed the first half of a recent four-day R&R in and around Puerto Princesa, with overnight stays at Crystal Resort & Spa in Narra and Dos Palmas Resort & Spa on Arreceffi Island in Honda Bay. I also mentioned stops at the marvelous Kamarikutan Art Center as well as Badjao Seafront, arguably the best dining place in Palawan’s capital.

Another highlight was an exciting day trip to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, despite this being conducted on a rainy Sunday. In fact, the national park had been closed off for two days due to inclement weather. That helped explain the horde of tourists gathered at the Sabang wharf when we reached it at mid-morning, after a two-hour-drive from Puerto Princesa.

The ride isn’t exactly negotiated on an entirely good highway, which even turns zig-zaggy up verdant hillsides. Midstop is at Buenavista Viewpoint, where a view deck allows for a panoramic photo-ops with scenic Ulugan Bay for a backdrop.

Another hour of occasional pitch and roll through muddy rough road, and limestone outcroppings herald the craggy outline of St. Paul’s Mountain nearing the northwestern coast. Under this mountain, we are told, is the underground river.

Some years back, of course the city government just had to replace “St. Paul” as the river’s self-same monicker, in favor of identifying it with the capital. Now it comes in handy in light of the global Internet polling on the “New Seven Natural Wonders of the World” — where the Puerto Princesa Underground River National Park, together with Palawan’s Tubbataha Reefs (as promoted by the provincial government), are in contention among the current top 20 from well over a hundred nominees.

Its attraction is certainly well deserved. On that rainy Sunday, there must have been over a thousand domestic and foreign tourists who braved squall conditions affecting the 20-minute pumpboat ride from a less than ideal wharf to the excellent protected beach (no swimming, as ordered by DENR) that introduced visitors to the park.

Knowing we’d have to queue under a drizzle for a Park Boat limited to six passengers, we deferred our portage for after early lunch. We walked up the lovely windswept beach of Sabang — a wide stretch of light ochre sand that seemed to extend to misted green hills in the distance, all fringed by the South China Sea.

In our meandering, we discovered the latest addition to the tourist lodges in the area, the classy-looking Daluyon Beach & Mountain Resort, which has just had a soft opening. Its Beach Villas and Cabanas that face the sea across a splendid wide beach will be formally launched in July, per Debbie Tan, the gracious owner who herself saw to the design of the resort’s myriad appointments.

Her talents show in the unique light clusters hanging from the open-sided restaurant’s ceiling beams: groupings of fiberglass balls spiked with brown needles to resemble sea urchins. When a storm felled a century-old tree locally called dangkalan, she had slabs of the grain-speckled hardwood sawed from its mighty trunk, and had these parquet-ed into a distinctive reception desk.

A swimming pool, solar-powered hot-water system, LCD TVs with DVD players and private balconies are among the luxurious amenities. And right behind the sprawling resort, seemingly close enough to touch or easily trek up, is a rugged mountain range of dark green rainforest. Ah, perfect setting.

The pumpboat ride to the national park turns hairy past noon, with strong waves and a hard rain combining to soak us all wet and shivering by the time we hit the park’s beach. We trudge quickly up the wooden walkway through wet jungle and join a score of other tourists waiting for their turns on the paddleboats that make their way into the underground river.

It’s at least an hour’s wait, as most of the banca men still had to get back from lunch break. But once inside the cavern, it all becomes worth it, as the half-hour spectacle through the watery bowels of a limestone mountain, at least four kilometers deep into it, provide sheer exhilaration.

Twists and turns in the river lead to surprising sights of dripping ceilings and wall formations that the boatman wittily assigns names and associations, from the Holy Family to all kinds of animals and vegetables. A battery-powered torch held by someone at the prow, in this instance yours truly, is directed by the guide-paddler’s injunctions.

One can actually plunge much deeper up the subterranean river, four kilometers of rowing upstream may be just enough for a boatman’s biceps. A special permit is needed to venture further when the banca reaches the U-turn point at a straight stretch with a flat cream-colored ceiling that’s called The Highway.

It’s a wonderful experience not to be missed. One feels as if he’s been initiated into the world of Philippine marvels when the banca emerges into the world outside, where the sight of sea and jungle, as well as more boatloads of visitors crossing past, assure one of the gratification of adventure.

Other subterranean experiences currently enmesh Palawan in a long-drawn and multi-sided debate over environmental concerns. There are those that automatically condemn mining activities, for instance, when these can be carefully regulated and result in livelihood all around, apart from highlighting the web of conscientious efforts that now rule such undertakings.

Tribal people in Palawan, mostly Tagbanua, as protected by the National Commission for Indigenous People or NCIP, along with barangay, municipal and city councils, and the DENR offices all have a say in the grant of mining permits. It’s a bureaucratic maze that a company has to wade through for years before it gains approval for initial small-scale mining, past the deliberations of geo-science bureaus and the Mining Regulatory Board (MRB), as well as the crafting of a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) with an area’s inhabitants. These have to pass muster under the watch of the DENR, the NCIP and the Provincial Mining Regulatory Board (PMRB).

Let’s face it. Without mining, much of the world would come to a stop. Chrome and other metals for automotive vehicles and kitchen utensils are daily processed. Let’s not even get into jewelry. China and India with their teeming millions are among the mineral-hungry countries that have to feed manufacturing and production needs.

As with regulated industrial tree farms that provide necessary wood, there is responsible mining, where a company not only contributes to the national economy, but also uplifts local conditions besides ensuring sustainable ecology.

A visit to the game fowl breeding farm of Ramon Atayde, brother of our old LaSallite friend Caloy who originated the Boyoyoy clown for children’s parties, led to a healthy discussion on Palawan’s fragile environment — fragile not only physically, but in terms of establishing precedents and maintaining traditions. Ramon had just purchased six hectares of land right by the national highway, and hopes to add a neighboring parcel to expand his profitable business of raising fighting cocks.

In his late 60s, he’s also engaged in mining, having founded Platinum Gold Mining Company (PGMC) with an older cousin and Malaysian partners. It’s a burgeoning enterprise, with mine sites and smelter plants in Surigao and Danao other than their currently problematic development in Narra.

There we had an opportunity to board a dual-gear pick-up for a drive up and through a forest some 600 meters above sea level, to a “red mountain” of nickel ore deposits. The mine site’s operations were suspended. A single backhoe stood on the edge of the flooded mine pit below cleared tiers in elongated concentric circles. It was an eerie sight, with mist hugging the treeline beyond the terraced pit, and occasionally obscuring the grand view.

Where we stood at the pit’s edge, evidence of ecological discipline was all around. Carpet grass and tree saplings already spiked the mine-out — areas where extraction had already been completed, and were thus replanted and allowed to rejoin the verdant forest.

Over the past three years, PGMC had conducted its small-scale mining operations aboveboard, with the hearty cooperation of the 2,000 residents of Bgy. San Isidro, over 500 of whom were employed by the company, including Tagbanua. Where most had previously relied on yantok gathering, charcoal making and vegetable farming, now their lives had changed for the better.

This I found out from our guides, with no company officials around to egg them on. Upon further questioning, they took me to a barangay meeting where the Mayor of Narra himself was expected.

On a wall in the small barangay center were captioned photos detailing the “Community Assistance Projects” and donations that Bgy. Isidro and Narra have gained from the mining company: a water system, a senior citizens’ livelihood store and P80K for capital, a school building, G.I. sheets for the school canteen, flower boxes and stethoscopes, construction materials for Narra’s Catholic church, 20 pieces of Robin engine for the BDARMC Narra,a computer for the PNP Narra, one 4DR5 engine for the MFARMC, 24 monobloc chairs for the barangay hall, etc.

A scholarship program has already sent 23 youths to the Palawan State University, averred the barangay captain. Five have graduated; two are still taking up mining engineering. The scholarships covered tuition at 7K per semester, plus room and board and transport. Now they fear that many of the students can’t reenter school. They’ve been assured, however, that the scholarship program will continue, despite the company’s derailed operations. It has also retained 75 of the previous work force of 500 since the mining was stopped.

And why the stoppage? Here’s where the narrative gets magic-realist, the way the Philippine experience of doing business often lapses into. PGMC had taken a 25-year lease on the mining site from Olympic Mines, which had given up when nickel prices were down. PGMC’s entry coincided with a sudden rise in nickel demand. Olympic wanted its site back, and perhaps out of spite, entered into another lease with another company, City Nickel.

Curiouser and curiouser it all gets. Last November, Oriental Mining, the parent firm of City Nickel, managed to raise P800 million from an IPO after its prospectus claimed that its Narra minesite would produce 600 metric tons of nickel by June this year. How could it, when control of the site remains with PGMC?

Narra’s Mayor Clarito Demaala Jr. joins us and adds to the rhetoric to stress the obvious. Without going through the tedious process of applications involving the NCIP and mining regulatory boards, or as much as consulting with barangay and town officials, City Nickel managed to gain DENR approval for its papers in record-breaking time. Some people in the room alleged that the rival company had actually used PGMC’s voluminous papers for the extraordinary process.

It also managed to have a TRO issued to stop PGMC from operating for 20 days. A welter of court suits and countersuits has since piled high, even reaching the Supreme Court. Wielding a canny and cocky ability to engender legal maneuverings, the usurper even had a case filed in the Ombudsman against Palawan Governor Joel Reyes, for allegedly failing to monitor over-extraction. Obviously, chorused everyone in the room, the supposed dragon lady who heads City Nickel enjoys mighty clout.

Someone from the fishermen’s association couldn’t help but utter names in high places. Let’s just say that the incredible turn of events affecting Bgy. San Isidro and Narra townsfolk had the apparent blessings of a former DENR secretary; no, make that two former DENR secretaries.

Now most of them are back to “one-eats a day,” as against “three-eats,” said the lady barangay captain. Now the cassava, jatropha and rubber plantations they started upon the initiative of PGMC will be put on hold. So will their rice production on farm lots rented by the mining company, all initially substandard owing to the land’s high iron content, until they were granted loans of as much as P200,000 for “abono.”

Mayor Demaala wailed: “Why, the usurpers haven’t even tried to secure a council resolution allowing them to operate, much less paid for a Mayor’s permit for stationing a security force across the highway from the mining site! And now our town and the IPs are losing out on various taxes we’ve been getting before this stalemate, plus extraction fees and the one percent of gross mandated by law, which for the past three years have amounted to P9 million!”

Twists and turns, indeed, in Palawan. Over and above environmental concerns, desperation and outrage now set in among the poor folk upon learning that the usual suspects have their hands in cookie jars. If it’s happening in our “last frontier,” that can only mean that the culture of impunity knows no bounds.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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