MANILA, JULY 13, 2009
(STAR) KRIPOTKIN By Alfred A. Yuson - How big is big? That’s the first question. Second: Do you know the way to San Vicente?

Well, now I do. It’s a 3.5-hour drive north from Puerto Princesa. The first two hours are on a good concrete road built by a South Korean contractor, a good part of it still within the city’s boundaries, albeit as a national highway — until one reaches Roxas town, still on the eastern coastline. The rest of the way it turns rough, veering off northwest to cross the breadth of the island, up and down a mountain to the west coast, where El Nido is also located farther north.

The first-class municipality of San Vicente is 194 kilometers from the humongous capital. The last 50-something kilometers wind through verdant forest, where one slows down on a mostly dirt road with patches of mirage-like concrete here and there. In the rainy season it turns muddy, with rivulets running down from hillsides. Parts are being upgraded by work crews. The plan is to have it all cemented to cut down travel time to 2.5 hours.

For some years now, we’ve heard of San Vicente as yet another relatively unknown destination touted as “the next Boracay.” In fact those who have a stake in the area contend that it’ll surpass Boracay when it does get developed. The prime boast is the fabled 14-kilometer Long Beach of white sand — the gently undulating coastline between barangays New Agutaya and Alimanguan.

If you Google “San Vicente, Palawan” you’ll find most of the entries leading to websites making various pitches for real estate. One objective commentary has it: “And what does sleepy San Vicente have? Well, it has a long stretch of beach... No hotels. No resorts. No restaurants. Nothing. Only raw land, pure and simple... (It’s) all so far just a real estate play.”

A 2.5-hectare beachfront property is being peddled online for a discounted P17.5 million, while a whopping P37.5 million is the tag price for a 1.5-hectare lot with a 60-meter beachfront directly facing Imuruan Bay, said to be only 10 minutes from the new airport.

Indeed, ground has been broken for an international airport, with backhoes and bulldozers already leveling hectares of former rice fields close to the town proper. The powers-that-be reportedly managed to convince most of the rice farmers to sell and move out, while a few have remained adamantly in place despite continuing pressure.

Presently, everything seems to point to a grand conundrum for the future of San Vicente. While it’s touted as “the next big thing” for Philippine tourism, environmental issues appear to be hounding its planned development.

At least a couple of artist-friends have established idyllic havens in the area. One is the painter Diokno Pasilan, who with his Scottish-born wife purchased a 150-meter-long beachfront at Kabantagan 10 years ago, and built a large wooden house cum terrace that rests two meters above ground on large poles.

Red squirrels frolicking on coconut trees at sunrise and spectacular sunsets are daily fare. Now that the couple is based in Australia with their seven-year-old son, the solar-powered house may be rented at a modest P1,500 a day or P7,500 a week. It comes with a caretaker, an outrigger, drinking water from a waterfall nearby, an LPG-powered ref, and beds and linen for six.

In 1988, Ma. Mercedes “Ditchay” Roxas leased 11 hectares of shore and forest in Daplac Cove in Boayan Island, the largest of the outlying islands off San Vicente. For 21 years now, she and her family have lived in harmony with the fisher folk, pioneering efforts to conserve and protect the ecosystem of a prized habitat of endangered species: the Tabun Bird, white Philippine cockatoos, green sea turtles, and fragile species such as Palawan hornbills, eagles, falcons, kingfishers, parrots and giant pigeons, monitor lizards, the bearded wild boar, and rarely seen sea otters.

Her house of no walls, fences or barriers has been featured in various magazines. It has hosted Palawan officials as well as a Tourism undersecretary, who lauded her fine example of land stewardship. For her pains as an assiduous caretaker, now her family has been declared illegal occupants of timberland, with criminal charges filed against them. Why? Because Daplac Cove is being eyed as a satellite resort development to complement the big plans for San Vicente.

But a robust brava! for Ditchay, who’s fighting back the best way she knows, appearing in environmental forums, writing in provincial publications and leading a crusade by way of the Internet. She argues eloquently that the campaign against her is simply “to pave the way for a huge real estate and resort development project of a well-known Manila-Boracay resort group... Once again money and greed are buying up huge tracts of land, displacing people and destroying the inestimable natural capital of the public for the sake of private interest.”

What price development? The question has been asked countless times in our islands, no less so in Palawan, which as a lovely last frontier faces serial tug-of-war on such issues as logging, mining, quarrying, and unabated commercial development.

Last month, on the occasion of the week-long Baragatan festival, the opportunity presented itself for the long drive to San Vicente to check out fabled Long Beach. Little did we know that our small party would be in for quite a shock.

We saw the airport site clearing operation, and surmised that the “visionaries” behind it must have rendered quite a sales pitch to have successfully included San Vicente as part of the President’s Super Region Growth Corridor in Western Visayas. Puerto Princesa already has an international airport, and completing the highway for a 2.5-hour ride to San Vicente seems more feasible, let alone cheaper. Presently, the town only enjoys four hours of electricity, so that concerns are raised over the viability of a future power plant.

And yet the airport a-building is scheduled to open by next year, or 2012 at the latest, with rosy predictions of direct flights from Bali, Kota Kinabalu and Bangkok, so that San Vicente can compete with Phuket, Pattaya and Bali, “and will make Boracay a small congested dot in the local tourism arena.”

That boast is part of the ongoing sales pitch for real estate, similar to what follows: “Price of properties, particularly beach front properties, has steeply risen in the past two years due to the construction of the new airport that can handle an Airbus 300-320 and Boeing 737-400... Property prices now range from P2,000 to P3,500 per square meter for beachfront property in Long Beach. As soon as the first airplane lands on or lifts off the runway, property price will also skyrocket up to P10,000+ per square meter. The minimum price of Boracay’s beachfront property now is P20,000 per square meter. Act now before it is too late. Invest in San Vicente and watch your investment grow in a matter of 4 years.”

Hmm. So is Long Beach all that great to attract investments and impel concerted growth?

We stepped on the beach and marveled at the shimmering stretch north and south, as far as the eye can see. The sea was calm and rolling in gently. The usual aroma bushes and a few coconut trees dotted the foreshore. The sand was soft and powdery, but it certainly wasn’t dazzlingly sugar-white, rather cream-ish pink, conceivably golden at magic hour. Nor was the beachfront as wide and of the gentlest slope as in Boracay.

The feeling was not unlike being in Pagudpud in Ilocos Norte, except that there it was an extended crescent beach marking a large bay. Long Beach is definitely enticing, as one can look up and down the coast and feel so minute as an intruder.

There are actually over 50 kilometers of non-contiguous white beaches in the area, inclusive of bays and coves and outlying islands. The next big thing in Philippine tourism? No one can close the door to the idea, but what a grand vision and strategic plan it’ll take. Maybe in 20 years it will be set in place, albeit we hope that not too many transgressions against both habitat and habitués would have been committed.

That hope is instantly dashed when on another road back to the poblacion, we’re confronted with the sight of a mountain that’s been chopped off. The site called Logpond in Sitio Panindigan is in full view of the town proper. We drive right to the location, and indeed, despite the signs we’ve seen posted around town warning against any quarrying, this mountainside has been dug up, trees and all, and all the soil apparently relocated to what looks like a vast flatland across the road.

It turns out that the dumping site used to be a six-hectare fishpond maintained by San Vicente Mayor Antonio Gonzales. Now it’s been filled up with all the ground that’s been scoured off the mountain. The purpose? To convert those six hectares into a marina that will extend from the nearby coastline, to complement a planned “first-class resort.”

Back in Puerto Princesa, we learn that a case has been filed against the mayor for “illegal extraction of quarry and illegal hauling of filling materials,” since the operation that started last April has been conducted without any permit from the provincial government. Last May, the mayor was served a cease-and-desist order from the Provincial Mining and Regulatory Board (PMRB), but he reportedly dismissed the procedure, claiming that the company that owns the 14-hectare mountain site already had an MOA with the DENR with regards tree-cutting, and that even the registration of chainsaws with the Palawan Council for Sustainable development (PCSD) was unnecessary.

Thus, the extraction and disposition of quarry materials continues. After all, it’s in the Mayor’s very own turf. Even more curious, the resort development company is said to involve other Palawan small-town officials as well as a private investor, Michael Gleissner. Now that name rang a bell.

Gleissner made his I.T. fortune in Germany and fell in love with Mactan, where he’s set up his version of “Hollywood East,” the Bigfoot studio and post-production facility training young Pinoy filmmakers besides churning out B-type action movies. A naturalized Filipino since 2006 by act of Congress, Gleissner has reportedly plunked down a billion pesos for the grand plan for San Vicente. But did he know that a mountain would be illegally lopped off as part of the development vision? We doubt it.

Local officials involved apparently ignore environmental laws because they couldn’t care less, save for future profit. Besides, a padrino is a peso billionaire whose name everyone in Palawan knows to have been associated with logging before the ban on the profitable enterprise. Jose “Pepito” Alvarez is a nephew of Mayor Antonio Gonzales of San Vicente. But it’s the uncle, also a Palawan migrant, who is the nephew’s henchman. Pepito Alvarez plans to run for Governor of Palawan next year.

Before we can even talk of so-called ecological viability requirements as the main feature of the Strategic Environment Plan (SEP) for Palawan, per RA 7611, or the Forestry Code or any Environmentally Critical Areas Network (ECAN) zoning plans for the province, maybe we should just put it all down into one re-formed question:

Do we know the way for San Vicente?

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved