Sunday, April 26, 2009

Palawan’s crocs

Once, while en route to the Underground River, part of what was then known as the St. Paul’s Subterranean National Park, the tour guide made mention of the crocodile farm in the suburbs of Puerto Princesa. He gave us the scientific name of the crocs that were multiplying in that park – crocodilus mindorensis. These are really the Philippine variety, he explained, small but vicious, quick to the kill even. I chucked that into my memory stock of “useless trivia”.

As I am not particularly fond of animals, more so reptilians, I found myself more interested in the sparsely found “balayong” trees along the way to Sabang, a community with a white beachfront from where one took a pump boat to reach the world-famous subterranean river. The balayong, endemic to Palawan, looked like a huge cherry tree, with its pink and white flowers in profuse bloom. It was such a wondrous sight, balm enough for a tortuous ride over bumpy roads. I have always had this vision of the Philippine highway system planted throughout with flowering trees of different shades and colours, from the orange flame tree, to the golden shower, to the violet banaba, to the reddish African tulip, and in the case of Palawan, with thousands upon thousands of balayong. When I was with the PTA, I had embarked on that project, until Chavit and Erap’s woes cut my dreams short.

I had also been to the subterranean wonder once by way of a helicopter, and the most beautiful part of the ride was to pass by thousands upon thousands of hectares of lush forest, from Puerto Princesa all the way to the towns of San Vicente and El Nido. Marvellous, I thought, considering what I have seen in my native Agusan, and in Surigao, Lanao, Davao, Zamboanga and Cotabato, where once mighty timber stands were gone. How did the Palawenos do it? That’s another story though.

So let’s get back to the crocs of Palawan, huge, insatiable crocs whose predatory instincts should rank high in Jun Lozada’s vocabulary of the immoderately greedy.

Palawan, you see, is one of the country’s richest provinces. It’s potential is even richer. For as long as the proper environmental safeguards are in place, and these are implemented strictly by guys like Edward Hagedorn, the feisty mayor of Puerto Princesa, the province would most certainly be the next tourism paradise of all Asia. Mining in the southern tip, in Bataraza, is done responsibly. The municipality hosts one of Asia’s most environmentally sound nickel refinery projects, where wide swaths of land from where nickel ore were extracted now transformed into second-growth, high-density forests. The kind of topsoil in most of Palawan suits orchards fine, apart from the ubiquitous rice paddies, with mountain streams overflowing with water, thanks to preserved forests.

But Palawenos drool over the bounty that Malampaya, an oil and gas discovery in the north, now provides the national government and its private partners, led by Royal Dutch Shell.

There is a running battle between the national government and Palawan on how the bounty should be divided. In fact, the issue is now lodged in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, in an act of compromise or charity, the national government has deigned it proper to release “development” funds sourced from its humongous Malampaya bounty, to local governments. Under some kind of a provisional arrangement, while the high tribunal still decides on the case, Dona Gloria’s government has given Palawan some 2.1 billion pesos, over and above the internal revenue allotments of its towns and provincial government, and over and above the pork barrel moolah of Palawan’s two congressmen.

But instead of giving all of the 2.1 billion to the provincial government, the transactional regime divided it into “hating kapatid” --- 700 million to Gov. Joel Reyes, 700 million each to the disposition of the two congressmen, namely Antonio Alvarez in the north and Abraham Mitra in the south. Except that Mitra has to share his 700 million with Puerto Princesa, the highly-urbanized city led by Hagedorn.

The governor can directly implement projects, either by administration or through the bidding of contracts. He has, with a huge share of the pie going to reclamation and port development in his native Coron island. But the congressmen have to course their project implementation through the Department of Public Works and Highways.

Well, I’ve seen some in the south, and now I know what a crocodilus palawanensis means.

Since roads in this elongated province are in such terrible condition, the obvious “developmental” need is to widen and construct all-weather roads. Fine.

But here’s the catch. Favored contractors are paid in full for projects that are only 20% completed. All the contractors need is a certification from one Mario Soriano, whose item at the DPWH is that of Engineer 3, but who is the project engineer, construction engineer, OIC-Assistant District Engineer’s Office, and chairman of the bids and awards committee, all rolled into one favourite person. Favourite of whom? Secretary Ebdane? Or Rep. Baham Mitra?

In brief, Engineer Soriano awards, implements, supervises, and certifies completion over the road projects funded by the share of the Malampaya bounty. All in. And I’ve seen documents and pictures of hardly touched projects already fully paid for, per vouchers and other papers. Not only roads, but school buildings as well. A culvert is placed, a bridge is certified as completed.

Remember how my friend stumbled into a washed-out bridge in the remote island municipality of San Fernando in Sibuyan Island, which I wrote about sometime in the middle of last year? My friend took photographs of the washed-out portions, and wept…not a single reinforcing bar meshed inside the plaster of cement and gravel. Not even a bamboo reinforcement. No wonder, at the first rush of water from Mt. Giting-Giting, the bridge collapsed, and with it, the people’s money.

Now, in southern Palawan, a favourite DPWH official does his things, at whose behest, Ebdane’s or Mitra’s or whoever else, and it has raised the hackles of Palawan’s concerned citizens. The scuttlebutt is 20% for the contractor, another 20% for the project, and 60% for the political or bureaucratic bosses. At this rate, the bounty from Malampaya will just go into the deep pockets, and to hell with “development”.

The citizens who complained to us in Palawan claim the same things happen, albeit in smaller crocodilian bites, in the whole province. Maybe in the south, it is crocodilus palawanensis that reigns supreme, while in the north and in Puerto, it is crocodilus mindorensis.