Dividing Palawan: What's at stake?

ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group

Posted at Mar 12 2021 02:57 PM | Updated as of Mar 12 2021 10:24 PM

It’s finally happening. After being postponed for nearly a year because of the pandemic, the plebiscite that will divide Palawan into three provinces is set to happen tomorrow, March 13. It is said to be a test case for how the Presidential elections next year will be conducted in a pandemic. 

But more than being a test case, a lot is at stake in the division of the biggest province in the country in terms of land area. Palawan has nearly 15,000 square kilometers of land area. The provincial population, however, is less than a million. 

Mainland Palawan stretches 500 kilometers from its northern tip to its southern tip, “almost the stretch of travelling from Bicol Region to the Ilocos Region,” according to the explanatory note of House Bill 7413. 

Proponents of the division say that it will shatter the traditional center-periphery development pattern where everything emanates from the capitol in Puerto Princesa, making it difficult for resources to reach far-flung areas, especially island municipalities. Breaking down the province would mean three provincial governments, each with its own Internal Revenue Allotment, set of leaders, and a seat of government that is more accessible to the municipalities. This, they say, will fast track progress.

Those who oppose the division say that the reduction of the provincial government into three smaller local government units will make them more vulnerable to external security threats and exploitation by private firms interested in the area’s vast mineral and other natural resources. 

Not all areas of Palawan are created equal. There are areas that have already gained headway because of investments made by past national and local governments, such as national roads or tourism development. Those who have been neglected by previous governments on the other hand, will remain struggling. While some areas are rich in natural resources, others are not. 

Here, we take a closer look at the configuration of the three Palawan provinces should the yes votes win in the plebiscite. Will there be winners and losers in Palawan’s division?

Dividing Palawan: What's at stake? 1

PALAWAN DEL NORTE: most developed tourist destinations, biggest public airport outside Puerto Princesa City

In this province will belong Palawan’s most popular tourist destinations such as Coron, El Nido, and Calauit Safari. 

The popularity of these destinations to local and foreign tourists alike is in large part due to the presence of the biggest public airport outside of Puerto Princesa City: the Francisco Reyes or Busuanga airport. 

After the division, this province will have the fewest municipalities, with only six of Palawan’s 23 municipalities, compared to the eight and nine municipalities that its neighboring provinces will have. 

While it is smallest in size, it’s not the smallest in terms of population. Its 253,000 residents account for some 27% of the total population of entire Palawan, based on the 2021 projected population by the Department of Health. This is bigger than Palawan Oriental’s 211,000 residents. 

It is likewise in the middle in terms of poverty incidence. Five of its six municipalities have poverty incidence below 30% according to the 2015 Small Area Poverty Estimates by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). This means that less than 3 in every 10 residents are poor. Only one town, Linapacan, has a poverty incidence above 30%. This is still way below the poverty level of the poorest municipalities located in Palawan del Sur (more on this in the section below). 

In terms of infrastructure, its combined paved national road length is 254 kilometers, second only to Palawan del Sur’s 476 kms. 

PALAWAN ORIENTAL: lowest poverty incidence, two public airports, but lagging in terms of national paved roads

This prospective province has the fewest poor individuals because four of its municipalities have the lowest poverty incidence in entire Palawan: Cuyo, Magsaysay, Agutaya, and Roxas. There are only 1-2 poor individuals in these towns out of every 10 residents. 

Even in Cagayancillo, the town with the most poor residents in Palawan Oriental, the poverty incidence is only 32%, which is still way below that of the poorest municipalities located in Palawan del Sur. The protected area of Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is part of this municipality. 

The Long Beach Area of San Vicente town has been selected as one of the first Flagship Tourism Enterprise Zones, of the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority. The program aims to develop an area into a sustainable tourism destination and improve the competitiveness of its products.

The San Vicente airport became operational in 2017 and now caters to commercial flights, boosting local tourism even further. 

This province also has another smaller airport in the island municipality of Cuyo, where the posh Amanpulo resort is located, but the Cuyo airport only accommodates chartered flights. 

Despite all this, Palawan Oriental lags behind the other two Palawan provinces in terms of national roads. It only has 86 kilometers of national paved roads, all located in the capital town of Roxas. By comparison, the paved national roads in the two mining towns of Quezon (105.4 kms) and Rizal (105.1 kms) in Palawan del Sur are even longer than that of Palawan Oriental’s. 

National roads are important for an area’s economic development. The state of national roads is said to be among the indicators of an area’s progress. National primary roads connect major cities. National secondary roads, meanwhile, directly connect cities and provincial capitals within the same region. They also connect major ports, ferry terminals, airports, and major government infrastructure to national primary roads. There are also national tertiary roads under Department of Public Works and Highways that perform a local function.

By contrast, provincial, city, municipal, and barangay roads are under the local government. 

Palawan Oriental has the smallest population size among the three prospective provinces, accounting for only 20% of the total population of Palawan. Its 211,000 residents are less than half of Palawan del Sur’s. It also has the fewest registered voters.

PALAWAN DEL SUR – presence of commercial mining sites, but residents remain poor. Longest paved road network, biggest population among the three prospective provinces. 

All eight Mineral Production Sharing Agreements (MPSAs) in Palawan are located in five (out of the nine) municipalities in the prospective province of Palawan del Sur, according to data from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. 

The two commercial mining operations in entire Palawan are likewise located there: Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp. in Bataraza and Berong Nickel Corp. in Quezon. These two municipalities are among those with the highest poverty incidence in entire Palawan, with some 4 in 10 residents in these towns classified as poor. 

Aside from Bataraza and Quezon, two other municipalities in Palawan del Sur belong to the bottom poorest municipalities in entire Palawan: the municipality of Rizal, where 4 in 10 residents are poor, and Balabac, where half of all residents are considered poor, according to PSA’s 2015 Small Area Poverty Estimates. 

Kalayaan municipality, comprised of a group of islands with some 200 residents located in the West Philippine Sea, is also part of Palawan del Sur. 

Palawan del Sur has the longest paved national road network among the three prospective provinces with a combined total length of 476 kilometers. This is 1.87 times longer than that of Palawan del Norte and more than five times longer than that of Palawan Oriental. 

It has the most municipalities with nine out of the 23 Palawan municipalities. It also accounts for more than half of the entire population of Palawan. Its 486,000 residents are double that of Palawan del Norte and more than double that of Palawan Oriental. 

The towns of Bataraza, Brooke’s Point, and Narra are among the municipalities with the most registered voters in entire Palawan. Palawan del Sur has by far the most registered voters out of the three prospective Palawan provinces. 

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