Haribon Statement on Planned Coal Power Plant in Palawan
Photo by Peter-Widmann of KATALA Foundation Inc.
Haribon, the Philippines' pioneer environmental organization working at the forefront of biodiversity conservation, supports a growing clamor from several concerned individuals and groups. This is regarding a reported 15-MW coal power plant that appears to be easily making its way into getting built in an important Philippine wildlife sanctuary in Palawan.
Last February, the proponents of the coal power plant, despite the concerns voiced by conservation groups, gained clearance from the Palawan Sustainable Development Council to build the facility in the coastal town of Narra near the heart of the province, which is an important Philippine faunal region. The approval is questionable. It was reported that the council's own technical staff tasked with assessing the coal plant's possible effects concluded that the facility would negatively affect the environmentally critical zone, even recommending its relocation. An on-line petition against the establishment of the plant is now raising awareness and gaining support on this issue.
Narra lies very close to Rasa Island – the last stronghold of the Philippine Cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia) or the katala. Of this unique bird, which the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists as Critically Endangered, only 1,000 individuals exist in the world. But Rasa Island alone is home to about 250 or 25 percent of the remaining individual species according to the Katala Foundation Incorporated. The bird's habitat range was previously wide but the decline in population has been rapid because of the disappearance of lowland habitats. The bird is also a hot item in the illegal wildlife trade as a cage bird. Today, the katala only has smaller scattered populations in Tawi-Tawi and even fewer numbers in Polillo and Samar. Decline in Philippine Cockatoo numbers is prevalent everywhere, except on Rasa Island where conservation efforts have been intensive and successful. The Katala Foundation, for example, started with only 23 cockatoos left on Rasa in 1998 before reaching the present population number. The foundation's strategies include nest protection, community involvement and individual bird rescue, among others. The foundation said the core component of its conservation program is a wardening scheme where wardens, which include former poachers, intensively monitor and control nest trees. On Rasa and other sites, the foundation has a herbarium collection of key plants in cockatoo habitats, especially those that provide food.
But Rasa is not just about its wildlife. In 2011, a floral survey in the coastal forest of the island found that the site is home to 68 plant species also believed to be primary food for the Philippine Cockatoo and other animals on the island (Sopsop, 2011). At least one of this numbers is endemic to Palawan. Another six species were reportedly included in the threatened categories of the 2007 IUCN Red List.
Photo by Peter-Widmann of KATALA Foundation Inc.
Concerned individuals working in the area are saying that the coal plant will disrupt the endangered bird in their usual feeding habit. The birds in the Rasa Island Wildlife Sanctuary fly to the mainland during the day to feed, returning to the island at sunset to roost. The Philippine Cockatoo feeds on seeds and on fruits and nectar. One feared effect of the coal plant is that this will limit the ability of the bird to feed their young.
Haribon is saddened by the controversial decision by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development to issue a Strategic Environmental Plan or SEP clearance to allow the construction of the facility in Narra. This council was created under Republic Act 7611 or the Strategic Environmental Plan for Palawan Act, a distinct law exclusive to Palawan and intended to protect the environment of the province, which recognized as the country's last biodiversity frontier, under the principles of “sustainable development.” Once again, as in many other cases of government advancing decisions that environmental groups find only too flawed upon scrutiny, including the recent Executive Order 79 on mining, it appears that other considerations instead of sustainable development dominated the council's decision-making interests. The council has not only reportedly ignored its own technical staff, as the council's own spokesperson admitted to the media, but even the very townspeople of Narra, which has not approved of the project. The PCSD's actions showed a lack of respect for conservation policies that have been put in place—with an important purpose.
Palawan, also home to the Calamian hog-deer, Palawan peacock-pheasant and Mary's frog, to mention a few, is truly a rich biodiversity site. Rasa Island also holds marine turtles, the grey imperial pigeon other endangered endemics, and the dugong, among others. On the other hand, power plants can pose considerable threats to its surrounding air, land, water, vegetation and wildlife. These impacts can be felt during plant construction; when the plant's physical structures are already in place; and when the plant is already operational.
During construction, the dredging of barge unloading areas could affect fish, mussels and other aquatic life. Vegetation removal upon construction can also occur. Power plants build water intake and discharge facilities, so vegetation in surface waters can also be affected. When the facility's towering presence in the region is finally raised, indeed birds could be killed directly if they strike power plant structures or new power lines, as conservationists worry. But the coal power plant's operation, when it is already spewing its emissions into the open air, can impact vegetation or result in air pollution. But let's not forget the ecological principle that nature is interrelated. All impacts on vegetation could translate to wildlife impacts, for this instance with its direct correlation to the damage to sources of food.
photo by Djop Tabaranza of Haribon Foundation
Considering the obvious ecological nuances of this issue, we wonder how an SEP clearance came to be issued by the council, thereby allowing the proponent to inch forward to its goal of getting an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The SEP act enshrines the concept of “Social Acceptability” in the operationalization of the Strategic Environmental Plan, where “the people themselves, through participatory process[es], should be fully committed to support sustainable development activities.” The sidelining of the people of Narra in the SEP clearance approval is violative of the principle of social acceptability and participatory process. A review of the PCSD's approval process for this specific case is in order. If the PCSD itself will not act as a champion of environmental protection, who will?
Government agencies should be conscientious when it comes to granting approvals such as these. If the proposed coal power plant reaches the Department of Environment and Natural Resources at the national level at its current form, then the only rational thing to do for the agency is to promptly deny it an ECC clearance, as we think the power plant's potential environmental impacts have not been stringently and truthfully assessed. Further, all approval processes should be transparent and open to the public.
We also urge the public not to be swayed by those who present this issue as a simple choice to be made between the need for electricity and the need to protect nature. In balancing a society's needs, the tilt should favor our natural resources and biodiversity. The people do need electricity, but we think this should not be at the expense of biodiversity loss. It would be misleading to approach the issue by choosing between two seemingly disparate choices of “power” and “environment.” The need for electricity only makes sense for a community that has an adequate resource base for thriving and where ecological benefits can be enjoyed by the majority over a long period of time. The Philippines is in a critical situation when it comes to its natural resources. Agenda No. 1 should be the protection and conservation of remaining natural habitats and its biodiversity. Without this prerequisite, notions of “progress” are self deceiving.
Finally, as the Katala Foundation has pointed out, perhaps the government can also look into using sustainable forms of energy instead of fossil fuels like coal. The usual problem raised against renewable forms of energy such as solar, wind and wave/tidal energy, among others, are that they are more expensive to build. This is an excuse that our natural environment could be finding more and more irritating to hear. Instead, the Philippine government should double or triple efforts to research into and develop sources of energy that do not pose such direct threats to life. As it is, what we have right now is potential electricity from a dirty source, one that will disturb a very rich ecosystem, and that will threaten the peace of an endangered endemic bird. What we're seeing is the making of a triple whammy.