Imagine the world’s most beautiful marine area, with its thousands of kilometers of living, breathing, moving expanse of fish, coral, crustacean and all form of life – all suddenly turned into fancy resort that includes an underwater restaurant that resembles a popular cartoon setting – wouldn’t that be so ridiculously fun?
Not to the environmental groups, who have since fought for its stoppage.
Trouble in Paradise?
Early this year, an international media group together with a resort developer announced that it will open an underwater resort just off the coast of Palawan.
The 400-hectare master-planned project will be developed in the island of Culion, a few hours away from the globally acclaimed Coron Island and part of Palawan. It was touted to be the first resort of its kind in Southeast Asia. Expected to open in 2020, the proposed development that was first conceptualized in 2011 touted itself to address the conservation of coral reefs and ocean protection.
But for Gregorio “Ditto” Dela Rosa, Jr., officer-in-charge for conservation and science and research department of the environmental organization Haribon Foundation, the project would have proven disastrous not only to Palawan but to the entire natural environment that is home to about 10,000 species of marine flora and fauna.
“If this pushes through, its construction alone will remove at least hundreds of hectares of coral reef,” he declared.
According to Dela Rosa, the developer’s master plan must also include safety nets to protect the pristine condition of Culion and the seas surrounding it. He added that while the developer has approached the local government unit of Coron, it has yet to consult the Tagbanua tribe (that is known to have ancestral domain rights over many of the islands of the Calamianes archipelago, including that of Culion) and the environmental groups that included Haribon.
“Practically there was no consultation that involved the community and the environmental groups who are monitoring the areas,” he said. “The developer did not approach the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, which is the province’s main arm in managing all economic activities of Palawan and its islands.”
He also revealed that the mega-coral park project will affect the lives of the indigenous people, specifically the Tagbanua community, who fish for livelihood. The assurance of the protection of the community and security will be in peril as the project will ravage marine and coastal biodiversity in the protected sanctuary.
“The first thing will suffer is the fish corals and then fisherfolk [that harvest] in that area will not be allowed to fish anymore,” said Dela Rosa.
He also divulged the marine attraction will have potential negative effects on the ridge of the area and will affect the settlement of coral reefs that could threaten tens of thousands of marine species.
A Quest to Protect
Environmental advocates like Dela Rosa and Haribon Foundation have always espoused for community-based coastal resource management (CBCRM) in the Philippines for the past 40 years. While they do not oppose development in these areas, especially in the aspect of tourism, he said the word ‘eco-tourism’ has become tainted by unscrupulous groups and companies who rake in money at the expense of environmentally damaging activities.
According to him, an intervention need not be a big-scale, large-investment scheme to showcase “the largest coral reef ecosystem conservation project.” It should consider the needs and plans of the local government through consultations and involve different stakeholders to achieve success.
“With Haribon’s assistance, the LGUs are also keen to integrate tourism in their marine-protected area (MPA) plans. They want to ensure that each municipality and MPA showcase a different experience so there will be no competing interests within the bay for tourism,” he said. “It may not be as high-end or with a tag price of P60 billion worth of investments but it does the job of improving the well-being of the many, not just a few.”
Petition for Protection
Just recently, Environment Secretary Gina Lopez who was unaware of the project until its recent media buzz, reiterated that she will not allow the proposed theme park at the expense of amusement and marine attraction. Social media has also made the call to stop the project viral, led by the Save the Philippine Seas head Anna Oposa, who started the hashtag #CoronIsNotBikiniBottom and has gathered thousands of signatures in its online petitions.
Various groups have called on to the people of Palawan to be vigilant and alert and urged the public to be keen on ‘development’ touted as ‘eco-tourism.’ Once the environment of Palawan gets affected like what had happened in Boracay and other islands subjected to commercial development, it will no longer be as “fun” as everyone thinks it would. And suddenly, cartoon characters that we love would only turn into villains out to exploit the beauty of the world’s last ecological frontier.