Down on the docks in the small fishing village of Macarascas, on Palawan’s west coast, locals are taking their boats out to sea. It’s a sunny, clear day; perfect conditions to bring back a catch of mackerel or some octopuses, the fishermen hope.
Jane Villarin is the 37-year old leader of the local community council.
“Our population as of now was almost 1,700 and our main source of income is farming and fishing”
The fishermen in her village share the waterways with the Filipino navy. Just across the bay is the Ulugan Bay navy base, home to just a small fleet of patrol boats and military personnel.
About 160km west of here are the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of hundreds of rocks, reefs and islets. Several countries in the region lay claim to this area, principally the Philippines and China. It’s an area rich in marine life and thought to have vast untapped natural resources. About 50 percent of the world’s maritime traffic sails through these waters.
Over the past few years, navies from both countries have been confronting each other at sea. Villiarin says it’s a bit scary to live in effectively what has become the front row seat of what some in the region are starting to call a flashpoint. That's why they're pleased to have the navy nearby.
“It’s protection for us. That’s why the naval, the Philippines navy is welcomed here because of that.”
And she adds, she’d welcome the American navy here too.
“Today I’m pleased that we are beginning an important new chapter in the relationship between our two countries and it starts with our security”
In April, US President Barack Obama and Philippines’ leader Benigno Aquino signed a new defense pact, the Enhancement of Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, which opens the door for American forces to be stationed in the Philippines, 22-years after the US closed its bases here.
But as Obama explained, it's more of a base sharing arrangement than a re-establishment of American power in the region.
“The United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases. At the invitation of the Philippines, American forces will rotate through Filipino bases”
A Macarascas fishermen takes me out on his boat as close as we can get to the Ulugan Bay base. Inside here is another, deeper, port called Oyster Bay. The Philippines government is offering this underdeveloped facility for use by the US navy.
Lt Col Ramon Zagala is chief of the public affairs office for the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
“The very purpose of that base is to enhance our defense capabilities westward to the West Philippines Sea. Oyster Bay is one of those that we want to offer to the United States so we can develop it”
He says it’s still too early to determine how big or what might be included in the proposed base sharing agreement.
Community leader Jane Villarin sees an opportunity for her village too. Most people in Macarascas earn just over 100 dollars a month. She says inviting the Americans here will bring more jobs to the barangay , as the community is called in the local language.
“It’s a sign of development in our barangay. Maybe more business to come, progress in our barangay”
The majority of people here in bustling Puerto Princesa feel the same way as Ms. Villarin. They see the expansion of the Oyster Bay base as a potential boost for the economy. But not everyone here is happy about having a modern American fleet with bigger ships and soldiers in their backyard.
Environmentalists point out that much of Palawan island is a protected conservation zone. Including the mangrove forest around the navy base.
“I’m Elizabeth Maclang the current parks’ superintendent of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park”
She says Puerto Princesa, to which Oyster Bay and the Macarascas village belong, opposes the military’s plan to develop the base and allow Americans to use it on environmental grounds. Maclang says local communities don’t realize what’s at stake; like chopping down the mangroves in order to build a new port and other installations.
“Even if there’s a lot of jobs, there’s a lot of facilities that will be put up there. But if you will cut the mangroves, the mangrove area, it will greatly affect their livelihood. Because the Macarascas and Baheeli is one of the potential ecotourism sites as well and that would add some extra livelihood also for them”
Maclang explains that the US doesn’t have a good environmental track record in the Philippines as it is. In 1992, American forces left the Philippines after almost a century of deployment here. But the bases that were handed back over were left heavily polluted and last year a US navy ship crashed into one of Palawan’s coral reef preserves.
Environmental advocates say the US pretty much got off with just a slap on the wrist from the national government.
The stationing of American forces on Palawan could also bring some other unwanted impacts to the community.
There’s a strip of bars in Puerto Princesa that cater to male patrons. About 20 girls work in this particular establishment, all have been brought in from outside of Palawan, the manager, Ms. Thess, tells me.
The club manager says American soldiers, who are in the Philippines off duty. are some of her best customers and she’d be happy to have more.
“Especially the past few years, there are many American customers here. I think they are not here for work, they are here for rest and relaxation”
The prospect of expanding the Oyster Bay base and stationing Americans there, alarms Jean Enriquez, the director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in the Asia Pacific, based in Manila.
“The presence of naval soldiers in that area would also mean the existence of a demand site to trafficking and also prostitution and that could be a magnet for the trafficking of women and children from the outskirts of Oyster Bay, probably from Puerto Princesa and other indigenous communities from around Palawan who are very poor”
Enriquez points out that in the areas where American bases used to be, prostitution and human trafficking is still a serious problem.
She and other advocates have taken their concerns to the streets and have protested against the redeployment of US soldiers to the Philippines.
These demonstrators greeted President Obama during his trip to Manila earlier this year. And it seems that their worries are being heard by the nation’s top court. Judges are now reviewing petitions that claim the new US-Philippines defense pact, EDCA, is unconstitutional.
The Armed Forces’ Ramon Zagala says plans for the Oyster Bay base development have been put on hold for now, but he doesn’t expect for long.
Back in Macarascas, despite the protests, community leader Jane Villarin says her barangay hopes the plan will go through soon. In the meantime, she says locals are already getting familiar with American soldiers.
“The US Navy, they come here last year and have some projects in our elementary school, in our barangay”
And that she says, makes the Americans even more welcome for most residents here.
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