By Patty Moises-Afuang
Some four decades back, Palawan still lived up to the general description as the country’s Last Frontier. Tourism there was then growing at a fast pace. There were hotels, yes. Real estate developers were also doing a lot of studies on the market and the viability of moving there on a big-time basis.
There was a lot of planning being done. But at ground level the reality was still this: urbanization, even for the capital city of Puerto Princesa, was more an architectural perspective than a living reality.
Not anymore. From the northern point to the southern tip, tourism-related developments have transformed Palawan physically. The center, where Puerto Princesa holds court like a true princess of the land, is catering to a tourism surge that its current resources, from the hotels to the trained hospitality personnel, cannot seem to handle. The pace of growth and urbanization is such that it is already a big joke to call Palawan the “Last Frontier.”
But despair not. There is a new Last Frontier – and it is a virgin territory. The natural resources that our new Last Frontier may hold may be far richer and enormous than what is present in the other, still unexplored areas of the country. It is also underwater. This is the Benham Rise, recently renamed Philippine Rise through an Executive Order signed by President Duterte.
It is ours
The Philippine Rise, currently given attention by the government through scientific and marine /fishery explorations, was not an original part of the Philippine territory. It is a 13 million hectare underwater plateau, about 250 kilometers from the provinces of Aurora and Isabela, the landmass nearest to the Rise. It was named for Andrew Benham, an American who did the first exploration and survey work in the underwater mass, an inactive volcanic ridge.
In April 2009, amid a growing tension over the territories covered by the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines filed a claim over the area with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLOS). The UNCLOS granted the Philippines sovereign rights over the Benham Rise in 2012, which means that only the Philippines can undertake exploration and development of the Rise’s natural resources.
The UNCLOS took note of the fact that the Rise is contiguous with the country’s extended continental shelf, and falls under the country’s exclusive economic zone. The UNCLOS was satisfied with the Philippines’ claim, and declared that “the natural prolongation of the Philippine territory from its coast to the outer edge of the continental margin extends beyond 200 natural miles beyond the Benham Region east of Luzon.” RA 9522, which defines the country’s territorial sea baselines, cover the general area of what the UNCLOS has called the “Benham Region.”
The underwater plateau is larger than the entire Luzon land mass and this addition has been welcomed by the country’s political leaders, with the most enthusiastic statements coming from the leaders of both Aurora and Isabela provinces.
“We must protect what is clearly ours. It is also high time to accelerate the development of the Benham Rise as a potential rich source of alternative energy, marine resources, and as a tourist destination,” said Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, a native of Aurora and the author of Senate Bill 313, which sought the creation of a Benham Rise Development Authority. Angara said that the “proper inventory of the Rise is crucial to crafting a roadmap on how the country can develop and ultimately benefit from the resources-rich underwater plateau.”
Wonders to discover
The first official expedition into the Rise took place in 2014, five years after the UNCLOS decision. It was conducted by a group composed of scientists, marine and fishery experts, and biodiversity experts. Divers from private groups and universities accompanied the study group, which focused their research on the Benham Bank, the shallowest portion of the Benham Region less than 50 meters underwater.
The first expedition reported “a large sandy-rock habitat that is inhabited by an apparently diverse community of corals, microalgae, invertebrates and fish.”
The follow-up research expedition was done in May of 2016 and this time, the scientific study group had more funds, and more equipment. They needed to probe the deeper areas of the Rise through remotely-operated vehicles and remote underwater video systems. A total of 11 research stations were set up and an extensive amount of footage was produced.
The exploration of the underwater terrain of the Rise tuned out very interesting findings. The survey team found evidence of the existence of natural gas deposits, and read this, solidified methane, which has hydrocarbon contents that are better than oil, natural gas and coal.
Solidified methane, which is believed to be found at the Rise on commercial quantities, is known in oil and gas industry circles as the “game-changer” in that particular field.
Oceana, a group protecting the world’s oceans, has said that Benham Rise’s bio-diversity is so diverse and rich, and it needs special protection from exploitative activities.
Right now, only a small Naval Station based in Casiguran, Aurora protects the Rise.
While Filipino scientists got a first glimpse of the Rise and its many awesome natural assets in 1990 – after a major earthquake devastated parts of Luzon and scientists set out to probe the causes and origins of the quake – the real effort to claim the Rise as part of the country’s continental shelf only began in earnest in the new century, at a seminar of the Department of Foreign Affairs
UP’s Jay Batongbacal, one of the foremost experts on Maritime Law, had written a brief narration of the events that led to the filing of a submission to claim the Rise before a Sub-commission of the UNCLOS.
But centuries before, the people of Catanduanes known as Catandunganon have been fishing in the Rise, which is called Kalipung-awan, meaning a lonely or forlorn place. In ancient Catandunganon folklore, poetry, and music, the “forlorn” fishing area was celebrated.
By a certain quirk of geography or due to the sheer size of the Rise, the provinces nearest to the underwater mass are Aurora, Isabela, and Catanduanes, an island-province of the Bicol Region.
The two scientific expeditions to the Rise has so far explored a mere 1% of the new territory, as the first two teams failed to go deeper. The limitations are many, from funding to getting an appropriate vessel to conduct underwater research of that importance and magnitude. The BRP Gregorio Velasquez is the only oceanographic research vessel in the country.
The Benham rise, as an addition to being the country’s continental shelf, is known for its many “firsts.”
“It is the first modern expansion of our territorial jurisdiction probably since the birth of the Republic, “ said Batongbacal.
Now, it is also the country’s Last Frontier.