A light mist of saltwater spray cools my face, as the barka, a motorized outrigger, makes its way across the placid sea. Below the water surface, coral reefs are visible with the naked eye. The water is teeming with marine life, just waiting to be discovered by lucky SCUBA divers and snorkelers. We run parallel to a coast, covered in thick green jungle. The peak of St. Paul’s mountain rises high above the undisturbed beauty of the rainforest.
We land in a white sand cove, where we enter the national park, one of the last remaining habitats of the Palawan Peacock, the mascot of Puerto Princesa City. Monkeys play in the treetops, and monitor lizards, some of them two meters long, scurry along the forest floor. A pleasant jungle path leads to a tranquil lagoon where we pickup the kayaks which take us inside of St. Paul’s underground river. Declared an UNESCO world heritage site, St. Paul’s is reported to be the second longest navigable underground river in the world. It flows through 8.5 Km of cathedral like caverns, decorated with fascinating stalactites and stalagmites. On the other side, it empties in to the South China Sea.
Unbelievable as it may be, the river, the mountain, the national park, various indigenous tribes, and countless hectares of protected trees and animals are all located inside the city limits of Puerto Princesa.
Puerto is also one of the few cities in the world which can boast not just one, but two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The other is Tubbataha Reef, an atoll coral reef, located in the Sulu Sea, 98 nautical miles southeast. This underwater marine park has become an important habitat for sea animals whose very existence has been threatened by over-fishing, pollution, and man’s carelessness.
Puerto Princesa City, located on Palawan Island, is the largest city, by area, in the Philippines. You can travel two hours north or south and still be inside of the city limits. The city measures 140 km north to south and 50 km east to west. It is a priceless emerald of eco-tourism. Puerto has won a slue of international awards and has repeatedly been voted the “Cleanest and Greenest” city in The Philippines. With 75% forest cover, Puerto is one of the largest sanctuaries of old growth and replanted forest in the world.
Aside from the stunning natural beauty and myriads of hikes and tours available to eco tourists, the city’s inhabitants enjoy one of the highest quality of life imaginable. Most people will attribute all of the progressive measures, both environmental and social to the work of a single man, Mayor Edward Hagedorn, who has been at the helm of city government for more than 14 years. Since taking charge, Mayor Hagedorn has worked, non-stop, on his various projects, focused on environmentalism, education, and welfare.
Puerto boasts a crime rate approaching zero. Now, thanks to the direct efforts of the mayor, there is an absence of the illegal gambling which was destroying the lives of the poor in days past. There is no litter in Puerto. In fact, throwing a single cigarette butt on the ground could cost you a fine of 200 Pesos. A strong supporter of sport and fitness, Mayor Hagedorn gave the city a coliseum, which seats 8,000 people. He also built an Olympic swimming pool, and a sports complex. Puerto, a city of just under a quarter of a million, is quickly gaining a reputation for producing outstanding athletes, who go on to national and international honors.
“The city was filthy before mayor Hagedorn came in.” said one shop owner. “There was garbage everywhere.”
The first thing the Mayor did was move the city dump, which was only meters away from a school. Now Puerto has the First engineered sanitary landfill in Philippines. It is one of the most advanced waste management systems in the world. The mayor went to America and returned to Puerto, to implement some of the best programs he saw there, one of which was a 911 style emergency response system. The city government is ISO 9001 certified.
Through his vision, Puerto Princesa was the first city in the Philippines, and one of the first in the world, to order the tricycle taxis to convert to LPG (liquid petroleum gas), a clean burning, environmentally friendly fuel. Puerto Princesa is also the home of a model jail, which is run by the inmates. They grow their own food. They attend classes, play in a band, and compete in sports. Their families are allowed to visit. Cells are open during the day. And the city saves money because at night, there are only three armed guards.
Mayor Hagedorn established public Montesori to cater to the needs of poor but deserving students. He built 300 schools and education centers. He established 7 satellite hospitals in rural locations, dispensing free medicine for common illnesses. He also built libraries to help promote literacy. The last Saturday of June each year is set aside as the annual Feast of the Forest, which culminates in a community based tree planting exercise. Through this program, nearly two million trees have been replanted.
According to Mayor Hagedorn, “Our goal is to be a model city in sustainable development.” His entire administration has been focused on his Oplan Linis plan, which is composed of six parts: cleanliness beautification, sanitation, save the sea, save the air, and information and education.