By Rommel C. Banlaoi
Do you know the smallest municipality in the Philippines in terms of land area, population and income?
The answer is the Kalayaan Municipality of Palawan Province. It is so small that it is the only municipality in the Philippines with only one barangay – the Pag-Asa Island, which is one of the more than 250 disputed land features in the South China Sea being claimed by other countries.
A Contested Municipality
The Kalayaan Municipality is located west of Palawan and situated in the contested South China Sea where islands, islets, reefs and shoals are being claimed in whole or in parts by Brunei, China, Malaysia the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Because other countries are involved, the Municipality of Kalayaan forms a significant space in Philippine Foreign Policy. Though it is the smallest municipality in the Philippines, it looms large in our external affairs because of other countries enmeshed in territorial conflict in the South China Sea.
The Philippine government declared Kalayaan as an integral part of Philippine territory by virtue of Presidential Decree No. 1596 issued by then President Ferdinand Marcos on 11 June 1978. This law made Kalayaan a separate and distinct municipality under the jurisdiction of the Province of Palawan.
History and Physical Attributes
It was Thomas Cloma, a Filipino navigator, who first discovered in the 1950s the existence of inhabited group of islands and islets in the South China Sea. In July 1956, Cloma declared these groups of islands a “Freedom Land” until it became known as the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) or Kalayaan Group of Islands. The Philippine government took sovereign control of the KIG in 1978 because of its strategic and economic importance for the country. Since then, the Kalayaan Municipality has become a legitimate local government unit (LGU). It is the only LGU in the Philippines that is frequently discussed in Philippine foreign policy and national defense diplomacy.
The Kalayaan Municipality is composed of eight islands with an aggregate land area of only 112.85 hectares. The largest island is Pag-Asa, which becomes the sole barangay. Barangay Pag Asa is the only barangay in the Philippines being protected by the combined forces of the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Air Force. Other islands of the Kalayaan Municipality are Parola, Likas, Lawak, Patag, Kota, Panata, and Rizal. All these islands have a security detachment of the Philippine Navy. Another Navy detachment is found in Ayungin Shoal, a Philippine military facility closest to Mischief Reef being occupied by China.
In other words, Kalayaan is the only municipality in the Philippines that matters largely in the territorial defense posture of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Kalayaan Municipality is highly disputed because it is located in one of the busiest sea routes in the world, the South China Sea. More than 50% of the world’s shipping activities pass through this area. Thus, the South China Sea is one of the world’s superhighways. As a maritime nation, the Philippines depends heavily on the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Kalayaan is the Philippines’ frontline municipality in the promotion of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Thus, the security situation in Kalayaan affects the security of the entire Philippines. Philippine foreign policy is not complete without a sound and effective foreign policy on the Kalayaan.
Kalayaan is rich in indigenous marine resources. It is known for its highest marine biodiversity in the world. Kalayaan is the biosphere of complex marine life that sustain the supply of stocks to heavily fished waters in Southeast Asia. The Palawan Province and the entire Philippine nation depend on the supply of marine resources in the Kalayaan areas.
The surrounding waters of Kalayaan is also known for its natural gas and oil deposits. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have existing oil exploration drillings in the South China Sea. The Malampaya/Camago Natural Gas to Power Plan is a clear demonstration of its rich petroleum endowments. Thus, city of Puerto Princesa is advocating for the declaration of the area as part of the country’s Petroleum Geopark.
On 10 March 2009, the Philippine government signed Republic Act 9522, otherwise known as the New Philippine Baselines Law. This law declares the Municipality of Kalayaan as part of the “regime of islands” of the Philippines.
This law created apprehensions on the possible demotion of sovereign status of Kalayaan as an LGU. But the municipal government is optimistic that with the support of League of Municipalities of the Philippines (LMP) and other officials of the local and national governments, Kalayaan will maintain its legitimacy as a vibrant municipality aspiring for effective local governance in the Philippines.
In 2006, the Municipality of Kalayaan adopted its Medium Term Development Plan, 2006-2010. In this plan, which is presently being updated and revised, the entire municipal team envisioned Kalayaan to be an economic and tourist spot based on sustainable management of its resources. With a municipality of less than 300 people, realizing this vision is a gargantuan challenge.