Update to this article
This article has been updated to include Secretary Voltaire Gazmin's statement about putting all national government funded improvements on Pag-asa Island in abbeyance. To date, no significant progress has been made towards construction of this port. This is stark contrast to China's own efforts on Johnson and Gavin reefs. #pagasaKIG
|Photo of Chinese island building on Johnson reef c/o IHS Jane's 360|
The fishermen and municipal workers and families that live on Pag-asa Island comprise the most isolated civilian community in the Republic of the Philippines. The island, the largest of eight (8) Philippine occupied coral outcroppings in the Municipality of Kalayaan, is approximately 509 kilometers northwest of Puerto Princessa and 828 kilometers southwest of Metro Manila. Once a strictly a military installation, Pag-asa was opened to civilian settlement in 2002.
Since the creation of the settlement, the Municipal government of Kalayaan has established a range of facilities that provide vital public services that are expected of a functional community. Pag-asa has a power station consisting of a solar panel farm, charging a bank of 48 batteries, as well a conventional fossil-fueled generator to provide for the island's electrical needs. The island's reverse osmosis plant converts seawater into potable drinking water that residents collect from the plant. Water for domestic use is piped into individual homes.
Smart Telecommunications established a cell site, connected to its main network via VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal), on the island in 2005 making normal GSM-based cellphone communication with the island possible. The first call on the system took place on June 12 at 5:18 PM between the mayor of the municipality at the time and a Smart Telecom executive. The company completed a maintenance visit to the cell site in 2011, thus ensuring continued operation of the facility.
In 2012, the municipal government entered into a Memorandum of Agreement with the Department of Education to establish the Pag-asa Elementary School. There are currently 24 children that call Pag-asa, Kalayaan home. Fourteen are from fishing families, while the other 10 are children of municipal workers. Children of the latter go to school in Palawan. As of last year, 8 of the 14 enrolled in the Pag-asa Elementary School. Five were still too young to go to school and were candidates for the next school year. One child was un-enrolled. By mid-school year, the teaching staff at the school had expanded to two teachers. The school started with municipality's multi-purpose hall which residents converted for its current purpose. Two buildings will be added this year. One funded by the Ayala Foundation is currently under construction. Another is being funded by the Provincial Governor of Palawan.
|First classroom||First graduation|
Continued development of the island and the rest of the municipality hinges on the availability of reliable and regular transportation to the rest of the country, especially the province of Palawan. This would facilitate the transport of goods and materials to the islands, and promote socio-economic activity -- whose development has thus far been painfully slow.
Pag-asa Island is one of only two islands in the Spratly Islands with a functional airstrip. The Armed Forces of the Philippines constructed the Pag-asa airfield in the early 70's and named if after the visionary PAF Commanding General that ordered its construction: Jose Rancudo. To date, however, there are no scheduled commercial flights to the municipal seat of power, save for periodic flights by AFP aircraft (the runway can accommodate the C-130 Hercules cargo planes and host of smaller aircraft). Charter flights have reached the island in the recent past. But with costs of reportedly P100K per charter, this would be too cost-prohibitive for local residents.
The primary means by which settlers travel to and from the closest Philippine landmass -- Palawan -- is by sea. Up until recently, passage to the island primarily by way of Philippine Navy ships. Civilians would be taken aboard as passengers on navy warships which re-supplied the various garrisons on Philippine-held islands. The Municipality expanded the community's transportation options by acquiring its own vessel: the 40-meter M/V Queen Seagull.
Ship-to-shore transfers however are difficult because of the absence of port facilities. During the monsoon season, vessels have to drop anchor approximately 5 kilometers to the east to a submerged reef that provides comparatively better shelter than the waters around Pag-asa itself. This deficiency also means that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) are unable to station patrol craft in the area to enforce environmental protection and similar laws. As had been reported on numerous occasions in the Philippine press, poachers are able to wreck havoc on the coral reefs within sight of Pag-asa authorities who were powerless to take appropriate action. The Philippine Navy is similarly unable to pre-position vessels for sovereignty patrols. The nearest naval station with a functional pier is in Ulungan Bay in Palawan which is over 500 kilometers to the east of the island.
For this reason, the Municipality of Kalayaan proposed the the Kalayaan Sheltered Port project. The Municipal government used the following graphic in one of their presentations to various national government agencies. It shows the location of the proposed port as well as the rehabilitated runway.
The following table chronicles the twists and turns that this project has taken. Efforts to create a port have been initiated in the past. However this article will focus on the most recent project. Updates will be posted as new information becomes available . . . both current and historical.
|June 22, 2011||Upon advice of the Philippine Ports Authority, the Office of the Municipal Mayor brought its appeal for funds to build port facilities on Pag-asa to the Office of the President. The letter suggested tapping into Malampaya proceeds for the project.|
|July 5, 2011||Office of the President referred the matter of the port facilities to Secretary of the Department of Agriculture (DA) for appropriate action. Note the inclusion of a patrol craft in the request, which was not mentioned in the initial correspondence in June.The rationale for why the request was routed to the DA instead of the Department of Transportation and Communication (DOTC), which has oversight over the Philippine Ports Authority, is unclear.|
|July 19, 2011||Department of Agriculture acknowledged receipt of correspondence from Office of the President and indicates that the matter has been referred to Director of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR)|
|August 4, 2011||Office of the Municipal Mayor sends a letter to the Department of Transportation and Communications appealing for assistance to build port facilities on Pag-asa Island. This line-of-communication is separate from the one that eventually went to the Department of Agriculture.|
|August 10, 2011||The BFAR asks the Municipality of Kalayaan to submit a formal project proposal that includes designs and drawings of the proposed port as well as technical specifications for the requested patrol craft.|
|August 19, 2011||DOTC informs Kalayaan Municipal government that the Kalayaan Shelter Port has been included in the DOTC infrastructure program for Calendar Year 2012. The letter, however, notes that continued action on the request hinged on Congressional deliberation and availability of funds.The Kalayaan port is included in the National Expenditure Program (NEP) for 2012. See here. An excerpt of the relevant section of the document appears to the right of the aforementioned letter.|
|December 15, 2011||Office of the President signs Republic Act 10155, General Appropriations Act of 2012, into law. This budget allocated the sum of P5M to the development of two ports on Palawan, to include the port in Pag-asa, in accordance with the DOTC proposal for the NEP. See page 3 of this Department of Budget and Management (DBM) document. Relevant excerpt appears on the right.As per DBM guidance, funds allocated in this budget are only available until December 31, 2013. See here.|
|February 2, 2012||Municipal government sends message to BFAR, amending original request to exclude patrol craft and focus instead on port facilities.Photographs and graphic representations of the proposed facilities, as well as a photo what the Vietnamese had done on Pugad Island, were included|
|March 28, 2012||Kalayaan Municipal government responds, via email, to an urgent request from the DOTC for information about the scope of work, and specifications of the port.The response mentions a conference between the Philippine Ports Authority and the Flag-Officer-In-Command (FOIC) of the Philippine Navy on March 21, 2012 where both parties agreed to pool their resources to construct the port. Both agencies put forth their respective proposals. The Municipal government expressed preference for the Philippine Navy proposal.The Municipal office, admitting to a lack of expertise, referred the DOTC to the aforementioned agencies for the technical details.|
|March 30, 2012||DOTC requests that the Kalayaan Municipal government present a thorough feasibility study of the project, that included justification for the project (e.g., technical, social, financial, and economic aspects), as well as details designs of the proposed port.The email indicates that this information is part of budget planning for 2013. However, the Pag-asa port project is not included in the DOTC section of the National Expenditure Program for 2013 (see here). Funds allocated in the 2012 budget, however, remain valid till the end of 2013.|
|August 30, 2012||DOTC requested the Municipality of Kalayaan for information about previous studies conducted by the PPA/DA or the AFP about the feasibility of constructing a port. This data will reportedly be use for the drafting of a Term of Reference (TOR) for hiring of consultants for the drafting of a Master Plan for the project.|
|July 17, 2013||In response to an update request from the Municipality of Kalayaan, the regional DOTC office relates that an un-named Under Secretary sought information about the purpose of the port -- seemingly oblivious to the discussions between the municipality and various national government entities over the past three years|
|July 17, 2013||Office of the Municipal Mayor of Kalayaan sent the following exasperated response to the latest information request from the DOTC|
|December 8, 2013||Office of the Municipal Mayor of Kalayaan sought the assistance of Congressman Teddy Brawner Baguilat (Lone district of Ifugao), one of the members of a congressional delegation that visited Pag-asa island in 2011, to push for the realization of the port project.|
|March 12, 2014||Representatives Rufus B. Rodriguez and Maximo B. Rodriguez Jr introduced House Bill 4167, which states the following:"The amount of One Billion Pesos (P1,000,000,000) is hereby appropriated to be exclusively used for the fortification and improvement of current structures present in the Kalayaan Group of Islands. Further, the same amount shall also be used to build new structures in the island like harbors, berthing facilities and other structures necessary to promote tourism in the islands and increase the defensive capabilities of the Philippines to strengthen the Philippines' claim over it"|
|May 5, 2014||As per the House of Representatives legislative database, House Bill 4167 was referred to the Committee on Appropriations|
|October 3, 2014||Inquirer.net quoted Secretary of National Defense as follows:
The municipality has yet to issue an official statement in light of this policy declaration.
Chinese fishing fleet closes in on Pag-asa Island, Philippine Daily Inquirer, July 26, 2012; retrieved June 16, 2013
China reclamation projects a blatant disregard of DOC, ABS-CBN news, June 6, 2014; retrieved October 8, 2014
China advances Johnson Reef construction, IHS Jane's 360, September 19, 2014; retrieved October 8, 2014
In light of the increasing number of concerned Filipinos organizing themselves for expeditions to the Municipality of Kalayaan, the original "Traveling to Pag-asa" article (available here) has been updated to incorporate fresh information. It includes an updated travel planning flowchart, updates on private initiatives to reach the islands, as well as a few minor edits.
How far away is it?
At over 300 kilometers west of Palawan, the islands of the Municipality of Kalayaan are among the most remote communities in the Republic of the Philippines. In terms of distance from major population centers, it is in the same league as Basco in Batanes, Mapun (formerly Cagayan de Sulu) and Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. What sets this municipality apart, however, are the a unique combination of barriers-to-access that have greatly retarded its development. This article explores those challenges.
Travel to the island is only advisable within a narrow window each year. As per reports from the office of the municipal mayor, the interval between April of May presents the best weather conditions for both sea and air travel. As will be described later in this article, optimal sea conditions are essential for travel by boat.
While weather information specifically for Pag-asa is unavailable on various online weather Websites, Weather.com publishes weather information for nearby Song Tu Tay island -- formerly Pugad Island.
Travel by air
From the air, Pag-asa's defining feature is its 1.3 kilometer runway: Rancudo airfield. It is an unpaved coral airstrip, covered for the most part, by grass, named after a forward-thinking Commanding General of the Philippine Air Force who had it constructed in the early 70s.
As per a Memorandum of Agreement between the Armed Force of the Philippines and the Municipality of Kalayaan, signed in October 5, 2005, the airfield is open for joint civilian and military use. However, no regular commercial flights visit the island.
To date, Rancudo does not appear on the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines' (CAAP) official list of airports and has not been rated as a civilian aerodrome. The latter reportedly presents aircraft charter companies with potential aircraft insurance issues, thus serving as a deterrent to service. As per the above agreement, responsibility for having Rancudo rated as an aerodrome rests with the municipality -- whose attempts to initiate the rating process, thus far, have been unsuccessful. Rejuvenated efforts to pursue certification are currently underway by way of the KIG development forum FB group and on Timawa.net
Despite the lack of a civilian rating, on July 20, 2011, a Dornier DO-228 became one of the first chartered commercial flights to land on Pag-asa island. The passengers (which consisted of a congressional delegation and other government dignitaries) chartered the plane at a cost of PhP65,000 per flying-hour and PhP7,000 per hour on stand-by time, for a total price tag of P1.8M. The rates quoted were a function of the aircraft type and cheaper alternatives would have reportedly been available. The impact of the unrated airstrip on overall cost is unclear at this point.
Travel time to Pag-asa by air is approximately two to three hours by propeller-driven aircraft. The following civilian and military fixed-wing aircraft are known to have landed on the island. They are listed according to size, in reverse order, to highlight the lowest-cost aircraft options:
- Cessna 182 (Adventist World Aviation)
- Norman Britten Island (Philippine Navy)
- Dornier DO-228 (Islands Aviation)
- GAF Nomad (Philippine Air Force)
- Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules (Philippine Air Force)
Travel by sea
As of writing Pag-asa island does not have port facilities. Ships, therefore, have to weigh anchor off-shore -- exposed to the waves of the West Philippine Sea -- and transfer cargo to shore via small boats. This greatly limits the times of year when the island is accessible by sea, as well complicates disembarkation of potential investors and tourists. The struggle to build this port is chronicled in the following article: Timeline: Kalayaan Sheltered Port Project.
In addition to passage on-board Philippine Navy transports that reach Pag-asa on a quarterly basis, Pag-asa residents also travel to and from the Palawan via the MARINA-rated municipal service boat: M/L Queen Seagull. This is a 200-ton-capacity wooden boat that can get underway at 9 knots. From Puerto Princessa, via the Balabac strait, it can reach Pag-asa in 56 hours under favorable weather conditions. When sailing from Ulungan Bay on the western side of Palawan, total travel time is 32 hours. This is clearly not a destination for weekend get-aways.
Of the nine occupied islands and above-water outposts that make up the municipality, only Pag-asa island -- the seat of the municipal government -- is currently open for civilian occupation. The rest of the municipality is restricted to military use. In addition to military personnel, Pag-asa hosts a community of fishing families and municipal workers that have established a variety of livelihood activities on the island and have even setup a municipal health center and an elementary school for the 20 children that call the island home.
The heavy military presence, and the international controversy over sovereignty over the islands and the waters around them, mean that anyone who seeks to travel to Pag-asa must obtain clearances from various Philippine government offices.
The Kalayaan Extension Office (KEO) in Puerto Princessa is available to assist potential travelers wade through a clearance system. As of June 30, 2014, the KEO can be found at the following location:
Kalayaan Extension Office
Burgos St., Puerto Princesa City
The following flowchart lays out the clearances required for the various modes of transportation. This critical information for any group seeking to organize a trip to Pag-asa. Note that individuals who possess their own boat require the least assistance. Filipino fishermen reportedly visit Pag-asa periodically with little or no advance notification beyond the obligatory radio communication with the Philippine Coast Guard personnel on the island.
The municipality maintains excellent rapport with the Western Philippine Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has jurisdiction over the islands, and is therefore familiar with clearance requirements at that level -- which until a few years ago had largely been issued for domestic travelers.
The system's complexities are particularly pronounced when dealing with foreign tourists. The KEO discovered this to its dismay in 2011 when an Australian-led international group of ham radio enthusiasts attempted to organize an expedition on Pag-asa. An all-Filipino group had already mounted a similar expedition in 2007 without difficulty (see DXJP 2007 here). But the international composition this particular group created complications. As related by the incumbent mayor, The Civil Aviation Administration of the Philippines (CAAP) would not approve a flight plan to the Pag-asa without clearance from the AFP. The AFP wouldn't grant such clearance without approval of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). The DFA, in turn, did not appear to have a clear policy about granting foreigner-access to the island. The resulting delays eventually scuttled the expedition.
As of writing another group, this time led by Fil-Am enthusiasts, is gearing up for an ham radio expedition in 2015. With two years of advanced preparation time, the KEO, in cooperation with volunteers from various sectors, hopes to sort out all relevant procedures before the targeted expedition date. In April 2014, this group sent an advance party to Pag-asa to survey the expedition site. The advanced party used a combination of Philippine Navy transport and the Queen Seagull. This allowed them to stay on Pag-asa for five days (relevant Facebook discussion here).
Of the four key hurdles: weather, air access, sea access, and red tape -- the latter is both the principal show-stopper, as well as the issue that should be the easiest to address. It is, after all, merely procedural and can resolved if all relevant agencies simply get together and work out a process. The reward for such inter-agency cooperation, is best exemplified by the Malaysian Spratlys outpost on Layang-Layang, which boasts of a thriving international diving destination with regular air transportation to its concrete runway -- despite being co-located with a Malaysian Navy base.
Today, travel to Pag-asa Island is exceedingly difficult. Only the hardiest, logistically organized, travelers -- often with professional interest -- would dare to visit the island. But with the build up of attention towards the territory thanks to the power of social media and the efforts of ordinary Filipinos who were willing to take action beyond mouse-clicks and keyboard strokes, those difficulties are expected to diminish over time.