Rush to the northern frontier

THE Philippine government is fortifying its claim, ownership and human occupation of key islands and features over the country’s northern and “last frontier” through the implementation of several projects intended to spur development.

On Mavulis Island in the Batanes Group of Islands, which lies at the end of the country’s northern waters, several construction projects have been completed, with the end goal of encouraging human habitation from the villagers of Batanes.

Officials holding glasses test whether the desalination plant really turns out potable water at the inauguration of the facility on Mavulis Island, Itbayat, Batanes. From left to right are the Armed Forces chief of staff General Cirilito Sobejana, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Batanes Governor Marilou Cayco, Lt. Gen. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr. and Naval Forces Northern Luzon commander Commodore Caesar Bernard Valencia.

Beyond populating these territories, the bigger objective, however, is for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to keep and secure these, owing to their strategic military importance amid recorded Chinese military activities in adjoining and surrounding waters.

The first ‘settlers’

“WE treat Mavulis Island and its waters as the northern fortification of our government’s seat of power and one of the primary and key sources of food and economy for our country and people,” Lt. Gen. Arnulfo Marcelo Burgos Jr., commander of the AFP-Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom), said.

“As such, despite the limitations, these waters are given utmost importance in such a way that assets and resources are equitably distributed to ensure that we have credible defense posture,” he added.

The Nolcom holds operational jurisdiction over the vast maritime waters in the northern portion of the country, including the 11 island chains in the Batanes Group of Islands.

Two months ago, a desalination plant capable of producing 500 gallons a day of potable water drawn from the sea was constructed and installed on Mavulis island, primarily to support the troops who have been stationed there along with the fishermen who occasionally seek shelter in between their fishing trips.

“We are developing the island, both for economic and security reasons, first, by constructing projects that would support its habitation,” said Burgos.

For years, the government, especially the provincial and local governments of Batanes and Itbayat, has been encouraging Ivatans, or the natives of Batanes, especially fishermen, to settle in the 4-square-kilometer jagged island because of the richness of its waters, but no one has seriously taken the call.

There were some villagers who attempted to settle there, only to leave the area because it cannot support human habitation, leaving behind their livestock, some of which have gone feral.

Unwanted visitors

AS the island was deserted and no soldier was around, it instead supported the visits of Chinese, Vietnamese and Taiwanese poachers, who frequently came to rest and hunt the animals. On the water, Filipino fishermen simply could not compete with the much bigger boats of the intruders.

The military began to check this by slowly establishing its presence through the conduct of maritime patrols and deployment of soldiers.

The operation of a desalination plant followed the construction of a fishermen’s shelter complete with a fish-drying facility that was being powered by a 1.2-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. A military detachment was also put in place.

Harnessing the power of the sun

THE Nolcom said the Department of Energy (DOE) has also scheduled an on-site survey of the island as part of the plan to energize it with the use of solar power.

The development of Mavulis is also benefitting the other islands, especially the town of Itbayat, where there is already a permanent presence of soldiers. The deployment of soldiers ran parallel with the stepped-up development activities in the municipality, also being undertaken with the help of the troops.

Last month, Burgos visited the naval detachment in the area to celebrate Father’s Day with the soldiers and he was welcomed by Itbayat Mayor Ronald Gutierrez, who encouraged regular visits by military officials.

Gutierrez said the presence of soldiers and the regular patrol of Nolcom’s assets in the waters off Itbayat have prevented the intrusion of foreign vessels, which were a regular fixture in the past.

On Pagasa Island, the DOE has also energized the island by switching on its 300-kilowatt power plant last month to supply power to the structures there, including the municipal government, houses and military facilities.

The installation of a power system followed the construction of the island’s beaching ramp and port, which, according to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, were part of the island’s development.

Lorenzana said the government plans to undertake a variety of projects on the island, including the construction and maintenance of an ice plant and a radio station.

Images courtesy of NOLCOM and Google Maps

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