Palawan, the Philippines’ largest and westernmost province, stretches from Borneo in the southwest to Mindoro in the northeast. Flanked by the Sulu and the South China Seas and surrounded by 1,780 or so smaller islands and islets, the long, thin mainland is divided lengthways by a largely uninhabited mountain range clad with dense, leafy jungle.
Palawan is situated on the Sunda Shelf, an extension of the continental shelf of Southeast Asia, and – unlike the rest of the Philippines – was once part of mainland Asia. The islands were rifted around 32 million years ago and drifted slowly southeastwards to their current position appearing above water between five and ten million years ago. Along the way, Palawan’s limestone was broken up and weathered leaving behind exquisite karst landscapes accompanied by vast networks of underground caves and rivers.
The colours and textures of Palawan are striking – verdant islands fringed by beaches, sprawling mangroves, jagged limestone rocks and coral reefs visible through clear water.
The Tabon cave in the south is among the earliest known sites of human habitation in Southeast Asia. Here archaeologists have unearthed evidence of indigenous cultures stretching back over 50,000 years.
THE LAST FRONTIER
Until around a hundred years ago, most Filipinos preferred to stay away from Palawan – it was known for endemic malaria, the Iwahig prison camp and the Culion leper colony. But as populations swelled in other parts of the Philippines, Palawan gained its reputation as a land of promise – for agriculture, fishing and work in the new logging and mining companies.
Over the past 60 years, migrants have flooded to Palawan, increasing the population tenfold and putting unprecedented strains on natural resources. Since 1990, the entire province has been declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve – a global model for balance between man and nature.
All images © Katherine Jack