Environmental concerns stall wind farm expansion in Panay natural park

Some of the wind turbines of PetroWind Energy Inc. in Aklan. —PWEI WEBSITE PHOTO

Had the rain still poured last Sept. 3 when volunteer inspectors arrived at a rugged hilly portion of Panay’s northwestern mountain range, a government-declared protected area, the road being carved out would have become messy swathes of uprooted grasses and shrubs, fallen trees, mud pools and protruding rocks.  

The earth-moving activities pushed on despite the bad weather to clear the way for the heavy equipment needed to put up six more wind turbines of PetroWind Energy Inc. (PWEI) inside the designated “multiple use zone” of the Northwest Panay Peninsula Natural Park (NPNPP) in Barangay Pawa in Nabas, Aklan.

Environmentalists and local officials in nearby Malay town have called for a halt to PWEI’s expansion project, citing threats to biodiversity, including damage to wildlife habitat and disruption of migratory birds’ flight routes, as well as siltation of several rivers and streams that is feared to contaminate the supply of water to lowland communities and the world-renowned Boracay Island.

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Evidence of siltation in Argao shore in Malay taken last 03 August 2023. —PHOTOS BY RICHARD CAHILIG

“We frequently champion green energy as a cornerstone for future sustainability and development. However, if the methods employed to generate this green energy exact a substantially higher toll on our precious environment, the very foundation of our well-being, should we still deem it a worthwhile endeavor?” the Philippine Initiative for Conservation of the Environment and the People (PhilinCon) and the Aklan Trekkers Inc. said in a position paper.

On Friday, PWEI officials reported that work on the project site of three additional turbines in Malay, including road construction, had been suspended in response to the complaints of the local government. But work on the Nabas site, where three other turbines will be erected, continues, they said.

“Stopping is not the solution,” Vanessa Peralta, PWEI assistant vice president for corporate communication, told CoverStory.ph editors in an interview. “We are willing to work with the local government unit (Malay) and even critics” as partners in protecting the NPPNP, she said, extending an invitation to dialogue with them.

Malay is wary about the environmental consequences of the road project. It shares the natural park, one of the country’s remaining lowland rainforests and home to endemic and endangered fauna and flora in Panay and Negros, with Nabas and the towns of Libertad, Pandan and Buruanga in Antique. 

Wildlife habitat

The NPPNP was established in 2002 through a presidential proclamation. It spans 12,009 hectares of mountain forests and watersheds that provide potable water to communities, including Boracay. It also shelters the critically endangered Visayan warty pigs (Sus cebifrons) and writhed-billed hornbills (Rhabdotorrhinus waldeni), and the endangered Visayan hornbills (Penelopides panini) and agarwood (Aquilaria malaccensis).

PWEI has already put up 18 wind turbines, some visible from Boracay in Malay, at 300-500 meters above sea level on northern Aklan’s topmost ridge—“currently the Philippines’ highest perched wind farm” and the province’s “biggest source of local power,” according to the company’s website. 

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Map of the wind turbines. —PWEI ILLUSTRATION
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Incorporated on March 6, 2013, PWEI is a joint venture of PetroGreen Energy Corp. and Thailand’s BCPG Public Co. Ltd. It is “primarily focused on expanding the country’s renewable energy capacity by tapping wind power.”

Under Phase 2 of the wind farm project, six more turbines will be set up with a combined power generating capacity of 14MW through a P1.8-billion loan from the Development Bank of the Philippines in the northern boundary of the NPPNP in Barangay Pawa in Nabas and Barangay Napaan in Malay.

“We are proud of the inroads we have made in advancing the wind energy sector,” PWEI said, declaring its mission to “uplift the communities where we operate through socially and environmentally responsible operation.”

PWEI said the project “helps address the rising energy requirements of the island of Boracay.” It has laid out a network of transmission lines, access roads and a control station in Barangays Pawa, Rizal and Unidos in Nabas, and Napaan in Malay. 

Adverse impact 

But Malay officials say their town will be adversely affected by the expansion project, and point out that PWEI has yet to address the environmental damage brought about by its existing turbines under Phase 1.

Road construction project

A joint environmental “audit hike” of the road construction on Pawa Ridge was conducted last Sept. 3 by Malay, PhilinCon, Aklan Trekkers, and a conservation volunteer group. The project, they found, “had created conditions conducive to substantial siltation.” 

“The landscape bore witness to the massive cutting of trees, improper earth balling, and the conspicuous bulldozing of areas, signaling the potential disruption of the natural water flow and the broader ecosystem,” Aklan Trekkers (or Traditional and Ridge-to-Reef Ecological Key Knowledge for Environmental Resiliency and Sustainability) reported.

According to a PWEI PowerPoint presentation, the company’s earth- and tree-balling operations were “mandated” by the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office.  

A rapid biodiversity survey conducted by a team led by Flavio A. Nava, a veterinary medicine student at Aklan State University, showed that the project poses threats to bird life, plant species, wildlife, and “beyond animal” harm. (The team published its findings on Sept. 26 and uploaded its report at  https://bitly.ws/Wcbp.)

At least 40 wildlife species have been identified in the road project area, including 13 endemic to the Philippines and two found only in Negros and Panay. Some plant species are known to have an ecological relationship with certain animals, such as the tree species Neonauclea sp., a nectar source for the Purple-throated Sunbirds. (The Magnificent Sunbird—Aethopyga magnifica—was the only confirmed Sunbird species on the site.)

Road network

Citing an official site re-inspection on July 13, the team said the road work, including tree cutting and bulldozing, went on even when it rained, leading to “significant” downstream siltation. 

The presence of Aklan Trekkers and other agencies during the drone documentation, re-inspection and inventory of installed retaining gabion walls was prompted by a request made a day earlier by Malay’s Sangguniang Bayan (municipal council).

So far, a kilometers-long road network, six to eight meters wide, has been made uphill from Turbine 11 inside the NPPNP’s “multiple use zone,” less than a kilometer away from its “strict protected zone.”

The group said it reviewed PWEI documents and identified inconsistencies, problems and issues in different phases of the company’s road network and platform operations, including loss of livelihood, tourism, budget allocations, accessibility, and the guarantee of sustainability. 

It charged PWEI with failure to implement effective engineering measures to check soil erosion and the severe consequences of heavy siltation, resulting in the destruction of terrestrial and aquatic systems in the protected area.

The biodiversity survey team noted that despite the environmental impacts, PWEI’s compliance paper did not include thorough assessments to examine the effects of disturbances on the local flora and fauna in Napaan, nor did it conduct an inventory of wildlife in the area. 

On July 21, the Malay council’s committees on land use and public safety held a public hearing to discuss the findings. It decided to carry out another joint inspection, this time on the upstream tributaries of the Nabaoy River Watershed.


The July 30 inspection at Daeamuan River uncovered sedimentation and clouding of a creek upstream even in fine weather, apparently due to loosened soil and rainwater runoff from the construction activities at Pawa Ridge to the Nabaoy River Watershed, according to the committee report. 

Images of siltation and sedimentation along Daeamuan River in Malay last 30 July 2023. —PHOTOS FROM AKLAN TREKKERS

From the Pawa Ridge, the sediments have reached Daeamuan River, one of the upstream tributaries of Nabaoy River, the main source of water for Malay and Boracay. Utilities, including the Malay Water District, Boracay Island Water Co., and Boracay Tubi, have expressed concern about a possible decline in water quality. 

Local residents and ecotourism businesses also fear that the looming river contamination will jeopardize their source of livelihood.  

“Maueoy man kamo sa Nabaoy (Have pity on Nabaoy),” Bing Quinto, the barangay chair of Nabaoy, told PhilinCon in Aklanon. Though the community’s river has been identified as the “direct impact site” of the PWEI expansion project, it has not been mentioned in the company’s EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) or any other document.

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Images of the destroyed gabions in Napaan River Watershed from an ocular inspection conducted last 07 June 2023. —PHOTOS FROM ENGINEERING AND ZONING OFFICES, LGU MALAY

According to PWEI, the matter of sediments entering Napaan River has been “considerably addressed” and that monitoring and rehabilitation of gabions are done regularly “by a multistakeholder group.” It said “road construction spoils” were being hauled by trucks to a disposal site 6-7 km away along the main highway.

It issued the assurance that the company “is committed to conduct rehabilitation if there are traces of sediments coming from the project site still.”

Peralta described the damage brought by the road project as “minimal” and “manageable.” She said PWEI maintains an environmental guarantee fund amounting to P3 million yearly for Malay and Nabas, on top of its corporate social responsibility and ridge-to-reef rehabilitation funds.

Endorsement revoked

Last Aug. 3, Malay’s municipal council approved a resolution revoking its earlier endorsement of the Phase 2 project in its territory, a day after the Barangay Council of Nabaoy passed a similar resolution that cited risks to its sources of potable water.

In two other resolutions, the town officials urged PWEI to halt its project and road construction, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to cancel a permit it granted the company. The DENR regional office allowed the project within the natural park through a Special Use Agreement in Protected Areas (Sapa) it issued last Feb. 17 and under the guidelines of the Enipas (Expanded National Integrated Protected Areas System) Act of 2018.

PWEI insisted that it had complied with all the requirements of Sapa and the environmental compliance certificate (ECC), and had consulted with barangay officials three times since 2022. 

The wind farm was commissioned in June 2015 after the company acquired an ECC from the DENR in 2012. Several amendments were made in the document until 2021. 

The findings of the environmental audit team on the actual state of Napaan and Nabaoy Rivers were presented on Sept. 7 in a committee hearing and subsequently raised to the provincial board on Oct. 3 in a joint public hearing of the committees on energy; laws, rules and ordinances; environment; and tourism, arts and culture.

Green coalition

Several groups have formed the Protect Northwest Panay Peninsula Natural Park Coalition to demand a stop to PWEI’s wind farm expansion. The groups are PhilinCon, Aklan Trekkers, Wildlife Conservation Protection Society, Living Laudato Si Philippines, Diocese of Antique Social Action Center, Boracay Foundation Inc., Pandan, Antique Union for Conservation, Rotary Club of Metro Kalibo, Aklan Press Club, and Antique Trail Runners.

The coalition has released a position paper and launched an online petition opposing the project. (https://www.facebook.com/ProtectNPPNP)

“We are not against renewables; they are supposed to be solutions to the climate crisis,” PhilinCon chair Rebecca Tandug Barrios told CoverStory.ph. “However, the unjust transition can cause more ecological damage than the promised greenwashed solutions.” 

Barrios described PWEI as a “green solutions company,” but said it “should earn the respect of being sustainable by not compromising the health of the forests they were allowed to co-develop. The principle is co-stewardship.”

She added: “If development projects compromise the watersheds and streams for corporate income, then it defeats the principle we are selling in the guise of green energy transition. In the principles of economic trade-offs, what does the LGU trade for compromising the ridge-to-reef health of NPPNP?”

See: Poachers stepping up hunt for critically endangered animals in Panay

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