Palawan’s Protector: Dr. Gerry Ortega
Dr. Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega (1963-2011) was a wildlife veterinarian, a radio commentator and a dedicated environmental activist in Palawan. Dynamic and creative, Ortega’s track record of assuming leadership and management positions in various conservation projects, socio-civic movements, political office and broadcast communications is proof of his mettle as a defender of the environment and public interest.
Ortega more many hats as an advocate. He was a senior veterinarian in the RP-Japan Crocodile Farming Institute at Irawan, Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, promoting the rescue ad rehabilitation of misunderstood but ecologically-important crocodiles and other endemic and endangered wildlife species of the island. This later resulted in the establishment of the Palawan Wildlife Refuge and Rescue Center and the Palawan Marine Mammal Rescue Society.
For these achievements, he was recognized by the Palawan environmental newspaper Bandillo ng Palawan as the Palaweno of the Year in 1996, and by the Veterinary Practitioners Association of the Philippines as the “Most Outstanding Veterinarian in Exotic Animal Practice” in 1998.
A high-profile local radio commentator, Ortega used the wide reach of broadcast media to communicate his advocacies for the environment and against corruption to the public. He actively discussed and exposed concerns over the enormous wealth generated by the province’s Malampaya natural gas reserves.
He took his activism beyond the airwaves to oppose active and proposed nickel mining operations of MacroAsia, Rio Tuba, and other mining companies. Ortega was instrumental to the establishment of the Save Palawan Movement, a multi-sectoral coalition of religious sectors, NGOs, academe, and people’s organizations advocating the protection of Palawan’s communities and ecosystems from mining. an communities and ecosystems from mining.
As project manager of the ABS-CBN Foundation’s BayaniJuan, he helped Palawan communities develop eco-tourism in their respective areas as their means of alternative livelihood. This included the Ugong Rock, Bacungan River Cruise, Pambato Reef Dalubkaragatan in Honda Bay, dolphin and whale watching in Puerto Princesa Bay and firefly watching in Iwahig. “We do not have to destroy the environment for us to benefit from it,” Ortega said, encouraging local communities to manage and protect these ecotourism sites.
Ortega served as Palawan’s provincial board member from 2001 to 2004 after running on a pro-environment campaign platform. Overall, he was able to sponsor numerous ordinances, and resolutions and delivered unprecedented privilege speeches. He used his office to oppose corrupt, ecologically-harmful or anti-people programs in the municipality. He advocated for good government, fought for the rights and welfare of Palawan’s indigenous peoples and other grassroots communities, and asserted that Palawan should have a share in the Malampaya Natural Gas Project revenues.0
Ortega was shot dead while visiting a used clothes shop on January 24, 2011 by Marlon Re- camata, who pleaded guilty but whose case is still pending at the Puerto Princesa trial court. Three others were implicated by Recamata in the assassination plot, including Rodolfo Edrad Jr. who implicated former Palawan governor Joel Reyes, to whom Edrad previously served as a bodyguard, as the mastermind.
The Department of Justice has meanwhile cleared Reyes and the other accused, prompting the Ortega family to file a motion for reconsideration, citing more than enough evidence presented to validate his role in Ortega’s murder. Critics point to Ortega’s anti-mining and anti- corruption drive as motivation for Reyes who was often the receiving end of these criticisms.
Ortega was the first environmental advocate killed in 2011 and the 37th since 2001, but the killings of environmental activists continue with a present count of 43 cases of killed environmental workers and activists. A campaign was launched by his family, fellow environmental advocates and journalists to gather one million signatures pushing for the immediate resolution of his case. Despite this, the case, as with the rest of the 43 other cases, continues to run unresolved on a snail’s pace.
Serrabrancaite or manganese phosphate, formed from the mineralization of guano from bats and seabirds, is not usually found in regular caves. Scientists recently discovered deposits of this rare mineral in the Puerto Princesa Underground River, adding another badge of prestige to Palawan’s natural wonders. But equally wondrous are the stalwarts like Ortega who shared the beautiful story of the Philippines’ last frontier to the world – and stood in the way of those that sought to despoil it.
Back in 1985, Ortega would always talk about how beautiful Palawan’s beaches were: how everything was clean and full of trees, how rich the land was, and how these were all worth fighting for, even if it meant forsaking wealth and ambition. He put this passion to practice until the very end of his life. Dr. Gerry Ortega, who sincerely believed in the people’s collective strength to defend Palawan from the plunder of extractive corporations and corrupt bureaucrats, will forever be a source of pride not only to his fellow Palawenos, but to the Filipino people.