Boracay: A watershed test case for the Republic’s rule of law

IT is totally indisputable that the whole of Boracay island is state property, and there can be no private ownership of any land there. This was the categorical decision of the Supreme Court in 2008 (G.R. 167707).

Its ruling was made in 2008 when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s Proclamation 1064, which amended the 1975 Marcos Proclamation 705 and the 1936 Public Land law, was challenged by people who claimed to be landowners there, who were mostly from Capiz and Iloilo.

Not only that. The court reiterated more recently, in September 2016, its 2008 decision in response to a case involving, ironically, the claims of two parties over 10,000 square meters of land in Boracay. The Maravilla clan had claimed that one Privaldo Tupas had refused to turn over to them the property which the latter’s father had sold to the Maravillas in 1975.

The claimants were stunned by the high court’s decision. It ruled that none of them can own the land, as it had made a final decision back in 2008 that the entire Boracay island was state property. “Tupas was not in a position to sell that which he did not own in the first place,” the high court declared.

The Supreme Court’s decisions on Boracay are as clear as day, and unequivocal. No individual, no firm can own property in Boracay, unless the state undertakes moves to “alienate” it, or a part of it, from the public domain and prescribes a process to give private entities ownership titles.

They can’t
Marcos buddy Fred Elizalde, the owner of the powerful dzRH who built the “D’Mall” shopping complex that was reportedly built even on a marshland, can’t own any property in Boracay. Not Senator Cynthia Villar and her husband’s Vista Land. Not the Fil-Estate conglomerate that sold its vast Fairways and Bluewater golf course and luxury residential area to tycoon Andrew Tan. Not the group that leased for 50 years the site of Singaporean-owned and -based Shangri-la Boracay. Not the Chinese-Filipino Manuel Chusuey from Iloilo who has hotels there with over 500 rooms. Not even Chavit Singson who built the District Hotel there. Not the biggest landowners there the Tirol and Sarabia clans

Even the state-run Pagcor chose to ignore the law by issuing a permit to two firms to operate casinos in the island. How scandalous is that, for a state firm to ignore the rule of law involving Boracay?

But this is the Philippines, where the rule of law is so often flouted, even by a President, Benigno Aquino 3rd, and by his Yellow Cult that had ruled the country since 1986, with only eight years’ interruption.

Indeed it has been so Filipino to ignore the rule of law. “Kawawa naman,” politicians say of squatters they refuse to evict, pretending to be humane but in their hearts seeing voters to be wooed. President Cory Aquino’s Cojuangco clan ignored the very agrarian reform law she signed, and it took us 25 years, at the cost of Chief Justice Renato Corona’s post, to apply the rule of law on Hacienda Luisita. “Whatever its nationality as long as it delivers good cellphone services,” many say of the Indonesian Salim conglomerate that has evaded our Constitution’s limits on foreign ownership in public utilities.

Former President Joseph Estrada was alleged, among them by the former SEC chairman and President Duterte’s former foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr. to have received P3 billion in bribe money to help the Salim group acquire PLDT in 1998. According to court records, Estrada even threatened to throw the son of PLDT minority stockholder, the late Alfonso Yuchengco, to jail on trumped-up illegal drug charges if Yuchengco exercised his right to block the Indonesian takeover.

Yet Estrada is now on his second term as mayor of the Philippine capital, while Salim’s top executive who engineered the PLDT takeover, Manuel Pangilinan, is praised as the country’s most admired “businessman.”

How much ignored
That is how much the rule of law is ignored in our country. The ruling class, led by former President Aquino, even showed such disdain for the Supreme Court’s decision on Boracay by not even doing anything to enact a law that would either repeal Proclamation 1064 and PD 705 that maintained the island as state property, or amend it for an orderly titling of lands to existing land-claimants there.

On the same year that Arroyo issued a proclamation that would have prevented Boracay’s environmental disaster, she issued a similar decree (Proclamation 1126) that declared the Tubbataha Reefs off Palawan— which the UN in 1993 declared as a World Heritage site—as a protected national park. Fishing there was totally prohibited and diving expeditions strictly regulated, and everyone going there was charged an “entrance fee” of P3,000 per day. The area’s reefs had been on the brink of total destruction because small fishermen used homemade bombs to catch fish. Beginner divers with little buoyancy control contributed to the destruction of reefs, when their fins scraped these.

Tubbataha now has been practically restored to its beauty and to its amazing level of diversity of life. The proclamation had been enforced. But of course government had to deal only with small fishermen that had damaged the reefs.

What a contrast with Boracay, where elites rushed to build their vacation homes or resorts that they made billions of pesos from. Sadly, it seems, our rule of law is only for the little people.

President Duterte has very boldly taken the first step of closing down Boracay for six months, reportedly for government to come up with a strategy to save the tiny island from environmental degradation, and in partnership with businesses there, to clean it up.

I don’t think any other president would have been as bold, and uncaring of adverse political repercussions as Duterte. I do hope though that he will uphold the rule of law over Boracay, and declare it unequivocally as state property, order those who claim to be landowners out, which would give government all the power it needs to clean it up and maintain its environmental integrity.

That would be revolution in our country’s zeitgeist.

Who would have thought that this tiny island of 10 sq km, known for its world-class powdery white sand, would be an opportunity for us to finally embrace the essential ingredient for a nation’s progress — the rule of law?

 

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