IT is downright astonishing that not a single media outlet used that earth-shaking announcement as its headline for what should have been a front-page news article.
The mindset, it seems, is that it is too far-fetched that Boracay — the country’s internationally acclaimed paradise of an island, where five-star hotels, posh resorts, and mansions of the incredibly rich are— could be indisputably owned by the state.
Even the leadership of the government-owned Pagcor, when it gave permits to two casinos to operate in the island, was of this ignorant mindset. That was like giving gambling permits to squatters.
But that is how the ruling class rules: People’s minds are dominated in such a way that they won’t see things that reveal how the elites defy the laws that apply to everyone else except them.
No private individual or firm there—not Boracay Shangri-la, not Fred Elizalde’s D’Mall and vast beachfront residence, not even Andrew Tan’s P100-billion Boracay Newcoast project—can own any property there. “But it was in good faith that they bought properties from local residents,” the elites would argue. But as the 2016 Supreme Court ruling in so many words pointed out: They were stupid enough to buy property from people who don’t own them.
But those after all were just presentations of a columnist.
Now the President himself – and I’m quite sure his lawyers did their homework – has declared it as state property, ending the national omertà that had hid the unanimous Supreme Court decision on the island’s entirely public status from public knowledge.
The verbatim quote, which he uttered in his press conference just before he left for Boao, China, on Monday evening: “That island itself is owned by the government. I’ve said it before, agricultural ‘yan pati forestal (sic).”
Duterte’s announcement is nothing short of revolutionary. Powerful elites of Western Visayas (where Boracay is) and, in the 1990s a clique of Manila-based property developers close to the former President Ramos built a vast resort estate in the island, the entirety of which however the state had not “alienated” to be owned by any private entity. With Ramos’ virtual imprimatur of that huge project, and therefore his message that Boracay lands could be privately owned, there was a rush of businesses into the small island of 10 sq km.
Duterte must investigate reports that vast tracts of land were titled in the 1980s and 1990s by the Bureau of Lands and affirmed by local courts in exchange for huge bribes, despite the fact that the state had never given these up as its property. Many of those claiming to be landowners in Boracay aren’t even from the neighboring Aklan province, but from Iloilo City, a center of the Western Visayan rich.
These elites were clever enough though to allow other private individuals and enterprises, and even foreigners, to claim smaller lands in Boracay, so the image of the island portrayed in the public mind was a bustling tourist area of mom-and-pop resorts.
They spread the myth that mere “tax declarations” – or receipts of a land-claimants’ payment of real estate taxes – are proxies for private ownership, so they could create a lucrative market for real estate in Boracay, when no such market could exist as it was all state property.
If you’re wondering why not a single property or resort owner out of Boracay’s thousands has filed a case in the local court asking it to stop Duterte’s order to close the island from tourists for just six months, it is because they know that the court would immediately throw to the dustbin such a case, so that their illegal hold on the island would be more widely known throughout the country.
Duterte’s affirmation on Boracay’s public ownership is revolutionary. He will be going against the interest of tycoons and big corporations owning properties and businesses in the island, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they mount a major PR and political campaign to stop the President.
I don’t think I’m being alarmist to worry that it could even turn out to be Duterte’s biggest fight: The elites would be losing tens of billions of pesos when Boracay is reclaimed by government.
Past presidents chose not to look away from the Boracay issue partly because they feared that the powerful media outfit dzRH—owned by Fred Elizalde who owns the biggest shopping center in the island—would go against them.
A huge 15 percent of the island, the so-called Boracay Newcoast, is now owned by the country’s ninth richest person (according to the Forbes magazine 2017 list), property tycoon Andrew Tan. Boracay Newcoast will have a big hotel there partly owned by the eighth richest Filipino of Jollibee fame, Tony Tan Caktiong. Boracay Newcoast has even started selling properties there, with its 500 sq m lot priced at P46 million and a 37 sq m unit at its four condominium buildings now being constructed at P7 million.
Duterte pooh-poohed the threats that Boracay’s closure would severely dent the nation’s income from tourism, which in turn would lower our GDP. (It would but only marginally.) Only this kind of president who defied even the most powerful nation on earth, I think, could have ignored such serious economic blackmail.
By declaring that the island is government’s property, Duterte in one fell swoop has cut the Gordian knot that is the mess that is Boracay.
He should move quickly though to enact a law that would allow an orderly titling of lands that had been declared as “agriculture” and only to small land-claimants, in fairness to those who have been occupying their properties for, say, 10 years.
Tourists to Boracay should be allowed for a day’s visit, to be booked in nearby Caticlan in the Aklan mainland, where the huge resorts should be restricted to.
Future generations of Filipinos will be grateful to Duterte if Boracay is restored to its pristine paradisiacal beauty.