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Turn Boracay into a national park

GOVERNMENT shouldn’t simply declare business as usual for Boracay island, even with a dead-serious strict enforcement of environmental laws, when it reopens in October as has been announced. Turn it into a protected, national park. This is the only way to preserve the island’s fragile beauty for generations to come.

There are after all laws governing Boracay, and President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to uphold the Constitution and implement all of the Republic’s laws. These are the following:

The unanimous Supreme Court decision of October 2008 (G.R. No. 167707) that most of the island, except for lands titled in the 1930s to a few individuals, are state-owned, and that there is no legal basis for other entities to claim ownership of the land.

President Marcos’ 1978 Proclamation 1801 declared Boracay— as well as two dozen other areas—as tourist zones and marine reserves under the administration of the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA) where the sale of lands to private individuals was totally banned and that any development there must be approved by the President himself, with the recommendation of the PTA; and President Arroyo’s 2006 Proclamation 1064 that classified 40 percent of Boracay’s 1,028 hectares as “reserved forest land” (which cannot be privately owned) and 60 percent as “agricultural land,” which can be titled.

Aware of people who claim that they have been in Boracay for decades or had bought their lands in good faith, the decision even emphasized: “While the Court commiserates with private claimants’ plight, we are bound to apply the law strictly and judiciously. This is the law and it should prevail. Ito ang batas at ito ang dapat umiral.”

Duterte has the legal authority to amend Arroyo’s Proclamation 1064 to declare that the “agricultural lands” specified there as well as the island’s beach areas would be declared as a natural park. 

As a natural park, Boracay would be subjected to the same laws governing natural parks, among these, that none of it can be privately owned, visits to it are to be regulated, and structures and facilities there can be erected only with the approval of the President.

This won’t even be unusual as the Republic (and most other nations) has declared vast swathes of lands and even marine areas as natural parks to protect and preserve them, and their beauty, for future generations. We now have two dozen such national parks, all much larger than Boracay with just 10 square kilometers in size. Among the most well-known of these are the Mount Arayat, Hundred Islands, Mount Pulag, and Paoay Lake national parks. Other than natural parks, there are 240 “protected areas,” the use and occupancy of which are strictly regulated by the state.

But these are deserted areas? But Boracay was just as sparsely populated and visited, until the tsunami of resort-building there that started after President Ramos’ time when he approved the huge Fairways and Bluewater Golf Resort.

Duterte’s bold move to close down Boracay in April proved totally wrong the doomsday scenarios painted by the opposition that our tourism industry will be in a crisis. From January to July, total tourism arrivals increased 10 percent to 4.3 million visitors, compared to the same period last year.

That of course isn’t surprising. Foreign tourists who go to the Philippines don’t come here solely to visit Boracay, which is, despite its popularity worldwide, is just one of many tourist sites. This is in contrast to Indonesian’s tourist profile by which a significant number of tourists visit that country solely to go to Bali. Only Amanpulo has that distinction of being the only site visited—and only by a tiny super-rich number—when they come to the Philippines.

One area would be appropriate as a model to preserve Boracay: the Coron area off Busuanga island in Palawan. The amazing sites at Coron are protected through several proclamations, the most recent of which was its declaration as an ancestral domain of the indigenous Tagbanua that have lived there for centuries.

Sites there like Kayangan Lake, Malcapuya island, the Twin Lagoon are top tourist areas, but no resort is allowed in these islands, which cannot be owned by private individuals. Resorts there are in the mainland of Coron as well as in the bigger Busuanga island, or other larger islands that are not within the protected area. In fact, a group of over a dozen big resort owners form Boracay practically abandoned the island in October 2008 when the Supreme Court decision came out, and moved to Coron.

There’s a golden opportunity now to turn Boracay into a natural park.

DENR’s cadastral map of Boracay: Most are forest lands (in green) or “agricultural lands”, “unalienated”, or not turned over to private entities.

We have Duterte’s iron political will, who would do the right things even if it’s not popular. The public has been informed that the island is indisputably state-owned. The Yellows, whose biggest base had been the Panay and Iloilo islands where most Boracay resort owners come from, are no longer in power. We have a no-nonsense environment and natural resources department chief, a former Army general, Roy Cimatu, to enforce the environmental laws in the island. And a new, bright and hardworking tourism head, Bernadette Romulo-Puyat to manage the park.

The environment and natural resources department, to Cimatu’s credit, has finished the crucial task that the past administration chose not to do: the cadastral survey of the entire island, ordered by Arroyo’s 2008 proclamation. The survey shows which lands claimed by private individuals are actually state property, and which were legitimately titled in the 1930s.

There of course will be the common plaint whenever government has to enforce a law, in this case: “Kawawa naman ang mga resort owners.”

Believe me, as I have been visiting the island from the time when it still didn’t have electricity: Most Boracay resort owners have become rich beyond their wildest dreams because of their businesses there. A friend of mine, a British lawyer, abandoned his legal career, took a part-time job as a correspondent of a UK newspaper, and did extremely well with his Boracay resort. The Supreme Court admonition should be repeated again and again: “Ito ang batas at ito ang dapat umiral.”

Visits to Boracay should be by the same protocol as tours to Coron’s tourist sites: Visit it in the morning and leave right after sunset. A fast ferry service could even make the crossing from Caticlan town, which would boom as it would be the site for hotels and resorts.

A smooth system for getting first-requested-first-allowed tickets to enter Boracay could be set up. Resort owners who can prove their legitimate ownership would of course be allowed to operate – but only as restaurants or day lounges.

A crucial move though would be necessary to protect Boracay: The enactment of a law that would transform it into a special island totally under the authority of the President and managed jointly by the environment and tourism departments. The political authority over the island should be removed from Malay town, which unsurprisingly, being a hick municipality, has proven to be, if not inefficient in implementing environmental rules, so vulnerable to business interests.

I’m sure the government will find a way to deal with the big resorts there, mainly the Shangri-la’s Boracay Resort and Spa and the now Andrew Tan-owned Fairways and Bluewater.

I’m confident Manny Villar and his wife Senator Cynthia Villar, who are major investors in the Boracay Sands Hotel and Costa Vista Hotel, will put the interests of the nation, and its future generations who would enjoy the island, above their business concerns.


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