Paradise Lost: The Flip Side of Boracay Island, Philippines
“We’re following the due process. And yet this due process is giving advantage to the rich claimants who continue to occupy and build structures inside the Ancestral Land of the Atis in Boracay. We might end up without a land of our own.”
– Delsa Justo, Chief of Boracay Ati Tribal Organization (BATO)
Boracay Island of the Philippines, known for its pristine white sand beaches, turquoise waters, underwater splendor, and exhilarating wind-driven sport activities, has been the destination for adventurous westerners, and well to do Asians since the 70’s. In 2012, Travel and Leisure Magazine awarded Boracay Island first place for the top 10 beaches in the world. However, the flip side of this increasing popular island is the eradication of the Ati, the people indigenous to Boracay Island. The Ati Community, also known as the Aeta, have been the occupants of Boracay long before the arrival of lowland Filipinos and the developments on the island.
According to National Geographic, “The oldest genetic lineages that were found in the Aeta tell the story of the first people to settle in the Philippians.” In January 2011, following years of Ati Community appeal to acquire two hectares of their ancestral land, the Philippine government awarded the Ati Community a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title. In the eyes of the national government, the land title confirms the ownership of the Ati Community and their privilege as landowner over their property. Two hectares of land for the first occupants of the island is a trivial portion compared to approximately 1,028.96 hectares the island is comprised of.
Nonetheless, full ownership and occupancy of the awarded two hectares of land remain a struggle for the Ati Community. Claimants, namely Greg Sanson (President and owner of the Pearl of the Pacific Resort and Spa), Rudy Banico (Associate of Greg Sanson), and Lucas Gelito (Land-owner), have filed cases to revoke the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title given to the Ati Community because of their alleged tenure of the land. The Ati Community is currently threatened by the proposed P1.2 billion (US $30 million) Boracay Crown Regency Hotel and Convention Center which will include a water park by Richard King (CEO of Crown Regency Hotels and Resorts). Lawsuits have been filed not only against the Ati Community but also against their close advocates. Recently, the claimants have utilized various forms of intimidation, including persistent practice of land grabbing by fencing lands, erecting temporary living quarters and security guard houses, filing additional lawsuits to stall the legal procedure, attempting to acquire “writ of possession” over the Ati Community, thus, prohibiting them from building and obtaining basic necessities such as electricity.
The security and future of the Ati community and environment are alarmingly threatened. Tragically, Boracay Ati Tribe Organization leader Dexter Condez, only 26 years-old, was killed in March 2013. His murder is still unsolved. Regarding the environment, the wetlands have been filled and developed; trees and shrubs – the sources of food for the Ati Community – have been removed; hills have been leveled; explosives have been used for large quantity fishing; and increased public transportation via water have caused increased pollution and disturbance to ocean life.
Boracay Island is a paradise island with all the unspoiled natural resources it had prior to its “discovery”. The Ati Community and their ancestors have lived peacefully in the mountains of Boracay mainly hunting, gathering, and fishing for their food. Ocean life came in abundance and fishing was once done with the use of spears. Every inch of the island was covered with lush greens. This was Boracay and this is what defined the paradise island.
“Discovery” came with a very large price. The increased demand to see the island by Filipinos and foreigners alike increased the desire to “own” this paradise island. Endless possibilities of unregulated growth have become Boracay Island’s reality for years. Presently, an escalating number of private residences and resort properties are being constructed, roads are being added and causing congestion, nightclubs, bars and restaurants have emerged to meet the demands of thousands of tourists, and an abundance gift shops exist where most items sold are foreign made.
The Ati Community is left with this immense price tag. The Ati were once paradise dwellers but now face possible eviction from their own land. The escalating growth on the island for years caused the Ati Community to move from one area to another. The struggle is theirs yet the responsibility of the Ati Community’s well-being must be distributed. Boracay Island is a national accomplishment as demonstrated by the revenue its tourism generates for the country. Further, its international recognition fosters the conversion of the island into an urban oasis.
There is nothing wrong with growth except for when it becomes a vehicle towards increased racism, prejudice and abuse of the Ati Community; it encourages indifference towards the Ati Community’s long history on the island as first dwellers; it allows for unregulated excavations and buildings posing severe environmental threats; or it degrades the natural resources necessary to secure the very basic necessities of the Ati Community. There is nothing wrong with growth except for when it favors the privilege of development over the recognition of land rights of first dwellers.
The Ati Community has become a squatter on their own land. If words are not spread, if dialogues are not created, and if initiatives to resolve a long overdue trend in Boracay Island are not implemented, then the Ati Community will soon be disposed of from their own ancestral land. “We have been waiting for over ten years and I never thought I would give birth to my children and still be in the same situation.” – Delsa Justo
Justice to Boracay Ati leader Dexter Condez
By AKBAYAN (Citizens Action Party)
Akbayan party-list condemns the cold-blooded murder of Boracay Ati Tribal Organization (BATO) leader and spokesperson, Dexter Condez. Having lent his voice to bring the issue of the indigenous Ati ancestral land in Boracay to the fore, he dedicated his life to uplift the welfare of his community. Condez's death is indeed a loss to the broader movement for the recognition of indigenous peoples' (IP) rights in the country.
We are deeply saddened and alarmed that this tragedy has occurred at a time when the indigenous people in Boracay Island are currently embroiled in a dispute to own and settle a 2.1 hectare parcel of the land where they have been settling long before the island earned its reputation as a tourist destination. It is troubling that the context of this murder is not far removed from this struggle of the local Ati people. We fear that this murder sets a negative tone for this current dispute and other cases involving other indigenous peoples' rights.
Likewise, we express our deep concern that this happened amid the backdrop of the ongoing campaign for the midterm elections. That this brazen act of violence happended in the middle of a national election gun ban is very disturbing.
As such, we call on the authorities especially the Philippine National Police, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, local government officials, and the national government to expedite the investigation of this brutal crime and bring those responsible to justice. We likewise urge the administration of President Benigno Aquino III to safeguard the rights and welfare of the IP communities including those in relation to their ancestral lands.
We are hopeful that Condez's death will usher in a new era for respect and recognition of the rights of all IP communities and an end to further encroachment on their lands.
Philippines: Killing of indigenous leader bares ugly face of Boracay development
By Joycie Y. Dorado Alegre
Dubbed as “party island,” Boracay has been rated as Asia’s top beach destination for relaxation and spa treatment, third in nightlife entertainment, and the Philippines’ second top tourist destination, according to Agoda, an international hotel-booking website.
Boracay’s four-kilometer powder-fine white sandy beach and crystalline waters have made it a tourist haven and an overdeveloped coastline of multimillion investments of the hotel and restaurant industries.
Boracay is also the site of the killing of Ati cultural community leader Dexter Condez. He was believed to have been shot dead by a security guard of a luxury hotel opposed to the grant of ancestral domain to the Ati people.
Many business ventures in Boracay operate without proper licenses. Violations of environmental rules have been committed by 157 property owners and establishments, as reported in 2012.
Government authorities even had to demolish a hotel scandalously built on an atoll, which is part of the natural heritage sanctuary.
Historically and culturally, the seven-kilometer stretch of the island with a land area of 1,002 ha is the ancestral homeland of Atis, ancient indigenous people of the Philippines.
The National Commission for Indigeous Peoples has granted the Boracay Atis their certificate for ancestral domain title covering 2.1 ha. Their writ of possession was granted in April 2012.
Three claimants have contested the grant and obtained a temporary restraining order from the local court against the Atis.
But with support of the Catholic Church and the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the Atis have settled on the beach front in Barangay Manok-manok under threat of goons employed by the claimants. Government police have been assigned to protect them.
The Ati beachfront is in an alcove of a land area stretching beyond the main shoreline out to sea on both sides. As a beach site, it offers privacy without compromising the breathtaking seascape and the vast blue horizon.
There are makeshift sheds along the road that display shells and arts and crafts done by the Ati. The Atis have built houses and 25 families have settled on the beach, which is being contested by claimants, one of them a big hotel.
The Atis have subsisted on what the land and sea offer. The bounty of nature is attributed by them to the spirits to whom they offer prayers and sacrificial rituals.
In Boracay, Atis would pick up shells, catch fish, gather fruits and crops, and hunt for animals in the forest. To this day, they can still identify the various fishes and marine life forms that abound around the island.
But food resources are no longer easy to come by. The environment has changed and the economy is ruled by cash income, which is beyond their reach. Social discrimination has relegated the Atis to the margins of Boracay progress.
Ironically, as a tourist entertainment destination, Boracay is abuzz with exciting events—pop concerts, dancing waiters, fire eaters, karaoke singing contests, jamming, art exhibits, body painting, tattooing art and fun happenings.
But this revenue-generating cornucopia of delights is deplorable for its artifice, shallowness, and lack of cultural rootedness.
The real culture of Boracay is embedded in the history, collective memory and practices of its ancient inhabitants, the Atis. Sadly, mainstream Philippine society ignores and oppresses the Ati people because of their black skin, poverty, and lack of formal education.
Dexter Condez was a very active Ati youth leader. At 26, he directed the performances of the Boracay Ati cultural group. Being articulate and high-school-educated , he served as spokesperson for his community. He assisted their chieftain, Delza Justo, in asserting their ancestral-domain rights.
During the National Ati Gathering in Malay, Aklan, in February 2012, he lamented the lack of ethnographic accuracy in the artistic renditions of their dance performance. He expressed the need for his group of young dancers for training in cultural research and artistic creation.
To address this need, the Committee on Central Communities of the National Commission for Cultural and the Arts (NCCA) visited the Ati community on May 31, 2012.
The Boracay Ati people, at that time, found refuge in a private lot in Barangay Balabag owned by the Yap and Miraflores families while waiting for their resettlement in their legally titled ancestral domain.
National Commission for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) commissioner Dionesia Banua and Sr. Herminia Sutarez of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul helped prepare the community for the NCCA visit with NCCA consultant Lincoln Drilon, a cultural management specialist who’s himself an Aklanon.
The Ati people interacted with the NCCA group, which was composed of cultural leaders from various indigenous people’s and cultural communities in the Visayas, Palawan and Bicol. Four of the NCCA leaders are Atis from Negros, Capiz, Malay in Aklan, and Lake Buhi in Bicol.
The NCCA offered possibilities for cultural research, art workshops and the establishment of a school of living tradition. The forum ended happily with singing and dancing among hosts and guests.
The shocking murder of Dexter Condez on Feb. 22, 2013, is a cause for grief and lamentation among cultural workers, artists and indigenous peoples communities. (The suspect has been identified by eye witnesses as a security guard of a luxury hotel contesting the ancestral domain certificate of the Atis.)
It is the second indigenous killing of such kind.
Last September in Zamboanga del Sur, Jordan Manda, an 11-year-old boy who performed the Subanen ritual in the NCCA Kapwa Festival 2012 in Baguio City was killed by bullets meant for his father, Timuay Luceno Manda, an anti-mining activist.
Both Condez and Manda are precious culture bearers, harbingers of hope to their generation and the future. As indigenous youth, they connected the Filipino youth to their ancestral roots.
It is high time for government leadership to address the plight of the marginalized communities of indigenous peoples. A consolidated plan of action and concerted effort should be in order for the national cultural agencies and government units at all levels.
These offices must band together along with the people in the indigenous communities and dedicated nongovernment organizations to systematically come up with a clear and unified direction for the protection of rights, poverty alleviation, improvement of health and education, natural and cultural heritage conservation and sustainable development for the Atis of Boracay and other indigenous communities in the country.
The writer is the commissioner for Cultural Communities and Traditional Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.