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BORACAY island’s 10.32 square kilometers is only 1/6th of the total land area of the municipality of Malay, Aklan, yet it houses 60 percent of its total local population, which by last count was around 33,000. Literally swallowed and surrounded by this population, who descended from local migrants from mainland Panay and beyond, are the handful remaining Atis who are now confined in a village that used to be a dumpsite, which is part of the 2.1 hectare of land covered by a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) awarded to them by the government in 2011.
The story of the Atis is a story of all the other indigenous peoples in our country. Unfamiliar with the laws of the modern state, they were not able to secure paper titles over their ancestral lands unlike the local migrants. Thus, even with the CADT, which is an entitlement awarded to the Atis under Republic Act 8371, or the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997, they have to contend with competing land claims from individuals who have in their possession land titles over the 2.1-hectare piece of land.
This is the tragedy of the Atis of Boracay. Despite the strength of a law behind them, and an official land tenure instrument awarded by no less than the state, they are unable to assert their rights. This may have even led to the death of one of them, Dexter Condez, the spokesman of the Boracay Ati Tribal Organization (BATO) who was active in fighting for Ati land rights and was felled by six bullets five years ago on February 22, 2013. A former security guard of a major resort was arrested for the murder, but the case has yet to find resolution.
And the cycle of marginalization over the benefits and entitlements which Boracay offers may now ironically have gone full circle, with the Atis, despite their physical confinement in their village, now being the most secure in their land claim and their place in the cultural economy of the island. This, even as the local population descending from migrants now appears to be the ones most threatened by the impending scaling down of the tourism operations in Boracay, brought about by the closure of establishments that have violated environmental laws.
Boracay tourism is sharply divided between the more established and well-endowed resort hotels, some of which are part of global hotel chains, and the small-scale business operations run by the locals. This divide may well be also the differentiating factor that separates environmental compliance from environmental violations and transgressions.
Armed with adequate resources, large resort hotels have the capacity to secure proper environmental clearances and permits and connect with the island’s sewerage system or build their own wastewater treatment and materials recovery facilities. Faced with resource limitations, and the pressure to compete with the big players, small business operators and resort hotel owners are placed in a difficult position. This may have led them to take shortcuts, and operate without the proper permits and the required environmental management facilities. What is effectively on their side is their being relative kindred spirits with the local regulators, and the fact that they are part of the political constituency of the local government. As voters, serving their interests is a politically rational response by elected officials, even if it may not be in accordance with environmental laws. It is not just the promise of tourism revenues for the local government, but also the fact that these people are voters whose needs are to be accommodated.
It is also important to mention that these “mom and pops” hotels, hostels, bed and breakfast, restaurants and other business establishments that are owned mostly by the locals are the ones that cater to the low-budget and economy market of local tourists who cannot afford the expensive rates of the resort hotels. Also burgeoning in the island is the increasing number of boarding houses and dormitories, many of which are also unregulated, that house the workers of these large resort hotels who are not from the island. An informant who manages a resort hotel reveals that by his estimate, at least 90 percent of the labor force of these types of hotels are migrant laborers.
It is in this context that the current clean-up efforts led by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) will hit the local population harder, compared to the bigger resort hotels. It is mostly locally owned, small-to-medium scale establishments that are bound to be closed for violating environmental laws. The larger hotels will only take a hit if the extreme recourse of closing the entire island will be imposed. Otherwise, most of these hotels will continue to operate considering that they have complied with environmental laws. In terms of demand, it is a fact that they have a different market, one that caters to foreign and richer local tourists.
The continuous operations of larger hotels may not even be enough to cushion the impact on locals, considering that resort hotel employees are mostly migrants. And if these resort hotels are temporarily closed, the local residents will have fewer options and will be left behind to contend with the effects of an environmental disaster that, ironically, they themselves had a hand in creating. Eventually, any solution to the ecological disaster that Boracay has become should engage the locals as responsible co-owners of an initiative for sustainable and culturally appropriate tourism. After all, Boracay tourism should not just be for the larger resort hotels owned and managed by outsiders, employing migrant laborers and catering to the upscale market.
It is perhaps a twist of fate that the Atis will remain in their village covered by their CADT. Living simple lives, and used to being left on the margins of the larger political economy that sustained the tourism industry in Boracay, they would also have the resilience to deal with the blows of a temporary closure. However, whatever solution is crafted should once and for all address the issue of their own entitlement to their land rights as the island’s first settlers.