OPINION: Boracay highlights Duterte’s plans for indigenous homelands

Inday Espina-Varona -- scaRRedCat

Posted at Jun 14 2018 05:21 PM

President Rodrigo Duterte’s latest statements on Boracay, the island he closed for “environmental rehabilition,” reflects the national leader’s worldview on the issue of indigenous peoples' (IP) rights. 

It is also an education on Duterte’s art of spin, one used to mask anti-people and environment policies with populist posturing.

Clergy and environmentalists say Duterte’s latest statements on Boracay run roughshod over the principles of agrarian reform and even the law on the protection of indigenous peoples.

“Boracay can only take so much. It’s just a small strip. I’ll give it to the natives so by the time that the big businesses will go in, they already have the titles and may sell them. My consolation is they will have huge money,” Duterte said in a recent speech. 

His remark builds on previous statements pledging social justice via agrarian reform for natives of the country’s most popular island destination.

Fr. Dilmar Magracia of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, among those helping affected Boracay residents, calls Duterte’s statement “a big insult to the ordinary people, especially the indigenous people of Boracay.”

He says these are dark days for workers and residents. Some 36,000 have been displaced from their jobs and businesses, he notes. “Two months after closure, there is no concrete rehabilitation plan even as demolition and eviction continue.”

Duterte’s words, he adds, is a signal of the President’s true intentions for Boracay. Rehabilitation and development will be enjoyed mainly by the President’s big business patrons, with very few residual gains trickling down to the residents.

Former Bayan Muna legislator Neri Colmenares also notes that Duterte’s Boracay statements jive with his administration’s charter change goals, which include allowing the sale of Philippine lands to foreigners and granting them exploitation rights to minerals and marine resources.

The underside of populism

Colmenares, who stumps around the country lobbying opposition to charter change, also notes that the administration’s blueprint involves centralization of land – a turnaround from agrarian reform gains – and prioritizing big business development over economic and social justice.

Among the targets of charter change, he adds, are ancestral lands coveted for mining, plantation and real estate development.

Boracay fits squarely into the government’s plans.

While Republic Act No. 8371 allows indigenous peoples to determine utilization of ancestral lands, its general provisions mandate the recognition, respect and protection of the rights of IPs “to preserve and develop their cultures, traditions and institutions.”

It also directs the government to consider these rights in the formulation of national laws and policies.
Already, the Aetas have been pushed back to the margins of Boracay’s economy, and the sale of land to big developers, especially those operating casinos, is not going to help preserve their culture.

Under the law on agrarian reform, beneficiaries cannot sell their land within a 10-year period. But a major loophole in the agrarian reform law and an administrative order issued under Mrs. Arroyo allows the reclassification of awarded land five years after.

A primer by the Department of Agrarian Reform lays down the condition: “...when the land ceases to be agriculturally sound and economically feasible or if the locality has become urbanized and the land will have greater economic value for residential, commercial or industrial purposes.”


Duterte sold himself in the 2016 elections as a friend of indigenous people. He likewise donned the robes of an agrarian reform advocate and champion of the environment.

Faced with protests over the swift implementation of the closure in April and displacement of workers and entrepreneurs, Duterte waved all these cards.

He signed Proclamation No. 475 on April 26, the day the 6-month closure and clean-up started. The government likewise announced a P2-billion fund to assist displaced workers. 

“It is necessary to implement urgent measures to address the… human-induced hazards, to protect and promote the health and well-being of its residents, workers, and tourists, and to rehabilitate the island in order to ensure the sustainability of the area and to prevent further degradation of its rich ecosystem,” the proclamation read. 

All well and good.

Nobody questioned the need to rehabilitate Boracay. For decades, environmentalists had urged strict implementation of laws, warning that runaway development was doing long-term damage to land and waters.

But the awowed goal of saving Boracay swirls with troubling contradictions.

Brows rose because the notice of closure in March followed an announcement, by Macau casino giant Galaxy Entertainment and its Filipino partner, Leisure and Resorts World Corp, of a planned $500 million integrated resort on the island. 

The goal of keeping an island pristine is at odds with the entry of a huge casino conglomerate. While the project launch was originally set for 2019, critics feared that existing resort firms – many admittedly violators of environmental laws – were being targeted to give Galaxy and Resorts World undue advantage.

Duterte claimed he did not know anything about the project.

But the state gambling regulator had itself issued a release showing Galaxy officials meeting with Duterte in December 2017. Their escorts were fired Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo, and Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp (Pagcor) chairperson Andrea Domingo. 

It wasn’t just a photo opportunity. Domingo said the conversation centered on Galaxy officials’ assurances on environmental preservations. 

Weeks into the closure, Boracay residents exposed how a company owned by the family of Sen. Cynthia Villar and Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar had allegedly “flattened a mountain” on the island. Despite the closure order, residents claimed Costa Vista was continuing development work.

The Villars denied the allegation, saying it had temporarily halted construction. But the senator defended the big development, saying they hold titles to the land.

There was still another announcement that seemed to point to eventual plans to have select big developers benefit from the “environmental clean-up”.

The Department of Budget and Management on May 31 said it was taking advantage of the 6-month closure to fast track the rehabilitation of the Boracay circumferential road.

The 2018 budget includes a P50 million fund for repairs. Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said he has asked Duterte’s approval to augment that fund with P490 billion.

Social justice?

Road development is not a bad thing. Farmers, including agrarian reform beneficiaries, have long said that farm-to-market impediments, the lack of credit and other support systems, make sustainability a difficult task.

Duterte bannered the flag of social justice in the Boracay closure, declaring that he would push for agrarian reform on the island to benefit original inhabitants and pledging to lobby Congress for swift action.

“Maybe you can cut a strip… Anyway the people are only interested in the beach,” he said. 

Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Proclamation 1084 in 2006, declaring 60 percent of the 1,028-hectare island as agricultural and thus under agrarian reform coverage. She declared the other 40% as forest land. Yet in the remainder of her term and the next six years of former President Benigno Simeon Aquino III’s rule, big developments continued to rise on the island.

The Department of Agrarian Reform said 408.5 hectares (it should be 616.8 hectares under Proclamation 1084) may be placed under the government’s land reform. The Aetas could benefit from the preservation or rehabilitation of a little over 400 hectares of declared forest land.

But it will take years of legal maneuvering to get these back from existing resorts.

Duterte’s latest pronouncements is even more problematic, although given his penchant for shortcuts, he may perform some arm-twisting among the big developers to “buy” land from original settlers. This he will call a “win-win” decision.

He also said the other day that while he does not encourage gambling, there is yet no economic alternative for its rich takes. Casino dreams are still alive in Boracay.

Given the lack of alternatives now, those with money will end up swapping the same huge blocks of land for a pittance. Maybe some beneficiaries will end up as workers. But if the long history of indigenous land sacrificed in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao is any gauge, the fate of Boracay will likely be greater environmental destruction or the rich lording it over as the original residents get poorer.

Former Environment Secretary Fulgencio Factoran Jr predicts: “It be the great real estate sell off to foreigners. Soon, we will be squatters in our own lands, in the same way we are now trespassers in our own seas.”

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.