Paradise Lost: The Flip Side of Boracay Island

By First Peoples Worldwide

Ati People

“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