The Boracay Rehabilitation: How Did We Get Here?

Illustration by  Angelo Esperanzate

Illustration by Angelo Esperanzate

Boracay is the Philippines’ number one tourist destination, referred to in headlines all over the world as a “paradise.”

It was consistently awarded the “Best Island in the World” under a number of publications.

But on April 4, 2018, in a move that was unprecedented in the country, President Rodrigo Duterte declared this paradise closed. Furthermore, he declared it a ‘cesspool’ of sewage waste, citing that an environmental clean-up was necessary.

Just like that, Boracay was closed for business. It put over 17,000 employees in jeopardy. By April 19, military ships docked the island, sending policemen to “clean up.” One week later, a final party was held by the white shore. A six-month closure was put in place, a decision that was, like many of President Duterte’s policy decisions, highly divisive.

Did Boracay need to be closed?

Boracay has a long history of locals protesting for its protection; the warning signs were always there. In 1997, a study was conducted by a private company with expertise in sustainable development (EcoPlan International) as an initiative by the Department of Tourism. They concluded that, already, “38% of the capacity indicators were exceeded, 44% were unsustainable and only 19% were not exceeded.”

The proposed maximum peak number of tourists, given the government follows through with their recommendations, was 14,900. But in January to February 2018 alone, the island saw over 260,000. These numbers were never hidden from the public—but a national interest in tourism spurred many local government units (such as the one in Malay, Aklan, the town of Boracay) to keep moving forward despite advice from advocates of sustainable tourism to pay closer attention to what the island can handle.

It was also way back in 1997 that the island went through its first major environmental crisis.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) claimed that the waters by the beach, meant for swimming, were already contaminated with high levels of coliform caused by “inadequate sewage treatment,” or simply put: sewage dumped straight into seawater. So why did it take decades for action to be taken?

During the recent Boracay closure, Roy Cimatu, DENR Secretary, said that 50% to 60% of all business establishments are compliant with regulations, but the rest “direct their pipes to the canals, which drain to the sea.”

Statements like Cimatu’s directed the media to put the spotlight on private businesses and local enterprises for not complying with the regulations. However, the statistics, also released by DENR, showed that a staggering 95% of residential properties are not connected to the sewage system; a shocking contrast to the 34% of businesses that remain non-compliant. 4,331 residential properties and 578 businesses are within reach of the sewage line. This begs a different question: Why weren’t the residential properties regulated for such a long period of time?

Boracay has a long history of locals protesting for its protection; the warning signs were always there.

The study by EcoPlan International from 1997 suggested, even way back then, that there was a need to “…provide an opportunity for more critical, transparent and accountable governance. There is a need to remove the inherent constraints imposed by clannism, favoritism and the clouds of corruption that characterize the local political system. Better media oversight and more consistent involvement from national and regional agencies (especially the DOT and DENR who can provide funding, technical expertise and enforcement of environmental laws) is needed to balance local politics.”

The Philippine constitution provides local government units with plenty of autonomy, wide latitude and discretion, subject only to the general supervision of the national government. In many aspects, this allows for greater, faster development within smaller municipalities. In the case of Boracay, it meant that for many years the local government of Malay, Aklan, was technically and legally responsible for handling the case of coliform in Boracay, a piece of land that was also generating the country millions in tourist dollars.

Whose fault was the environmental damage?

It is hard to delineate whose jurisdiction it is to protect tourist islands like Boracay. A closer look at the legal ordinances passed by the local government reveals multiple attempts to rectify the island’s issues with sewage, but each attempt considerably moves the sphere of responsibility.

In 2003, certain private properties were ordered by the LGU to create their own connection to the sewage system, with minimal standards. Some of these systems, now illegal, may still exist. In 2011, a new ordinance was passed and a single authorized sewage treatment facility was created: the Boracay Island Water Company, which holds the “exclusive” right to facilitate water treatment on the island.

The BIWC is a joint venture between TIEZA and Ayala Corp., one of the most established private companies in the Philippines, which also owns residential properties and business developments on the island. PPPs (Private-Public Partnerships) such as the BIWC are a commonplace solution in the Philippines. The new ordinance also gave BIWC the right to hand out Wastewater Management Compliance Certifications, which were now required along with building permits.

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Vendors, tricycle drivers, business-owners, and the like, rose to the challenge of reopening their home and hoped there would be customers.

Suddenly, TIEZA (an arm of the national Department of Tourism) claimed a piece of jurisdiction regarding who could build on the island. Only a year later, this was repealed yet again to create a “Wastewater Management Council,” which consisted of a hodgepodge of officials from the LGU and a representative from the BIWC. No Wastewater Management Compliance Certifications necessary, just a nod from this new council.

In short: No one can say for certain how or where the lines are drawn. Jurisdiction is passed around among offices in the public sector like a hot potato—new mishmash offices created wherever a loophole is deemed problematic.

At the end of the day, unfortunately, there are few barriers to protection for the private sector, and it is the smaller enterprises who take the biggest blow. The Boracay Foundation, made up of Boracaynons and private stakeholders, released a statement that they accepted the closure, but “humbly plead for the lives and families of direct and indirect workers who up to this day are clueless due to the absence of clear guidelines and sufficient support for their future. We only ask for things that have been promised, nothing more.”

During the time of the 1997 coliform crisis and its negative impact on tourism, the Boracaynons banded together to organize an event called Rediscover Boracay—an attempt to reclaim the narrative of Boracay to say that they would pick themselves up. Vendors, tricycle drivers, business owners, and the like, rose to the challenge of reopening their home and hoped there would be customers. Many of the same locals decided to close their business for good and leave, selling their properties at very low prices, uncertain whether the president would be strict with the 6-month deadline.

 
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What happens now that Boracay is reopened? What can I do?

According to DENR, only 19,000 tourists at a time will be allowed on Boracay at any one time—an improvement from old average, but it has yet to be disclosed what studies this number was based on, so it is hard to tell if this there is truly a sustainable tourism plan being implemented.

Not all businesses were reopened. Some weren’t allowed to, under the new vision of a cleaner and "more responsible Boracay. Others weren’t able to bounce back.

DOT listed 353 compliant accommodations in operation by last month. However, establishments operating without permits still exist. In May 2019, the Boracay Interagency Task Force (BIATF) shut down 10 of these restaurants, which also reportedly serve only Chinese nationals.

Rehabilitation efforts, which DENR says are 90% complete, have also not spared Boracay residents from severe flooding.

The complicated case of Boracay demonstrates how mass tourism is often for the benefit of the country, not the local community. If you are planning on visiting Boracay, follow the age-old rule and support local. Here’s a guide on how to give back to the native community as a tourist in the island. There are still many local businesses that could use help given the time lost during the closure.

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