The environmental problems that beset the crown jewel of Philippine tourism is complex and multi-tiered. A recent audit done by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) found a whopping 842 establishments in violation of sewer and solid waste laws. The situation is so severe that only 18% of hotels and restaurants accredited by the Department of Tourism (DoT) were found to be connected to the main sewer system. The rest dispose their wastewater by tapping into sewer lines that drain into the sea. How these establishments obtained their Sanitary Permits, Mayor’s Permits and Licenses to Operate is the P64-million question (pun intended) which the local government must answer.
Exacerbating the environmental damage is the illegal occupation of wetlands and forestlands by commercial establishments. Wetlands and forestlands are legally protected zones which must not be marred by man-made structures. According to a map prepared by the National Mapping Resource and Information Authority, Boracay has nine wetlands for which only two are left unoccupied today. These wetlands are critical to the food-chain of insects and endemic animals and the water source for its flora and fauna. They also serve as the island’s natural catchment basin during heavy rains.
Insiders allege that among the blatant violators are a prominent businessmen and known land grabber who reclaimed portions of the wetlands to build a commercial center. Another is a prominent hotel operator with multiple hotels in Boracay.
The DENR also found 85 establishments with permanent structures in protected forestlands. Their presence and creeping expansion ease out the indigenous insects, plants and animals from their natural habitat.
On the beach, the law mandates that no man-made structure, whether permanent or movable, can be installed on a 25 plus 5 meter stretch between the high-tide mark and the buildings. Yet, hotels and restaurants continue to encroach on the protected zones by putting al fresco bars and beach beds on them. This is why the size of the beach continues to decrease in width every year.
So far, DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu ordered the closure of 51 establishments found to have violated water, waste management, and land use regulations. More closures will follow once the sewerage pipes are unearthed and a thorough audit of land use is undertaken.
Boracay is an environment time-bomb running out of time.
Without immediate and drastic intervention, experts say that this island paradise will become a giant septic tank of coliform, bacteria, and disease in less than two decades. It could go down in history as the poster-child of how corruption and neglect can turn the most beautiful beach in the world into a sea of manure.
Boracay is administered by Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) and the provincial government of Aklan. Day to day management is overseen by the officials of Barangays Manoc-Manoc, Balabag, and Yapak.
Unfortunately, the enforcement of environmental statutes have allegedly been selective, depending on the political weight and “persuasiveness” of those applying for environmental clearances. The 842 erring establishments are testament of how corruption has superseded the law.
Past administrations turned a blind eye on Boracay’s the environmental deterioration given its importance to the national economy.
After all, Condè Nast best island destination welcomed 2 million visitors last year generating some P56 billion in revenues. It is the biggest source of jobs in Western Visayas with 17,737 of our countrymen employed in it. Each of the major airlines that service Caticlan and Kalibo generate some $100 million in revenues annually.
President Duterte is the lone chief executive who called Boracay for what it is — a cesspool that needs to be closed for rehabilitation.
Since then, Malacañang has formed an interagency task force consisting of the DENR, the DoT, and the Department of Local Governments (DILG) to solve the problem in the most expeditious way with the least amount of displacement.
Last month, Officer in Charge of the DILG, General Eduardo Año, recommended to close the island for six months to address the environmental problems to which the President gave his full support. Año recommended that the closure commence on April 26 but DoT Secretary Wanda Teo appealed to wait for the habagat season this July. It is still not clear if and when the shut-down will take place.
The President went further by warning local government officials and businessmen of arrests for sedition should they refuse to cooperate with government’s clean up operations.
Government plans to declare a state of calamity in the island, a move I fully support.
Under the law, management and operations of calamity-stricken areas automatically reverts to the national government. This opens the way for it to reprogram funds for the repair and upgrade of infrastructure even if not appropriated in the national budget. A state of calamity also gives government the right to dismantle roads and impinge upon private rights of ways without being disrupted by temporary retraining orders from uncooperative land owners. More importantly, it allows government to dismantle illegal sewerage connections and take-down illegal structures without legal recourse.
In terms of accountabilities, declaring a state of calamity will give government the basis to investigate and hold local and national officials accountable for bypassing environment laws. Not only does this include past and incumbent mayors, city engineers and sanitation officers, but also former officials.
Local government officials should also be made to account for the P75-environmental fee levied upon each and every visitor of Boracay. The fees have been imposed for many years and should amount to several billions pesos by now. With little to show in terms of environmental infrastructure, the public deserves to know where the funds have gone? A lifestyle check by the Ombudsman is warranted given the amounts involved and the damaged caused.
BORACAY ESTABLISHMENTS RAISE A HOWL
A six-month closure of Boracay is still uncertain. Everything depends on what the authorities find once the subterranean pipes are unearthed. Depending on how grave the situation is, the closure can extend to a year.
Business operators in Boracay are appealing for a 60-day window to rehabilitate their own properties. They promise to connect to the main sewerage treatment plant and/or establish their own wastewater treatment facilitates.
Business groups have cited massive loss in revenues, loss of jobs, and long-lasting repercussions to the Boracay brand should a closure ensue.
I am afraid that the damage is far too grave and the solutions are far too complex that it can no longer be addressed by fixing one’s backyard.
At this juncture, what is needed is to increase the capacity of the sewerage and filtering system, to expand the sewerage pipe network and to dismantle all illegal structures in wetlands, forestlands and even on public roads. The work to be done is massive and to close the island completely will be the fastest way to do it.
Neither is it viable to undertake the repair work according to stations. This is because drainage and water pipes are interconnected — so the closure of a single pipe can affect hundreds of establishments.
As to the threat that Boracay will never recover its reputation as a tourist destination should it close, I say it will be worse if we do not resolve the problems squarely. Besides, a good tourist destination will always be resilient. Bali, for instance, quickly recovered following the 2002 terrorist attacks were 202 died and 219 were injured.
I share the view of the President when he told the Boracay stakeholders that: “you were the ones who destroyed Boracay, not us.” It is only right that all those affected give their support to the clean up and rehabilitation effort of the government, not stand in its way. This is the best way they can help.
On government’s side, the what they need to show the private stakeholders is a concrete plan and timetable so they can plan accordingly.
Boracay is the tourism crown jewel of the country and it belongs not only to the stakeholders of the island but the Filipino people. We must do all we can to preserve it for future generations, whatever it takes.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.