Cleaning Up Paradise: A Poorly Planned, Poorly Executed Rehab

by Albert Lawrence Idia

BORACAY’S “WORLD’S Best Island” title gave way to President Duterte’s description of the country’s premier tourist destination as a “cesspool” – as he ordered the island shutdown for six months. The closure, the first of a three-phase process, would stem the continued deterioration of the island’s environment with the installation of an adequate sewage system to staunch the pollution of its once pristine waters. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) began an ecological audit early in 2018. Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu reported that only 50 to 60 percent of the commercial establishments in the island were in compliance with the Clean Water Act. Given its obvious problems, the island’s rehabilitation required a comprehensive plan specifying what had to be accomplished within given timeframes, and assigning agencies to various tasks, along with a system of accountability for accomplishments. But Duterte himself said there was no such thing: “Master plan?Wala akong master plan. Linisin ko muna ‘yan kasi agricultural area ‘yan.” (Master plan? I don’t have a master plan. I will clean it first because it is an agricultural area.) This should have flagged the problems that awaited this ambitious and worthy project. The president, it turned out, was concerned about the island as agricultural terrain, a notion alien to most Filipinos and certainly to the many aspiring to enjoy even its dubious pleasures. How then would media report on the work in progress? A master plan would have guided the government, provided the milestones of its progress, the same way that this would have helped media to report on the work moving forward. Without such a framework, media coverage was reduced to recording what officials had to say about their work.


Initially, the government wanted to control media access to the island by putting in place accreditation guidelines and planning to issue permits without explaining how they were going to decide it. Reporters who will be given access would not be able to stay overnight in Boracay while gathering information and working on their reports. Media quoted Tourism Assistant Secretary Frederick Alegre, who said during a press conference on April 14 that “The limit that we imposed is just that so we can control the number of people in the island. As you know, there’s a lot to clean up, and when you get to the island, you will be assigned an area where you can cover, and there will be escorts that will guide you to certain areas if you wish to go.” Such setup, however, did not sit well with the media as journalists had already scored the lack of planning and the absence of a comprehensive work plan. The accreditation scheme suggests that the rehab would be covered by chosen few and as desired by those in charge. Eventually, the planned accreditation for media was lifted on April 25 but not after it was assailed by various organizations such as the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG),CenterLaw, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP and even the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR).


Among the concerns, the plight of the workers displaced captured extensive coverage. Media showed footage and documented episodes of the difficulties of the unemployed: the long lines formed for the meagre assistance that they were given to compensate for at least six months when they could not work on the island. The difficulties of the suddenly unemployed all reflected the lack of planning which mired the endeavour almost at every step. The media relied mostly on talking heads, recording what sources were concerned about. It was left to some opinion writers to point out the dangers of a piecemeal approach to the island’s rehab. Columnist Peter Wallace for example asked: “Has a master plan of design been approved?” He pointed out that “Six months will speed by, and if the planning and follow-through implementation are not done, we’ll be no better-off than at the beginning.” The civil society sector also had valuable insights into the problem, but the media did not give these the prominence they deserved. In a position paper it released on April 26, the non-governmental organization Center for Environmental Concerns acknowledged Boracay’s problems on wastewater, solid waste management and its endangered biodiversity.  However, it warned that rehabilitation “should not come at the cost of people’s lives and livelihoods” and that there should be a “democratic, comprehensive, and scientifically-sound rehab program” that would include the participation of all stakeholders. The Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, another environmental group, slammed the rehab bluntly on June 11 and said that the order “is like bar-drunk swagger that had no comprehensive, scientific basis and no heart for the 36,000 workers it will displace.”


Media also reported plans to declare the island a land reform area, an idea expressed by the president even before the actual closure. Two months into the shutdown, he said it again: “So ibigay ko na iyan [lupa] sa mga tao for agriculture purpose. Kung hindi, kukunin ng mga may pera iyan, gawan nila iyan ng resort (I will give the land to the people for agricultural purposes. If not, the rich will take them, and they will build resorts), he was quoted as saying before he left for South Korea on June 3. There were efforts to examine this pronouncement. CMFR cheered some reports which noted that while it is partly agricultural, utilizing Boracay land for farming purposes may be bleak given the many structures already standing on land. A two-part report of the Inquirer recalled the policy changes in relation to land titling and questioned the economic feasibility of the land reform plan, amid long term land disputes and the dependence of the community on tourism.  The president did make good on his promise though. In November, he distributed 623 certificates of land ownership award consisting of 274.0352 hectares under Agrarian Reform Program to the members of the Boracay Ati Tribal Organization. POORLY EXECUTED WORK Boracay 2.0 reopened on October 26, but not without media noting a number of government prohibitions, among them a ceiling on the number of tourists who can visit, the ban on smoking in public areas and on pigs and poultry on the beaches. Souvenir stalls and shops were also restricted from the beachfront. Media also noted that there was still much to be done in terms of implanting environmental standards which was originally the primary objective of the closure. Checking and ensuring compliance of establishments was slow as observed by lawmakers during a hearing on the Department of Tourism’s budget on September 13. Around 180 establishments had been issued environmental clearances but there are about 2,300 on the island. This meant that not all are cleared to open as the six-month rehab ended. By the end of September, the Inquirer, the Star and 24 Oras reported that only a small portion of the seven-kilometer road network had been paved. The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), according to the Inquirer, “has so far managed to pave only a little over 1.1 km of a one-lane road and to lay 2.9 km of drainage pipes in the island’s main highway.” But despite the unfinished work, government reopened Boracay to tourists and visitors, patting itself on the back for its “political will” to get things done, all dutifully reported by the media.
Boracaynons (right photo) welcome Aklanons (left photo) as the very first guests of Boracay Island on Day 1 of the island’s dry run on October 15. | Photo from DENR website
MOVING FORWARD Despite self-congratulatory statements of government officials, the reopening was obviously anti-climactic. Media reported the failure of government to complete the job, while recording official statements about how tourism and environment departments were ready to welcome visitors to the country’s prime tourist attraction. The national media could have picked up from the local media who paid attention to the plight of the sectors most affected by Boracay’s closure and continuing rehabilitation. Panay News, a daily regional paper in Western Visayas, ran reports on the problem of looking for a relocation site for displaced families and the worries of local officials. It also reported on the assessment of the group We Are Boracay, which said the rehab brought with it “never-imagined-before destruction to lives, homes, and the community we have built, dislocating us from our jobs and livelihood, and trampling upon our human rights. As the environment and the tourism departments had expressed the intention of cleaning other tourist destinations  such as Panglao in Bohol and El Nido in Palawan, and currently Manila Bay, the media should bear in mind and call the public’s attention to the lessons learned in the Boracay experiment –A rehab may be for the interest of the many and the environment, but a poorly planned one will be poorly executed.