THE Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) through Undersecretary David Erro, perhaps in its desire to please the President who wants to convert the entire Boracay island into a land reform area, has boldly announced that from 30 centimeters to one meter of topsoil imported from other places will be dumped on some portions of the island to make these arable and suited for agriculture.
This is a tacit admission that the land there is not suited for cultivation, which is a prerequisite provided by RA 6657, as amended, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. It must be pointed out that the Supreme Court in an agrarian reform case decided in 2008 emphasized that the intent of CARP was to redistribute lands that are either devoted to or are suitable for agriculture. Dumping topsoil to make the land arable is clear and incontrovertible proof that the plan to implement CARP in Boracay is not supported by the natural capability of the land.
Furthermore, any ecologist will tell you that dumping topsoil from other places introduces not only soil, but also micro-organisms that may have harmful or adverse effects on the island’s ecology. Being a small island ecosystem, Boracay has natural and unique features which may not necessarily be suited to commercial agricultural production. Dumping topsoil may provide short-term arability but may not be in tune with the island’s natural ecological conditions, not to mention the fact that an overlay of soil can easily be washed out to sea during heavy rainfall. It would be ironic that Boracay was closed for a clean-up, only to later be dumped with loose topsoil that could turn into mudflows during typhoons—and that would certainly pollute the coastal waters and threaten marine ecosystems.
This ill-advised plan of importing topsoil from other places to make it appear that the land is arable is symptomatic not only of the legal troubles of forcing land reform in Boracay. It also highlights its technical and ecological problems.
The President should consider other options. The better way to manage Boracay’s land resources is to abandon the idea of land reform, and instead focus on the fact that the island is an ancestral domain of native Atis, and that it is an island ecosystem not only with unique features, but also with ecological and cultural tourism potential.
The President doesn’t have to look far, or deep, in the government’s arsenal of legal instrumentalities to implement a novel way of managing the island. RA 8371, or the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA), has provided for a mechanism to empower the native Atis and make them benefit from any development. In fact, they already hold a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) over a 2.1-hectare lot. If the President wants to empower the first settlers and give them priority in the benefits derived from the land, all he has to do is order the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to expand the coverage of their CADTs. Theoretically, and if the President wants it, the Atis can be given titled rights over the entire 628.96 hectares that are not part of the portion that was declared by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as forest reserve in Proclamation 1064 which she issued in 2006, and which was upheld by the Supreme Court.
Under the IPRA Law, the Atis, with the assistance of the government through NCIP, would be required to draft an Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan (ADSDPP) which can include not only agricultural development but even eco-tourism development to be conducted by private parties. It is also provided in the law that the Atis will have to give their free and prior informed consent (FPIC) on, and they would get a share of the income which will be earned from, these activities.
This strategy for land use management will technically be in accordance with the intent of the President to give priority to the first settlers, but at the same time allow for the continuation of the economic activities such as tourism in Boracay.
Furthermore, and pursuant to RA 7586, or the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) Act, the President can also proclaim the entire island of Boracay, including those covered by the CADT awarded to the Atis whether currently or as expanded, as a protected landscape. RA 7586 defines protected landscapes as “areas of national significance which are characterized by the harmonious interaction of man and land while providing opportunities for public enjoyment through the recreation and tourism within the normal lifestyle and economic activity of these areas.”
Proclaiming Boracay as a protected landscape will cause the formation of a Protected Areas Management Board (PAMB), which is a collegial, multi-sectoral body that decides on budget allocation, approves proposals for funding, decides matters relating to planning, peripheral protection and general administration of the area in accordance with a protected area management plan. This management plan is designed to promote the adoption and implementation of innovative management techniques necessary for governing Boracay. The plan also includes the protection of the native Atis and local communities. It also institutionalizes close coordination with local officials and private sectors, including hotel and resort owners. All these stakeholders will be represented in the PAMB.
With this mechanism, the land-use management of Boracay will be placed within the context of a participatory, multi-sectoral and environmental frame. To strengthen the status of Boracay as a protected landscape, the President can ask Congress to pass a law affirming such a status.
Thus, if the President’s intent is to ensure social justice to be delivered to the original settlers of the island, and to protect Boracay’s ecosystem, but in a manner that would also take into consideration its tourism potential, and current political-economic realities, then the better option is to expand the CADT areas for the Atis and proclaim the entire island as a protected landscape.
The President should realize that forcing a land reform approach on a small island ecosystem that is no longer arable is a bad idea. And the ill-conceived proposal to overlay the island with topsoil transported from other places just to create the illusion of arability will be but an appropriate optics for such a deeply problematic strategy.