On the tiny island of Boracay there is a treasure arguably more valuable than its famed white beaches—the way of life of the island’s earliest settlers, the Ati. But that is a well-kept secret. If resort developers have their way, the once dutiful stewards of the island’s forests will be wiped off the map of Boracay and forgotten forever.
The Ati now have only the 2.1 hectares of land in Barangay Manoc-Manoc, over which they have a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) issued to them by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). Decades of administrative neglect have allowed the intrusion of commercial land development into what should have been parts of the Ati’s ancestral domain. Still, the Ati’s accepting nature makes them grateful for the piece of land they now know is legally theirs. One would think that a society governed by laws would respect the title awarded to the Ati and allow this cultural community to build its own piece of paradise in this highly commercialized island. But the Ati’s claim to their ancestral domain remains as fragile as the ecosystem of Boracay.
The degradation of forest and mangrove areas resulting from the growth of tourism on the island has caused the Ati to lose their traditional sources of livelihood and access to their agricultural lands and burial grounds. Nevertheless, the small community of 43 families with about 200 family members try to keep alive their language, arts, dances and customs while interacting with the island’s different peoples and economic practices. Many of the Ati’s adult members work as laborers, construction workers and employees of the island’s numerous hotels and resorts. There are also fishermen and agricultural workers as well as government employees and a teacher. Ninety-one percent of school-age children attend school. Two community members are college graduates. The community has formed an organization, the Boracay Ati Tribal Organization (Bato).
Despite their holding a CADT, the Ati’s claim to their much diminished ancestral land is not secure. Within their ancestral domain, a hill has practically been leveled due to quarrying. A road-widening project further reduced the area that had been awarded to them. Construction companies have dumped gravel and earth-filling materials onto what was once wooded areas within their ancestral domain. Shops, small restaurants and other illegally built structures have likewise encroached on Ati territory.
Private claimants have petitioned the courts and the NCIP to nullify the title issued to the Ati. Some of these claimants have occupied parts of the land covered by the CADT. A private resort, which is allegedly planning to build an adventure park with a crocodile farm, aviary and indoor firing range, has accused the Ati of intruding into its property. Other indigenous groups have also laid claim to the Ati’s ancestral domain.
One night in November 2012, around 20 security guards armed with shotguns and handguns tore down parts of the perimeter fence built by the Ati around a portion of their territory. More recently, last Feb. 22, one of the community’s leaders, 26-year-old Dexter Condez, was gunned down. The friendly and articulate spokesperson of the Bato was walking home with two female companions from a meeting when an unidentified man shot him dead. Local people trace the killing to the ongoing land disputes.
Besides threatening the security of the Ati, the land disputes are holding back the development of their settlement. A private foundation that had made plans to build houses and a school for the Ati community could not proceed with the construction of these facilities because the local government would not issue the necessary permits on the ground that the area is under litigation. In the meantime, the Ati families are without electricity, clean water and durable housing.
Most of the Ati are Catholics. They have probably been told of a loving Creator who wants all humans to live as his children, brothers and sisters to one another, and thus to share in the goods of the earth in a way that will enable all to live in dignity. The Ati have experienced this love in the nuns and other people who have been helping them defend their land claims and attend to the basic needs of their members, especially the children. But the people who have quarried the hill on their land, ravaged their mangroves, torn down their fences, and were responsible for the killing of Dexter Condez may well have been baptized in the same religion.
Given the issues and interests that threaten to consign Boracay’s living cultural treasure to oblivion, it is the state’s duty to ensure that justice and the rule of law prevail over ruinous business interests. The Ati want no more than for the state to enforce its laws. They want the metes and bounds of their ancestral domain determined through a process recognized by the local governments. They want help in formulating an Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development Plan. They want the government to evict illegal occupants on their land, demolish the structures in the “No Build Area,” and file cases against those that have destroyed the hill inside their ancestral domain.
If we allow tourism and profits to trump justice and the rule of law, we stand to lose an irrecoverable treasure far more precious than Boracay’s legendary white sand.
Anna Marie A. Karaos is associate director of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues.