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The Long View

Coastal cleanup with napalm

Back in February, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu said he was inclined to advocate a moratorium on the construction of new buildings and the opening of new businesses in Boracay, particularly at the beach. As we all know, President Duterte had an eruption over coliform level reports and threatened to shut down the island if the sewage system wasn’t sorted out in six months. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources said it issued notices of violation to 51 out of 340 establishments on the island, mostly related to not having adequate sewage facilities. Cimatu for his part was reported as having recommended the closure of 300 establishments. The DENR also said it discovered 1,000 residential and other structures in timberland areas.

Because the President declaimed that he might shut down the island, its future is suddenly in doubt. Cebu Pacific Airways issued a statement advising passengers to seek out alternative destinations, just in case. Business owners in Boracay have taken to posting essay-length reflections on Facebook, pleading for a more nuanced approach to the problem. As it is, tourism in the island is worth P50 billion and brings in two million visitors a year. Roving bands of passionate defenders of the President have taken to adding Boracay to their topics of interest, denouncing anyone who questions the current approach as environmental criminals or at least, coddlers.

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To be sure, Boracay is a case of how a good thing can be ruined by unlimited and barely regulated commercial development. And everyone will have a pet story of how impunity has been exercised by the well-connected. Case in point is the
resort Sen. Manny Pacquiao has always insisted is not his, but on behalf of which he once interceded in order to “help” it: Boracay West Cove resort, which finally had to start demolishing structures it built on five rock formations after years of battling local government offices for operating without permits. Exercising political will — and finally making tough choices as to the volume and frequency of visitors — sounds noble, except all the talk of sustainability sounds hollow when it was announced that Macau casino operator Galaxy Entertainment Group Ltd., in partnership with Leisure and Resorts World Corp., has received Pagcor permission to set up a 23-hectare casino on the island (last January, the President had imposed a ban on new casinos; Pagcor chair Andrea Domingo said the Boracay casino applied before the ban was imposed). There is even talk of there being two Boracay casinos.

What’s going on is a lot of action without, it seems, a master plan of what the excitement is supposed to achieve. The DENR has issued warning against 82 out of 351 tourism-related establishments in Panglao (and not just there: back in February, Socioeconomic Secretary Ernesto Pernia said the “permissiveness” of local government authorities made possible all sorts of violations by resort owners; and while Panglao was the focus of current inspections, all of Bohol was actually covered by the crackdown). This month promises to feature crackdowns in Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro .

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The secretary of tourism for her part was quoted as having pointed to Coron in Palawan and Siargao in Mindanao as two tourism destinations that need to fix their environmental problems (which may or may not have anything to do with Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez once saying he’d taken a personal interest in Siargao tourism). On March 18, the Philippine News Agency quoted Natividad Bernardino, DENR Mimaropa director, as saying that Coron Bay was unsafe for swimming due to coliform from human waste. The DENR official pointed out that there is no sewage treatment plant in the area. What commercial establishments have to do is “desludge” their septic tanks. Informal settlers in certain zones have to be relocated, too. El Nido, in comparison, the official said, is improving its coliform levels. But still, 80 percent of firms lack wastewater discharge permits, and 70 percent fail to empty their septic tanks on a regular basis. Cimatu, for his part, has been cited as having ordered a cap on visitors to some of Palawan’s more famous destinations.

It’s interesting to speculate on what the effect of federalism might be: Would it eliminate national government “interference,” and leave the fate of resorts firmly in the hands of local officials? As it is, the instinctive response is to create new national bureaucracies—a Boracay Authority, as one senator put it—which just wraps a problem in a pretty bow of fresh red tape.

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TAGS: Boracay cleanup, DENR, environmental laws, Manuel L. Quezon III, Roy Cimatu, The Long View
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