Hard lessons from Boracay mess
Six months after Boracay Island was closed for rehabilitation, the National Bureau of Investigation on Tuesday filed before the Ombudsman graft and malversation charges against several local officials in Malay, Aklan, for misusing funds from environmental fees collected from tourists from 2009 to 2017.
That first step to official accountability is long overdue, given the neglect and ill-treatment that had been inflicted on the island.
From 2012 to 2017, the NBI noted a discrepancy amounting to P30,678,920.73 in reports submitted by the town’s two treasury officials.
For the same period, a bigger discrepancy of P84,860,570 was also noted in the report filed by the municipal treasurer, compared to the report by the town tourism office.
A former councilor said the discrepancy might be due to “exemptions,” since children 12 years old and below, government officials coming in as regular tourists and Boracay residents were exempted from paying the P75 environmental fee.
Still, the NBI probe is a welcome move in this sordid tale of paradise lost, and it should help sort out such issues, while also stressing the reckoning that local officials have to face over their actions — or lack of them.
Had those fees been used as intended, for one, they could have gone a long way in setting up, at the very least, proper sewage facilities and an efficient garbage collection system that would have sustained the fragile ecosystem of the island.
The loose accounting of fees is but one aspect of a dysfunctional system in which local officials appear to have issued, willy-nilly, building permits, sanitation and environment compliance certificates and business licenses to feed the exploding tourism trade in the island, which generated as much as P56 billion in revenues last year.
Department of Tourism records say over 550,000 tourists visited Boracay in the first quarter of this year alone.
But, astonishingly, only 3.5 percent, or 38 establishments out of the 1,070 inspected in Boracay, were found to be fully compliant with government regulations, according to the Department of the Interior and Local Government.
Among the rules most commonly flouted were the 30-meter easement from shore and the requirement to be connected to a central sewer. During the island’s six-month closure, 36 illegal pipes that discharged sewage just a foot under White Beach were unearthed.
Did the LGU not know, or did it look away?
And yet, even as the NBI charges are a solid first step to showing how serious efforts are to rehabilitate Boracay and make people accountable for its upkeep, its recent reopening still showed a disheartening indifference to lessons imparted by this case — this time among those on the other side of the fence: the island’s guests.
Starting Friday last week, an average of 3,000 guests, most of them locals from Aklan and adjoining provinces, again set foot on the island after its cleanup.
While the number is well within the island’s carrying capacity of 6,405 guests a day, the piles of trash they left behind point to the recurrence of a perennial garbage problem.
Before its shutdown, Boracay generated anywhere from 90 to 115 tons of garbage a day. Yet, the hauling capacity of the island was only 30 tons a day, according to a government study.
The government has prohibited smoking, drinking and eating on the beach to minimize trash, while also deputizing “pollution control officers” to warn or apprehend litterbugs on the beach.
Trash bins have also been donated by the private sector, while beach cleanup drives have been planned anew.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources also plans to fully enforce a ban on single-use plastics (like bottled water) after Nov. 2, according to Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda.
Eco-groups have been pushing for the ban to lessen the amount of plastic floating out to sea and choking marine creatures.
Another government regulation requires residents to bring their segregated trash to collection points from 2 a.m. to sunrise. The trash comes in separate bags: food waste, residuals, recyclables and garden waste.
Ignoring the rule means taking their trash back home.
Despite such laudable initiatives, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu bewailed the locals’ “attitude” toward waste disposal which, he said, was the main problem. It is easy to transform the island, but changing attitudes is something else, he said.
With trash once again befouling the island, it bears asking: Must it take another shutdown for people to finally heed the lessons of Boracay?
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