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'Dirt on the white sand': Boracay’s first dwellers left in the wake of rampant development

In the first part of an investigation into the impact of Boracay's imminent closure, Channel NewsAsia's Jack Board talks to the island's indigenous people about how they have missed out on the booming tourism scene.

'Dirt on the white sand': Boracay’s first dwellers left in the wake of rampant development

Boracay will be closed for six months from Apr 26. (Photo: Jack Board)

BORACAY, Philippines: The name Boracay comes from two words in the indigenous Inati language, so it is said. ‘Bora’, meaning bubble, and ‘buka’y, meaning sand. 

“This story has become one of the few remaining links for the younger generation to their ancestors”, is the label placed on a bar of unembellished fruit soap the Ati people, the first inhabitants of Boracay, make to try to forge a living.

It is a name still befitting the Philippines’ tropical jewel, an island that inspires awe from its millions of visitors, lured by its sparkling sands and shimmering sea.

Boracay is a remarkable place, a rare earthly creation. And from the distant days of the Ati’s pioneering days on its shores, the island’s magic has been held deep in their collective spirit.

The Ati are restricted from where they can forage on the island. (Photo: Jack Board)

“Boracay before, for the Ati, was very beautiful,” said Delsa Justo, the chieftain of the Ati community. “You can see trees everywhere. Our movement is not limited.  We can go anywhere, enter any part of it. We can go by the seaside and hunt there using our arrows.

“The Ati took care of Boracay. I’m proud when people started noticing its beauty.”

But the sticker on the soap is also emblematic of the differing fortunes of those who call Boracay home. The island has grown into a money-churning, holiday-spinning behemoth and the indigenous Ati have been left behind in the wake.

Now, they look on as this paradise has become so trampled by visitors from across the globe that Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte labelled it a “cesspool”. The home to the world’s best beach is now so ragged from rapid development that no outsider will be permitted here for half a year, on the president’s authority, beginning Apr 26.

Tourist will be banned from Boracay during the rehabilitation period. (Photo: Jack Board)

Tourism operators, hotel tycoons, airlines and thousands of travellers who have had their holidays disrupted have reacted with shock at the temporary but complete closure of Boracay over perennially compounding environmental concerns.

Meanwhile, the Ati’s concerns - jobs, food, respect - are more critical, and less surprising. Their plight is much like the island in its current state - strained, neglected and exploited.

Ati Village on the eastern coast of Boracay’s narrow flank could not be more removed from the resorts of the west.

The Ati only have access to 2.2 hectares of their own protected land. (Photo: Jack Board)

The only development that has arrived in this part of the island was on behalf of a major hotel conglomerate set on turning this land into yet another resort. The legal fight has dragged on for years and the Ati are precariously staying put, a last stand of sorts on sacred soil.

Land that they once roamed to fish and farm is now off limits. Around their 2.1 hectare village - all they have left from the 600 hectares of the island - is a wooden fence lined with barbed wire. It is a self-made enclosure, keeping the world, which might snatch the land from them, out and confining the Ati to an existence as complete pariahs.

In Inati, they call it 'dumi'. They are the dirt on the white sand.

The Ati hold deep memories and connections to Boracay. (Photo: Jack Board)


There is a fond nostalgia among many for Boracay before its roaring days as a tourist mecca. Before the casinos and the fast food outlets and the sewage leaking into the sea.

Albert Rosal purchased land on the island in the 1990s. He had been visiting for years and wanted his own stake in the sand.

“The first time I went to Boracay, I fell in love with it immediately,” he said. “It was so nice. It was so quaint. The water was so pure.”

The waters around Boracay have become busier from commercial activities. (Photo: Jack Board)

Rowen Aguirre also remembers those times well. And as the executive assistant to the local mayor and the community’s liaison to the national government, he is now tasked with implementing the regulations and improvements that could turn back the clock.

He says he is not much of a swimmer. “For me, it’s been years since I had a swim. I’m not sure exactly when was the last time I did that,” he said.

There is a sense that it is not an aversion to water or an obsession with work that makes this so. Sharing the space with the goggled throngs and the fume-belching boats carrying holidaymakers to their various water activities perhaps does not have the relaxing effect of years gone by.

It used to be that when you walk on the beach, it’s you, there was nobody else. But now look.

“Sometimes I don’t want to go out on the beach because there’s too many people there and after a while you don’t want to be in a crowded place full of people.

“So that’s a reason when people ask me, have you been to the beach, I say 'no'."

Boracay received more than two million visitors in 2017. (Photo: Jack Board)


His sister, Nenette Aguirre-Graf, on this day, under tropical sun and open skies, has been planting coconut saplings along the populated beachfront alongside deck chairs. It is a small effort to restore greenery on the strip.

The trees used to be much higher, mature goliaths guarding the shoreline, a natural frontier between land and sea. Once, the view from beneath their shade was of little but the horizon.

Those coconut trees were almost totally cut down a long time ago to build cottages as the community on the island grew larger and more diverse. Today, a local ordinance dictates that beachfront structures can be no higher than the tallest coconut trees.

Businesses have been shut down for renovation or demolition. (Photo: Jack Board)

“They could have been higher if we based it on the first batch of coconut trees,” she laughs, well aware of the irony.

Aguirre-Graf is the president of the Boracay Foundation, a group of local stakeholders focused initially on marketing the island and now on protecting it.

The first part of that role has been done with unblinking dedication and success for many years now - in 2017 some two million tourists visited Boracay. And now the island is calling out for the latter.

“A lot of people now are aware of what’s happening and are more aware of the degradation of our island, that we have to somehow go back to how it was before,” she said.

“Maybe it’s good it happened in our lifetime. If we do it later, maybe it might be different. I mean it’s painful. But it is the right time or we should have done it a long time ago.”

The Ati could be given construction and cleaning jobs during the shutdown. (Photo: Jack Board)


Over the next six months, Boracay’s roads will be widened, its wastewater systems will be upgraded and non-compliant buildings will be demolished. It will be a radical solution to the years of neglect for the island’s infrastructure and environment.

Thousands of people are set to lose their jobs - many of them migrants who will be forced to return to their home provinces to either wait out the closure period or find some other way to earn a living.

The Ati have no choice in the matter; most have struggled to find jobs even during Boracay’s heady days.

Delsa Justo is the leading voice for the indigenous community in Boracay. (Photo: Jack Board)

“We cannot just hide in the island, we have to go out to get jobs,” Justo said. “Sometimes we get a job for one week doing construction. But it still frustrates us that we cannot go to the forests here, as well as to the sea to get food.”

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III has said that the Ati will be prioritised for hire for menial construction and cleaning tasks, such as the sewage system, on the island during its closure. They will paid the minimum wage of about US$6.20 per day to remove the filth that others created on their ancestral land.

“The first thing we felt about the closure is sadness,” Justo said. “Whatever they do, just don’t let it affect us. We’re only asking that they let us be.

“If they remove us again from our land, just kill us all. We don’t want to move to anywhere else. This is where we’ve shed our blood.”

A barbed wire-laden face has been erected around Ati land. (Photo: Jack Board)

Despair is expected to be a rich commodity in Boracay for the months to come. In an apparent admission of a fear of civil unrest or community desperation, hundreds of riot police including a 138-strong “crowd dispersal team” will be deployed on the island.

With little opportunity for employment and a lack of support mechanisms for locals, organisations like the Red Cross are already preparing psychological services for those facing tough times.

“In any transition, especially for a drastic action such as this, there is always confusion, uncertainties and low morale,” said regional police director Chief Superintendent Cesar Binag.

If the Ati were cruel-hearted people, they might say 'welcome to the club'.

This is the first part of Jack Board's in-depth look at the temporary closure of Boracay. Read part 2 ​​​​​​​and part 3 and part 4.

Source: CNA/jb/db


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