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Emergency assistance for workers as Boracay cleanup gets underway

BORACAY – The island famous for its powdery-white sand beaches is officially under a state of calamity as security forces keep watch and thousands of displaced workers stand in line to receive cash assistance from the government.

President Rodrigo Duterte officially declared a state of calamity in Boracay on April 26, Day One of the six-month closure of the popular tourist destination turned “cesspool” which is now off limits to tourists as it undergoes a total cleanup and rehabilitation.

“It is necessary to implement urgent measures to address the … human-induced hazards, to protect and promote the health and well-being of its residents, workers and tourists, and to rehabilitate the island in order to ensure the sustainability of the area and prevent further degradation of its rick ecosystem,” says Proclamation 475.

The proclamation will fast track the release of funds needed for the rehabilitation of three barangays in Malay town: Manoc-Manoc, Balabag and Yapak.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development has also been handing out money for transportation and meals to workers leaving Boracay for home. Officials said a worker can receive an amount of up to 5,000 pesos after proper assessment.

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno also announced on April 27 that his department has released P448 million to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to cover the financial assistance for the affected 17,735 registered formal sector workers in Malay, Aklan.

The funds will be used for the emergency employment, livelihood, and training programs for workers displaced by the six-month shutdown and rehabilitation of the resort island.

Meanwhile, an Inter-Agency Task Force, composed of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Department of Tourism was established to evaluate the environmental state of Boracay, and investigate possible violations of existing environmental and health laws, rules and regulations.

Police forces deployed to the area are patrolling the beaches to keep tourists away, while some are also helping in the cleanup.

This tiny island that is home to more than 45,000 residents, receives an average of two million tourists a year. The tourism industry generated about P56 billion in revenues last year. But the tourist influx, untreated sewage, neglected road network and unbridled construction and expansion of hotels and recreational facilities in the 1,032-hectare-island have caused serious environmental damage.

A wake-up call

“We have come to realize that we need to bring back the beauty of the island. For more than a decade, we have been seeking the attention of the national government on the state of Boracay. While closing the entire island is unexpected, I think it is time to fix the environmental concerns and strictly implement environmental laws and local ordinances, Boracay Foundation, Inc President Nenette Aguirre-Graf said in an interview.

The downside of the closure, she said, is that more than 17,000 employees and more than 2,000 informal workers in hotels, souvenir shops, spas and other establishments that cater to tourists, will be displaced.

For Myrna Aurelio, 55, who has been a masseuse for over 20 years, closing Boracay will help restore the cleanliness of the beaches and that it will be beneficial to the people in the long term.

“I will resort first to backyard gardening. It will not be easy as I have to feed my two children. My husband works as a seasonal construction worker here. Life will be difficult but we need to support this effort to rehabilitate our island,” she said.

Demtrio Padin, 42, who has been in the boat rental service since 2007, will lose his primary source of livelihood but is hopeful the government will assist displaced workers like him. “Where are we going now? What will we feed to our families? I agree that Boracay needs some rehabilitation but it should not take longer than six months.”

The Philippine Chamber of Commerce (PCCI) in Boracay supports the rehabilitation efforts but not the closure of the entire island. The group’s president, Elena Brugger, says businesses that violate the law should be closed down, but those that have been compliant should have been allowed to remain open.

“Our businesses are not for our personal profit alone, but for the good of our people. If we lose our business, we also lose our people. Our question is, what will happen to our people in the next six months? And to those investors who invested their hard-earned money?”

Malay Councilor Frolibar Bautista said the situation in Boracay is a wake-up call for the local governments, the business sector and residents of the island.

“It’s a wake-up call for all of us. This is long overdue. We will not resort to finger pointing and blame anybody. We are saddened but we must all take responsibility for the situation. Of course, it is a challenge for us to address various issues. We need the national government to step up and help us in the rehabilitation,” he said.

Supportive of Duterte’s call, the indigenous peoples of Boracay, the original settlers on the island, should also benefit from the closure and rehabilitation. There are more than 200 members of the Ati tribe living in a 2.1 hectare land in Barangay Manoc-Manoc.

Delsa Justo, 58, chieftain of the Boracay Ati Tribal Organization, said the closure would allow the forest and the beaches to recover from over-development. She, however, hoped, that the scholarship of more than 50 Ati children supported by tourists will not be halted.

“The Ati tribe believes that we can help in the rehabilitation of the island. We only get our source of livelihood from the forest and from the oceans as most of our members are into fishing. I hope the government will include us in their plans as we rehabilitate the island.”

Sustainability should be the aim

While concerns have been raised over the visible green algae growth in some beaches in Boracay, residents believe it is a normal occurrence during summer.

The algae can be seen in Stations 1, 2 and 3 (about four kilometers long) of White Beach and in some parts of the Bolabog Beach, where most of the commercial establishments are located.

University of the Philippines marine scientist Miguel Fortes, who has been studying the effects of the surge in tourist arrivals on Boracay, said that the presence of algae on the beaches is an ordinary feature of healthy reefs. However, if the reefs are polluted, especially with very large amounts of nutrients, he explained that these nutrients could kill many other bigger species, while a few ‘primitive species’ can survive the high nutrient level and grow fast, resulting in an algal bloom, or the rapid increase in the population of algae.

In the process, he added, the species which do not and cannot adapt to the new bad conditions die and are consumed by bacteria.

“So only the bacteria and the bloom-forming algae persist. This is the bloom that is seen in some parts of the White Beach in Boracay,” he explained, adding that the normal (non-harmful) green tide is composed of very few or less dense green algae, while the abnormal bloom (harmful) that can be seen in Boracay, is so dense, even forming mounds on the beach. It is overfed or over-fertilized by the excess nutrients, he explained.

“The issues that used to be simple, ordinary and manageable were made complicated by decades of apathy, short-sightedness and inaction on the part of all stakeholders. The six-month closure will surely help but it is just a drop in the bucket. It is resilience and sustainability we ought to aim for,” Fortes said.

The rehabilitation will also allow the government to fix Boracay’s sewage system and road networks, including the removal of illegal structures built in forest and watershed areas.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu warned that establishments on the island that are illegally connected to sewage lines will be closed and sanctioned for violations. He said that some establishments were found out to be discharging their untreated waste water directly onto the beach or were illegally connected to the sewage which greatly contributed to pollution.

Last February, dozens of establishments were issued notices of violation by the Environmental Management Bureau for their improper disposal of wastewater.

One of the findings of the government’s initial investigation, as stated in Proclamation 475 that placed Boracay under a state of calamity, is that only 14 out of 51 establishments near the shores of the resort island are compliant with the provisions of the Philippine Clean Water Act of 2004, designed to protect the country’s bodies of water from pollution from land-based sources.

There is a high concentration of fecal coliform in the Bolabog beaches located in the eastern side of Boracay due to insufficient sewer lines and illegal discharge of untreated wastewater into the beach, the investigation further revealed.

Solid waste within Boracay, meanwhile, is being produced at a rate of 90 to 115 tons per day, while the hauling capacity of the local government is only 30 tons per day, leaving approximately 85 tons of waste on the island daily.

The investigation also found that only four out of nine wetlands in Boracay remain due to the illegal encroachment of infrastructures, including 937 identified illegal structures constructed on forestlands and wetlands, as well as 102 illegal structures constructed on areas already classified as easements, and the disappearance of wetlands, which act as natural catchments, enhances flooding in the area.

(Imelda V. Abano is the Philippines and Pacific Region Content Coordinator of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.)