Boracay: A clear casualty of development
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Boracay: A clear casualty of development

According to TripAdvisor’s 2013 Traveler’s Choice Awards, White Beach on the Philippine island of Boracay is Asia’s best beach. Characterized by near-perfect weather for the majority of the year, pleasant breezes and idyllic scenery typical of a “tropical island paradise”, it is easy to see what attracts tourists.

But it’s not only travel awards and the lure of the good life that is grabbing headlines for this little corner of heaven in Southeast Asia. As is often the case, there is an ugly side to tourism on Boracay. On the one hand there are the developers, eager to exploit the island’s charms and earn millions by erecting as many hotels, holiday villas, water parks and other cash cows as possible. On the other hand there are the indigenous inhabitants of the island, the Ati, who are suffering a fate that will sound familiar to countless aboriginal peoples across the globe.

From the Guardian:

From a squashed compound of dusty vegetable plots and thatched huts separated from the main road by a flimsy bamboo fence, this indigenous tribe of 200 families is fighting for its right to live and work on the island. Largely uneducated and desperately poor, the Atis say they have been pushed off the land they have lived on for centuries by the hundreds of hotel chains, bars and businesses cashing in on Boracay’s multimillion-dollar opportunities.

Largely disenfranchised, the Ati recently lost their spokesman and youth leader, 26-year-old Dexter Condez, who was gunned down with a machine gun while returning home from a meeting about land. A security guard for a local resort was identified by witnesses and charged with murder, though it looks unlikely that he or his bosses will be convicted.

And it is not just the native inhabitants of Boracay that are suffering from the onslaught of development, but the very nature of the island itself. One of the traps of developing places like Boracay is that it kills the very things that attract tourists in the first place.

As I commented about Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, this is not as anti-intuitive as it sounds. Corporations are increasingly short-lived. It is therefore “natural” for them to try and make as much money as they can in the short term – environment be damned. There is no strong motivation for sustainability within mainstream capitalism. No one knows this better than venture capitalists, investors and developers. It will require laws, like the government memorandum issued last month that, if properly enforced, will at least look into ways to preserve Boracay as a “national asset”.

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Poverty on Boracay. Pic: C.A.P. (Flickr CC)

A “scathing” article in the travel section of the Los Angeles Times touches on the environmental degradation facing Boracay:

I jumped in with my snorkel gear and relaxed a little, until I remembered that the coral that I could now see clearly has been so badly damaged that the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported last year that less than a tenth of it remains in its original state. Coral is critical for marine life. I wasn’t helping.

Despite the waves the Times article has made in the Philippines, it is as critical of underdevelopment as overdevelopment. The author complains of inexplicable hotel signs, weather that didn’t live up to the hype, noisy parties, poor local transport and a free foot massage that never materialized. While I can sympathize a bit with her whining, the majority of her complaints are hardly the real problems with Boracay. She makes no mention of the Ati and their plight, of the hotel barons who exploit poor guards to do their dirty work, or the intense poverty and inequality that tourism coupled with a lack of human rights has resulted in.