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Paradise Lost – part 3 November 28, 2014

Posted by Alex Sawit in In My Opinion.
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By Alex Sawit

November 28, 2014



Boracay Ati Tribal Organization on Facebook, showing chieftain Delsa Justo (foreground, right) among the youth. Inset shows Dexter Condez, the Ati leader whose slaying in 2013 galvanized the tribe to continue fighting for its rights.



[ EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of Paradise Lost. Although long delayed, it turned out for the best because it allowed the article to be shaped by recent developments on Boracay. Nevertheless, I apologize to all those who had been waiting for the conclusion. To read the previous installments, go to Part One and Part Two. ]



It’s easy to let down one’s guard when one is feeling good with progress being made. Since I do feel good about it and about what it means for the future, I’ll just keep in mind not to stray from being cautiously optimistic.

October was “National Indigenous Peoples’ Month” in the Philippines. For the Ati tribe of Boracay, it was a fitting time to celebrate the official release of their Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan (ADSDPP), which they did last October 18, at their tribal village in Manoc-Manoc. The event coincided with the ceremonial blessing of the newest village facilities, the Heritage Center and Learning Center, which will serve the vital purpose of curating Ati traditions and knowledge for locals and tourists.

Truly, how could we not feel good when so much is seeing fruition?

“When (we) visited the Ati Village last July,” reported correspondent Freida Dario-Santiago in an article for the Boracay Sun, “they were overjoyed to finally have running water from the Boracay Island Water Company…(and as of now) 30 houses, the Boracay Ati Multi-Purpose Cooperative store, the livelihood center and sewing facility, and the Bihasin Ati Living Heritage Center have been completed, and on-going construction of the front perimeter fence and the school were underway, to be followed by the construction of (the chapel).”

Nevertheless, the ADSDPP is the foundation for the tribe’s future. Indigenous peoples like the Ati are required by the Philippine government to each draft a separate ADSDPP. Sort of like a tribal constitution and economic blueprint rolled into one, it properly defines the rights of a cultural community to self-determination. Now, the Ati can move forward, backed by local and national authorities, knowing that they have the lawful mechanism for protecting their interests.

So what’s the long term vision for the Ati?

“Assets for cultural tourism,” says Dario-Santiago in her article. “The ADSDPP will empower them (to govern themselves) as a cultural, spiritual and self-reliant community…providing an enriching interaction for locals and tourists.”

Cultural tourism. Ecotourism. Those are the new buzz words of the good guys championing Boracay’s original heritage. They remind us that it was Ati song and dance that gave us one the greatest celebrations in the Philippines, the Ati-Atihan Festival, suggesting that the Ati have it within their centuries of folklore and way of life to create other narratives. “The Ati would be the best tour guides,” continues Dario-Santiago, “with the opportunity to share the history of Boracay as its first settlers, and the stories behind the places their ancestors named.” There are even Ati cooking demonstrations being organized for urban Filipinos, who are pleasantly surprised by the honest flavors of traditional islander cuisine.

“We are very grateful,” said anthropologist Benjamin Abadiano, speaking to Al Jazeera network, “that the government has finally realized that they need to provide a face, the human face, of Boracay, which is the Ati.” Abadiano is one of the country’s leading advocates of indigenous peoples’ rights and is working to help reinvent Boracay with the Ati at its heart. “Because without the Ati,” he says, “Boracay becomes a soul-less community.”

Yet there’s a treacherous road ahead. It’s because the government that has been so gracious to the Ati has also set a collision course between two visions for Boracay, both of which are publicly supported by the same government.

Vision on the one hand: Eco-Culture Sanctuary of the Philippines.

Vision on the other hand: Party Island to the World.

You only have to watch the Department of Tourism’s international ad campaign, touting “Boracay: Asia’s 24/7 Island”, to grasp the conflict of interest. For despite its commitment to protect the island from over-development, the reality is that the government is also committed to pimping it. This year, planners are on track to exceed 1.5 million visitor arrivals on this crowded beach destination, which surpassed the one million mark last August to generate over $420 million (according to the latest released figures from Aklan’s Tourism Operations Office).

To be fair, partygoers and eco-culture visitors can co-exist but only if the whole island follows the right vision. Take Boracay’s regional rival, Bali, if you want a successful model for this. From the temple processions to the music and dance pageantry, the Balinese cultural experience is so wonderfully inescapable that it creates a compelling “Bali Brand”. Commercial developers are smart enough to tap into this and visitors love it, to the tune of millions of arrivals each year. And the stronger the cultural brand, the more profitable it is for local businesses, which welcome both types of tourists. Unfortunately, the Philippine government appears lukewarm about coordinating a similar strategy between the Ati and the local business sector.

No administration wants to risk Boracay’s revenue stream by advancing a different tourism model. Which means, the government’s commitment to a hardcore party island already sabotages the Ati before the tribe has even begun.

It’s unaviodable. With tens of thousands of drinking, carousing revelers overrunning this small island at any given time, it’s going to constantly generate a negative environment for the Ati’s own eco-tourists, who are coming explicitly for a cultural experience only to be exposed to the party madness one way or another. It’s a raw deal for the Ati and their allies but they must find a way to persevere.

I wonder if there is also prejudice at work. Like those property owners who see the Negrito tribe members as eyesores and chase them off the beaches, do our own tourism officials also look down on the Ati? Are they embarrassed because they think a native islander culture isn’t an “attractive” image for Asia’s 24/7 playground?

That’s ignorance, not just prejudice. Look at the Fijians. Look at the Tahitians of French Polynesia. Look at how the Maori are a source of proud national identity for New Zealanders, including the country’s white majority (watch the mighty All-Blacks of rugby perform their famous Maori warrior haka on the world stage and you’ll get a glimpse of how Maori heritage weaves together New Zealand’s multi-ethnic diversity). If the native islander cultures of other beautiful Pacific destinations can appeal to a world market, the Ati can do the same with theirs.

Which brings me back to something I touched on at the beginning of my story – my example of Batanes, the northernmost Philippine province, a breathtaking island group renowned for its picturesque stone houses and chilling ocean winds, and home of the indigenous, seafaring Ivatan people.

Batanes is always listed in national surveys as the poorest province in the country, with a great majority of the population involved in fishing and farming. Yet the Ivatan correctly point that those same surveys also list them as the happiest people in the Philippines. “We never go hungry here,” is what they like to tell their guests from the big cities. Such visitors always find it refreshing to immerse in the authenticity of the Ivatan, whose simplicity in the pursuit of happiness is immune to outsiders preaching the material priorities of a consumer society. To the Ivatan, it’s never about consuming more and more and more. It’s about living with integrity. The celebrated Honesty Coffee Shop, which is the Ivatan-owned general store in the provincial capital that regularly attracts media attention because of its “honor system”, is just one shining example of the genuineness of life in Batanes (the store has no staff, relying instead on customers to write in the logbook what they’re taking and just leave the payment in the drop box). The Ivatan also like to share amusing recollections of their dealings with aggressive commercial developers from their next door neighbor, Taiwan. The most popular story tells of the Taiwanese gambling group that wanted to build a massive casino complex on one of the province’s uninhabited islands, projecting huge numbers of Chinese gamblers and promising the Ivatan billions of pesos in collections. To this, the Ivatan council essentially told them, “What are we going to do with the money? We’re happy with our lives. You’re just going to destroy our land.”

I ask you: How do you bribe a people who have no price?

The answer makes me smile with renewed faith in what is possible when a community finds strength in its convictions – when a people believes proudly in who they are, making them resolute in defense of their way of life. That’s the kind of cultural stronghold that the Ati of Boracay must become.

With the help of their allies, the Ati can grow into that. Only then will they be able to reassert their centuries-old calling as Boracay’s stewards. That’s the cultural selling point that will help transform Boracay into a more attractive, more sustainable tourism destination for generations to come.

At the same time, the island’s business sector needs to stop being in denial. Time is running out. It’s members need to accept that the present course is not only unsustainable but will destroy the island’s natural beauty permanently. They may not realize it yet, but they need to form a strategic partnership with the Ati. They have everything to gain if Boracay is successfully reinvented with the Ati as its true face. Because in the global marketplace of the 21st century, where First World consumers are shifting increasingly in favor of a more eco-conscious, culture-sensitive attitude – about everything from green energy to organic food to, you guessed it, enriching travel experiences – Boracay needs to offer more than just beaches and parties if it is to stay internationally competitive in the long term.

I’m not saying cultural reinvention will be easy. Imprinting the Ati as Boracay’s showcase identity will take lots of hard work for an unforeseeable length of time, but it’s doable. Besides, can you honestly think of a better way to reclaim this lost paradise? I can’t.

So let’s cheer the Ati and their allies onward and support their dream in whatever way we can. It’s a long road ahead and we all need to stay vigilant, especially whenever we’re feeling most hopeful about the future.







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