On Closing Spaces Close to Our Hearts (to Open them Anew)
Boracay and I
My first visit to Boracay over 20 years ago was a bit of a stroke of luck. A high school friend was going on vacation with her family and I was invited to tag along. I didn't know much about the island; it wasn't yet a regular holiday destination or the "party beach" it would later become, nor was it super accessible. I do remember seeing ads on TV showcasing long stretches of blindingly white beach, practically empty save for coconut trees and a beautiful woman enjoying a cocktail, if memory serves.
It was the most beautiful place I had been up to that point in my recently-teenaged life.
The sand wasn't only blindingly white, as in the ads. It was powder-fine and didn't heat up despite the strong sun. The water was so clear and calm, going in was like wading into a giant swimming pool. The beach went on and on with small shops and places to eat along the way, but none of the massive structures that now crowd the shoreline. At night, what bars there were played laidback tropical beats and everything exuded the kind of organic vibe I still look for when visiting new beach towns. It wasn't an exaggeration to call Boracay an island paradise.
My next time back was in 2003, with family. There was considerably more development (a "mall" had been put up!) and definitely more people but it was still an easygoing place overall. I returned the following year, the first time I encountered the infamous "lumot" that occasionally occupies the waters fronting White Beach, around which there always seems to be some confusion and misinformation: is the algal bloom a natural, seasonal occurrence that has to do with the nutrient content of the water? (Yes.) Or is its persistence an indicator of the worsening state of the island's sewage system and waste disposal? (Also yes.)
As I recall, talks of overexploitation and unregulated development were largely prompted, at least for the wider public, by the regular appearance of the green algae, particularly in spots where tourists expected nothing but pristine white and blue. As the island's popularity quickly and steadily grew – being named among the best in the world and gaining a reputation not just for its natural beauty but for its epic, if unfortunately-themed, parties (I'm looking at you, LaBoracay) – concerns about environmental and human health circulated and endured. Most of these were in connection to improper septic and sewage treatment and disposal, which directly threatened the safety of locals and visitors alike. High levels of coliform from the wastewater also adversely impacted marine life and coral reefs in the area. Many, myself included, knew of the environmental issues that came with Boracay's boom. One hoped for the best but, especially for people "outside" looking in, it was ultimately someone else's problem.
When I visited again in 2011, to attend the wedding of the same childhood friend I went with the first time (pretty cool, I know), it was a very different place than the one I saw 7 years prior. There were hotels almost right on the sand, where such concrete structures only used to stand far back from the shore or beyond the road running parallel to the beach. Establishments seemed to pile on top of one another. There was a Starbucks, the fact and sight of which personally offended me. The oceanfront was littered with sailboats and other vessels and the beach with sunbathing/lounging spots that "belonged" to the resorts; what was once beautiful in its emptiness was now a constant clamor of more, bigger, louder, and in my face.
Yes, I was part of the "overcrowd." Yes, this was "development." But I needed time to take in this version of the island so distant from the one I first experienced. It still had its perks and was still a fun place to be, but I felt like something irretrievable had been lost.
My last trip to the island was more than 5 years ago and I haven't had the desire to return since. Things had continued to degrade and the whole place felt to me like an unplanned boom town where everything that happened had to do with making money. The already-incongruous buildings got tackier and more unwieldy. Structures crept so close to the high-water line that even without zoning knowledge, one would know they weren't supposed to be there. And these were just the readily observable things. As the island's tourism and commercial industries grew, so did the complications brought by decades of lack of planning, dismal regulation, and shoddy implementation, if actual attempts were even made.
I had "moved on" to other stunning island destinations, for which this country does not lack. Boracay reaching its inevitable breaking point called me back.
Moving Beyond the Shock
The closure of Boracay on April 26 of this year was, many would agree, a long time coming. Calls to action to address the environmental crisis have been around for a long time, even before President Duterte drew sharp attention to it by labeling the island a "cesspool" and threatening closure. Suddenly, government agencies were coming forward championing immediate rehabilitation – let's set aside, for now, the question of how the situation got so severe to begin with. An SWS survey showed that 64% of Filipinos supported the closure (with a significant caveat that expression of support directly correlated with trust in the President and his administration); even celebrities chimed in.
Drastic as the closure was, taking place less than 3 months after Duterte's pronouncements, the hype around this particular case also had much to do with the fact that it happened to/in Boracay. I mean, this was Boracay! One of the Philippines' most famous destinations the world over and one that generated such enormous revenues from tourism. It was hard to wrap one's head around the idea that it could happen here, and rather unceremoniously.
As a matter of fact, environmental closures are not a recent invention/intervention. These have been routinely employed by the Philippine government to allow abused or overused natural sites time and space to breathe, heal, and regenerate. Many examples* are found in upland/mountain ecosystems which have been declared Protected Areas, or subject to an additional layer of monitoring and regulation:
Mt. Pulag (Benguet, Ifugao, Nueva Vizcaya; declared a National Park in 1987) – The DENR declared the Akiki Trail closed for five to six months in January 2018, to give the vegetation a chance to regenerate following a grassfire caused by a group of hikers. The PA Superintendent lifted the temporary closure of the trail in April 2018 as the natural regeneration was better than expected.
Mt. Apo (Cotabato, Davao del Sur, Davao City; declared a Natural Park in 2003) – PAMB and the PRRMO signed a memorandum in March 2016 closing all of Mt. Apo’s hiking trails after a forest fire destroyed (an estimated) 350 hectares of forest and grassland. In April 2017, PAMB passed a resolution re-opening the mountain to trekking subject to stricter regulations, also considering the livelihoods disrupted by the closure. However, the re-opening was criticized by environmental NGOs who believed that the mountain had not had enough time to recover from the fires.
Mt. Pico de Loro (Cavite; included in the Mt. Palay-Palay-Mataas na Gulod Protected Landscape in 2007) – In 2016, PAMB ordered the closure of all trails on the mountain for an indefinite period to allow for the development of rules and regulations for hikers, as well as for rehabilitation.
Mt. Sto. Tomas (Benguet) – The Supreme Court issued a TEPO (temporary environmental protection order) in September 2014 enjoining the DENR and LGU officials from Baguio City and the municipality of Tuba from initiating or proceeding with earth-moving activities on the mountain. The construction of a road had previously been approved, resulting in the cutting of trees and saplings and potentially threatening water resources in the area. The initiative was allegedly motivated by the deluge of tourists to the location, made popular by the telenovela Forevermore. In May 2015, the CA issued a Writ of Kalikasan making the TEPO permanent and directing the Tuba LGU to cease and desist from issuing permits to conduct activities in the Mt. Sto. Tomas forest reserve, without clearance from the DENR. Following this, the DENR imposed a ban on tourism in the area, despite objections from residents and the LGU.
These are just a few examples of recent site-based closures; others go farther back. They show that regulatory closures have been and are a matter of course when the need for them becomes apparent, and there is sufficient political will to impose them.
There are a few differences between these closures and Boracay, however. For one, there is limited human activity or habitation in these areas. Save for Mt. Sto. Tomas, all the mountains surveyed fall under one of the categories of Protected Area under the NIPAS law, which are by definition largely undisturbed by human presence and activity. Although there are nearby communities, the mountains themselves are for the most part uninhabited, whereas Boracay is not only a populated island but hosts millions of visitors every year.
Second, the nature of the needed rehabilitation is clearer or more defined. Most of the mountains on the list were closed following a large-scale incident (e.g., fire) or to recover from unsustainable tourism. The intended rehabilitation only entailed minimizing human disturbance to allow the areas to recover on their own – there seems to have been no need to construct additional infrastructure or facilities as part of restoration efforts. The Boracay rehabilitation, on the other hand, includes overhauling the island's sewage system and relocating informal settlers, among other actions that entail substantial resources and integrating the interests of multiple groups of stakeholders.
Third, in the mountain closures, efforts were pursued to develop or improve plans and policies to guide human activities upon re-opening of the areas. The need for these guidelines seems to have been identified early in the closures, and even appear to be pre-requisites for re-opening. These are expected to help clarify the way forward for tourism as well as prevent further damage to the mountains' ecosystems.
In the case of Boracay, the closure was arrived at and executed in a rushed, haphazard way, to put it in mild terms. Relevant government agencies had varying opinions on the potential impact of the closure, including on labor, revenues, and the economy, as well as mixed recommendations as to how and when to implement it. The DENR circulated a supposed "action plan" before the closure took effect in April, but as recently as June, lawmakers, peoples' organizations, and other stakeholders complained that there appears to be no real rehabilitation plan. This was partly evidenced by conflicting statements and reports about placing the island under land/agrarian reform, for example, and that while tourists were banned from the island and small businesses were being forced to close, plans to build a huge resort and casino were still underway.
Compared to the mountain closures, the situation in Boracay seems exponentially complicated and the end isn't clearly in sight. If a comprehensive rehabilitation plan is still missing more than halfway through the supposed 6-month closure, what is the likelihood that a post-closure plan or policy will be put in place – after proper consultation and the conduct of evidence-based assessments – to ensure that rehabilitation results are realized and sustained?
The answer is: we don't know. But what an opportunity Boracay presents for us to get it right!
Learning lessons, moving forward
Despite the daunting nature and size of the undertaking, and initially problematic execution, that the question centers around well-known, beloved Boracay opens the door for understanding and approaching this kind of environmental closure differently the next time around. From before the closure and almost 4 months since its declaration, national and international interest in and attention to the issue have not waned. Studies, surveys, articles, opinion pieces, etc. continue to be produced, highlighting not only the novelty of the Boracay case but also that people, directly affected or otherwise, want to be part of figuring out this so-called sticky problem.
The Boracay closure has already had a couple of immediate, perhaps unintended, positive effects. It displaced thousands of would-be tourists to other beach destinations, some of them facing environmental challenges of their own. The unexpected surge of additional visitors (further) tested the carrying capacity of these places such that they were/are forced to confront the same questions Boracay is now facing – definitely a strong nudge in the right direction. The second effect is related but much more straightforward: because they don't want to be the "next Boracay," local governments, agencies, and businesses in other tourist hotspots such as Siargao and El Nido have begun self-regulating (or finally regulating, as the case may be). In El Nido last May, my tour guide shared that some structures built too close to the shore in El Nido town have started being demolished, and more non-compliant buildings would go once peak tourist season ended.
In terms of environmental closures in tourist hotspots, we may have gotten off on the wrong foot with Boracay. Still, even among those adversely affected by the closure and the way it has unfolded, there is overwhelming agreement that rehabilitation is needed. Now is the perfect moment to get our hands dirty and analyze the problem in all its complexity, with a view to building a framework and plan of attack for similar future scenarios. This could be in the form of guidelines or a policy targeted towards prevention (i.e., how to avoid closure and rehabilitation), and/or a clear set of steps post-closure that takes into account due process, equal protection, stakeholder inclusion and participation, compliance with environmental and social standards, and of course, long-term sustainability.
*With many thanks to Nicole Torres for her research on Philippine mountain closures and additional analysis.