Blood and money in the sand: The tragic story of the Atis of Boracay
JUST like any paradise beach that lures tired bodies and souls to soak in its waters and bask in its sands, there is a narrative that is conveniently hidden behind the poster-perfect scenery of Boracay.
And it is one that is written in the narrative of blood and money.
In February 22, 2013, a 26-year-old Ati youth leader named Dexter Condez was brutally murdered, shot six times by an unknown assailant as he was walking with two female companions after attending a meeting. Condez was the spokesman of the Boracay Ati Tribal Organization (BATO). As such, he was at the forefront of the Ati struggle to assert their ancestral rights over their land. The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), as supported by anthropological studies, has established that the entire Boracay Island is the ancestral domain of the Atis in that they were its earliest settlers. In fact, the island’s name is in their language.
But like the fate of many indigenous peoples, the Atis were displaced and forced to retreat into the forested areas of the island when tourism investors began to descend on Boracay in the 1970s. But before that, local peoples from the Panay mainland began occupying parts of the island and later were able to secure land titles over what used to be legally considered as common property, and historically should have been considered as Ati ancestral lands.
A competing narrative is used by these local migrants to negate the ancestral domain claims of the Atis. They argue that the latter are also from the Panay mainland and only go to the island to forage during certain seasons. However, this is a weak argument since it only affirms the characteristic nature of Atis as nomadic tribes, and it even strengthens their claims not only on Boracay but even on those other areas mentioned. After all, the festival that has become a symbolic representation of the culture of Panay is named after the Atis, and historical accounts validate the claim that they were the very first people encountered by the Spanish colonizers there.
But the Atis were not even fighting for the entire island anymore, more so the entire Panay mainland, but only for a piece of land, some 2.1 hectares, which was awarded to them by the Philippine government in 2011 and for which a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) was issued. However, this was contested by local migrants who claimed that they hold land titles over the area covered by the CADT issued by the government.
Until today, the murder of Condez has yet to be finally resolved even as a suspect, a security guard working for a major hotel in the island, was arrested in 2014. Still to be clearly established is the motive behind the murder. Friends of Condez, including the nuns who were helping the Atis, said that he had no personal enemies, and that the only issue in which he was involved was the land dispute over the CADT.
As of today, the Atis remaining in the island, now estimated to be around just 20 families, have yet to occupy the land awarded to them. They are now confined in an enclosed complex called the Ati Village, which is in fact a former dumpsite. Fenced-in, isolated from the entire island, but still linked to it as a tourist attraction, the original settlers were symbolically dumped there. While some can consider the fact that the Atis are now living in more convenient houses, and no longer foraging, hunting and gathering like they used to, as evidence of development, others see this as a pathetic image of how the original settlers of the island have been reduced to, becoming an enclosed and controlled spectacle, disoriented and uprooted from their culture.
Now, their ancestral lands from where the Atis have been alienated, with its white sand beaches and pristine waters, and which developed in leaps and bounds to become a prime tourist attraction, have literally turned into a dumpsite for uncontrolled and unregulated development. A rough estimate reveals that more than half of the island’s establishments are not connected to the island’s sewerage system, even as they do not have their own to show. A significant number of these establishments are unregulated, and operate under the radar, if not with the tacit consent of the local government which has continued to issue building permits even in the absence of environmental clearances from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, during an onsite inspection visit, was reported to have been shocked at the scale and magnitude of environmental violations in the island.
The lure of tourism profits is just too much to resist, that even beaches and forests were encroached into by developers, even as human waste was dumped into the waters of Boracay, undermining the very resources that the island was capitalizing on. Ecological Marxists call this the second fundamental contradiction of capitalism, where the pursuit of profit leads capitalists to destroy the very physical base of their production.
In the process, it is not only Condez who suffered physical death. The blood that was spilled in the sands of Boracay on that fateful evening of February 22, 2013 is but a physical reminder of the many other deaths that attended this so-called development. The death of culture and the silencing of indigenous rights is revealed when the original settlers are now confined, contrary to their very nature, in a village that used to be a dumpsite. Their ancestral land is now home to an alien culture that fed on cash but has produced garbage.
But there is another side to this tragic story unfolding in what otherwise would have been paradise. In cleaning up the mess, the underbelly of the Boracay economy, the small-time establishments run by locals, and the migrant labor force that dominate even the bigger hotels and resorts, may suffer the same fate as that of the Atis that were displaced by the very economy within which they now exist and benefit from. (Next: The fate of the local economy and small-scale tourism industry, and the local migrant labor force)