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For the Ati of Boracay, ancestral domain title is worthless

MALAY, Aklan — At two hectares, the ancestral domain of the Ati community in Boracay is probably the smallest in the Philippines.   Awarded last year, it is the latest of the 156 ancestral domain titles issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) so far, according to the advocacy group Anthrowatch.   The Boracay property sits on a largely undeveloped cove on the southeastern part of the hugely popular tourist destination, which explains why it is tied up in litigation and contested by three non-Ati families that are unwilling to let go of their claim.

Wedged between a serene mangrove swamp and an almost pristine stretch of powdery white sand beach, the land would have been an ideal setting for the 45 remaining Ati families in Boracay, which has exploded in uncontrolled tourism development in the last three decades.   Instead, the 200 or so descendants of the island’s original inhabitants are living in squalor on a small plot that has also been claimed by local politicians.   “We are not settled in our ancestral domain,” laments Dexter Condez, spokesman of the Boracay Ati Tribal Organization (BATO). The group joined the two-day Aeta festival in this town last weekend, sharing stories and their way of life with other Negrito communities mainly from the islands of Panay, Negros, and Guimaras.   Voicing out their aspirations on the last day of the festival, most of the delegates put scholarships, water systems, and funds to buy musical instruments in their wish list. The group of Condez had only one desire: to occupy the land where they already have a title, but which remains in danger of getting taken away from them.   Visit to Ati village   On Tuesday, visiting Aetas from Tarlac went to the Ati village in Boracay to see the condition of the marginalized community.   Delsa Supetran Justo, the 53-year old tribal chieftain, recounted how they grew up getting their food from the abundant seas and coastal areas. They went fishing in their dugout canoes, and gathered shells from the rocky outcrops along the beach. On land, they hunted turtles and monitor lizards, and enjoyed the sight of monkeys frolicking in the forested hills.   Other villagers chimed in with the origins of place names: Boracay from the white sand and bubbling waters, their settlement Bulabog from a tree that was known as the dwelling place of spirits but had since been felled by a storm, and Barangay Balabag from the term for a place walled off by two mountains.   “Ilang ulang (grandparents) na ang nilibing namin diyan,” Justo gestures toward the hills on the northern part of the island.   In 1997, the passage of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) and the threat of demolition prompted the villagers to apply for a title to their settlement. With local politicians staking a claim to the plot of land, however, they conceded and asked the government for another place in the island, “kahit saan,” she says.   The Ati villagers rejected a government proposal for a resettlement site in the Malay mainland, preferring to remain in the island. Through the years, negotiations have whittled down their claim to about two hectares of government forestland, a mere fraction of the roughly 1,000-hectare island where their ancestors once roamed freely.   Quarry in Ati territory  
Half a hillside in the Ati ancestral domain had been leveled, to the surprise of the native islanders. GMA News
Kiteboarders crisscrossed the waters off Balabag beach as the Ati villagers and the visitors trooped down the sandy shoreline, where other surfers were busy preparing for their turn, to the titled ancestral domain in the early morning sun.   The native islanders were greeted by a surprising sight: half of the hillside on the land had been leveled and quarried for construction materials. “Nandito lang kami nung Enero, buo pa yan,” says one of the Ati villagers. Condez sighed in disbelief, making a note to report the incident to authorities.   A couple of tourist establishments had set up beach shacks, and construction workers with heavy equipment were clearing parts of the land for more buildings. Flotsam and jetsam littered the beach facing the Sibuyan Sea, an unusual sight compared to the well-trodden and manicured stretches of White Beach on the other side of the island.   Beside the mangrove swamp, settlers had put up concrete barriers along the riverbank, which was covered in slimy green algae in many places. A new bridge connected the river delta to the other side, where barangay workers were extricating trash from the roots of mangrove trees as birds flitted in the branches.   The NCIP had issued the title to the Boracay Ati through their organization, BATO, in August 2010. The title was subsequently registered with the Land Registration Agency three months later and awarded to the Ati in January 2011, according to a report from the Philippine Daily Inquirer.   However, three property claimants have been resisting the Ati occupation of the land and are contesting the awarding of the CADT, according to NCIP commissioner Dionesia Banua. The issue remains unresolved.   Titles to forestland   Under the IPRA, the government can award ancestral domain titles to indigenous communities that can prove continuous habitation and resource use of a territory since time immemorial. The native title allows organized indigenous groups to inhabit and control the use of their land, and in some cases, ancestral waters.   Joey Austria, head of the Indigenous Affairs Division of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, acknowledged that the property boom in Boracay led to many questionable titles but remained optimistic that the Ati would still get their rightful share if a long-running court battle to reclaim public land in the island is resolved in favor of the government.   “May mga lugar sa Boracay na hindi dapat natituluhan kasi forest land,” says Austria, whose agency is in charge of land classification in the country. “Kapag binawi ng gobyerno iyan, aplayan nyo na,” he adds.   “Huwag kayo mainip,” Austria advised the Ati of Boracay.   With the Ati constantly under threat of demolition, however, Condez says they have to keep badgering the NCIP for help in transferring to a place they can call their own.   The NCIP assists about a hundred ethno-linguistic groups that have resisted colonial influence and preserved their traditional culture. Since the IPRA came into force in 1997, the agency has given out titles covering 4.2 million hectares of government land to more than 900,000 members of indigenous groups, according to its website.   Nomadic Ati in the 1970s   In a previous interview, Diether Schrottman of Mandala Spa recalled that when he first arrived in Boracay in 1977 as a young photographer, the Ati were nomadic islanders who used banig for their sailboats and already had a settlement in Bulabog.   “It was a blessing to live here,” he said, describing the island as “absolutely pure and untouched.” Nobody wanted be on White Beach – now often proclaimed one of the best beaches in the world – which was too hot and full of pandan plants between the coconut trees that held the sand together.   Back then, most settlers lived in barangay Manoc-manoc, near what is now Station 1. Schrottman said there was just a footpath between the hilly barangay Yapak in the north, where many high-end resorts including Shangri-la hotel are now located, and Cagban in the south, the pier site.   These days, a dusty winding road cuts across the island and traffic is unbearable most hours of the day. Shops and hotels are crammed along the thoroughfare, a damning testament to weak government controls in what could have been an island paradise.   Ati beggars, often with children in tow, in the tourist-choked streets irritate islanders like Condez; their organization has been receiving calls from various groups complaining about the beggars, whom he says are not from Boracay.   “Masakit po sa amin ito dahil hindi namin ugali na mamalimos,” he told fellow Ati during the festival. “May marangal na trabaho po kami at nakapag-aral din naman ang iba sa amin,” adds Condez, who works as a pastoral worker at the local parish and managed to reach first year college.   He appealed to the other Ati communities to ask their members to put a stop to the practice, and preserve the dignity of their indigenous heritage.  
Littered with debris, the beach fronting the Ati ancestral domain nevertheless provides a stunning view of the kiteboarders in Bulabog beach. GMA News
If they had their own enclave, the Ati in Boracay would have been able to provide temporary shelter for the mendicants in the streets. As it is, they still don’t know when their ancestral domain title will even become worth the paper it’s written on. — GMA News