Dubbed as “party island,” Boracay has been rated as Asia’s top beach destination for relaxation and spa treatment, third in nightlife entertainment, and the Philippines’ second top tourist destination, according to Agoda, an international hotel-booking website.
Boracay’s four-kilometer powder-fine white sandy beach and crystalline waters have made it a tourist haven and an overdeveloped coastline of multimillion investments of the hotel and restaurant industries.
Boracay is also the site of the killing of Ati cultural community leader Dexter Condez. He was believed to have been shot dead by a security guard of a luxury hotel opposed to the grant of ancestral domain to the Ati people.
Many business ventures in Boracay operate without proper licenses. Violations of environmental rules have been committed by 157 property owners and establishments, as reported in 2012.
Government authorities even had to demolish a hotel scandalously built on an atoll, which is part of the natural heritage sanctuary.
Historically and culturally, the seven-kilometer stretch of the island with a land area of 1,002 ha is the ancestral homeland of Atis, ancient indigenous people of the Philippines.
The National Commission for Indigeous Peoples has granted the Boracay Atis their certificate for ancestral domain title covering 2.1 ha. Their writ of possession was granted in April 2012.
Three claimants have contested the grant and obtained a temporary restraining order from the local court against the Atis.
But with support of the Catholic Church and the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, the Atis have settled on the beach front in Barangay Manok-manok under threat of goons employed by the claimants. Government police have been assigned to protect them.
The Ati beachfront is in an alcove of a land area stretching beyond the main shoreline out to sea on both sides. As a beach site, it offers privacy without compromising the breathtaking seascape and the vast blue horizon.
There are makeshift sheds along the road that display shells and arts and crafts done by the Ati. The Atis have built houses and 25 families have settled on the beach, which is being contested by claimants, one of them a big hotel.
The Atis have subsisted on what the land and sea offer. The bounty of nature is attributed by them to the spirits to whom they offer prayers and sacrificial rituals.
In Boracay, Atis would pick up shells, catch fish, gather fruits and crops, and hunt for animals in the forest. To this day, they can still identify the various fishes and marine life forms that abound around the island.
But food resources are no longer easy to come by. The environment has changed and the economy is ruled by cash income, which is beyond their reach. Social discrimination has relegated the Atis to the margins of Boracay progress.
Ironically, as a tourist entertainment destination, Boracay is abuzz with exciting events—pop concerts, dancing waiters, fire eaters, karaoke singing contests, jamming, art exhibits, body painting, tattooing art and fun happenings.
But this revenue-generating cornucopia of delights is deplorable for its artifice, shallowness, and lack of cultural rootedness.
The real culture of Boracay is embedded in the history, collective memory and practices of its ancient inhabitants, the Atis. Sadly, mainstream Philippine society ignores and oppresses the Ati people because of their black skin, poverty, and lack of formal education.
Dexter Condez was a very active Ati youth leader. At 26, he directed the performances of the Boracay Ati cultural group. Being articulate and high-school-educated , he served as spokesperson for his community. He assisted their chieftain, Delza Justo, in asserting their ancestral-domain rights.
During the National Ati Gathering in Malay, Aklan, in February 2012, he lamented the lack of ethnographic accuracy in the artistic renditions of their dance performance. He expressed the need for his group of young dancers for training in cultural research and artistic creation.
To address this need, the Committee on Central Communities of the National Commission for Cultural and the Arts (NCCA) visited the Ati community on May 31, 2012.
The Boracay Ati people, at that time, found refuge in a private lot in Barangay Balabag owned by the Yap and Miraflores families while waiting for their resettlement in their legally titled ancestral domain.
National Commission for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) commissioner Dionesia Banua and Sr. Herminia Sutarez of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul helped prepare the community for the NCCA visit with NCCA consultant Lincoln Drilon, a cultural management specialist who’s himself an Aklanon.
The Ati people interacted with the NCCA group, which was composed of cultural leaders from various indigenous people’s and cultural communities in the Visayas, Palawan and Bicol. Four of the NCCA leaders are Atis from Negros, Capiz, Malay in Aklan, and Lake Buhi in Bicol.
The NCCA offered possibilities for cultural research, art workshops and the establishment of a school of living tradition. The forum ended happily with singing and dancing among hosts and guests.
The shocking murder of Dexter Condez on Feb. 22, 2013, is a cause for grief and lamentation among cultural workers, artists and indigenous peoples communities. (The suspect has been identified by eye witnesses as a security guard of a luxury hotel contesting the ancestral domain certificate of the Atis.)
It is the second indigenous killing of such kind.
Last September in Zamboanga del Sur, Jordan Manda, an 11-year-old boy who performed the Subanen ritual in the NCCA Kapwa Festival 2012 in Baguio City was killed by bullets meant for his father, Timuay Luceno Manda, an anti-mining activist.
Both Condez and Manda are precious culture bearers, harbingers of hope to their generation and the future. As indigenous youth, they connected the Filipino youth to their ancestral roots.
It is high time for government leadership to address the plight of the marginalized communities of indigenous peoples. A consolidated plan of action and concerted effort should be in order for the national cultural agencies and government units at all levels.
These offices must band together along with the people in the indigenous communities and dedicated nongovernment organizations to systematically come up with a clear and unified direction for the protection of rights, poverty alleviation, improvement of health and education, natural and cultural heritage conservation and sustainable development for the Atis of Boracay and other indigenous communities in the country.
The writer is the commissioner for Cultural Communities and Traditional Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.