What we know so far: Forest land clearing, arrests of Boracay residents

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MANILA, Philippines — Two years after the world-famed island of Boracay was closed for rehabilitation, some residents fear the loss of their homes after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued notices to vacate properties in areas categorized as forest lands.

Last week, ten people — six Filipinos, a Belgian, a Filipino-Australian, and two Britons — were arrested in Barangay Balabag for allegedly occupying or building structures in protected forest lands. They were identified as owners or caretakers of establishments in this area.

Presidential Decree 705, or the Forestry Reform Code of the Philippines, states that forest land “includes the public forest, the permanent forest or forest reserves, and forest reservations.”

Reports said those arrested were detained overnight at the Boracay Police Station and later brought to the Prosecutor’s Office of Kalibo, Aklan where they faced complaints of violation of PD 705, PD 1067 (Philippine Water Code), and the “25+5” or 30-meter beach easement ordinance of Malay, Aklan.

Bail of P36,000 was recommended for those accused of violating PD No. 705 while those charged for all three complaints were told to post bail amounting to P75,000.

‘Arrest is legal’

In a phone interview with Philstar.com, Czar Eric Nuque, chief of the NBI’s Environmental Crime Division, confirmed that there was an operation that led to the arrests.

He, however, clarified that the apprehension was legal and did not require a warrant of arrest as the people were caught in the act of violating environmental laws, which he said is an exception for the need to issue an arrest warrant. He said these were “in flagrante delicto” (in the act of committing an offense or crime) arrests.

What the law says

Nuque furthered that the operation was in compliance with President Rodrigo Duterte’s Executive Order 53 that created the Boracay Inter-Agency Task Force tasked to reverse the degradation of the island.

The task force is chaired by Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu with Interior Secretary Eduardo Año and Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat as vice-chairpersons.

This order cited Proclamation No. 1064 signed by then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2006 that classifies the island into 377.68 hectares of reserved forest land for protection purposes and 628.96 hectares of agricultural land as alienable and disposable pursuant to PD 705.

READ: Duterte says Boracay will go to farmers, but is it agricultural land?

“Pursuant to the Regalian Doctrine, whereby all lands not privately owned belong to the State, the entire island of Boracay is state-owned except for lands already covered by existing titles,” the EO reads.

DENR’s and DOJ’s mandate

Under the same EO, the DENR was also directed to relocate and demolish establishment and structures situated inside the forest lands, wetlands, and other bodies of water in violation of environmental laws or do not have licences, agreements or any appropriate tenurial instruments with the agency.

This June 2018 file photo shows Wetland No. 4 in Balabag, Boracay

Philstar.com/Rosette Adel

This June 2018 file photo shows Wetland No. 9 in Barangay Manoc-Manoc in Boracay

Philstar.com/Rosette Adel

The DENR is tasked to rehabilitate the 377.68 hectares of foreign lands in coordination with stakeholders and to also supervise control of all foreign lands, water ways and alienable and disposable lands where in they are authorized to impose appropriate sanctions for any violation of applicable laws.

The environment agency is likewise ordered to enforce and monitor the “25 + 5 meters” easement established in accordance with existing laws, rules and regulations.

On the other hand, The DOJ, is mandated by the EO to coordinate with the Office of the Solicitor General, Land Registration Authority and the DENR in the institution of action for the reversion of land to the public domain in the appropriate court within six months of effectivity of the EO. The NBI is under DOJ.

The DOJ is also asked to provide legal support to the BIATF through its provincial prosecutor’s office in Aklan and assist relevant agency in the prosecution of persons and establishments found to have violated environmental laws.

In May, Duterte extended the validity of BIATF through Executive Order No. 115, until May 2021, citing unfinished projects.

‘Notices to vacate’

Nuque said that the authorities have been sending notices to the residents since 2018 and they were required to explain their authority over the forest lands.

“Walang nape-present na documents, walang authority, (They cannot present documents, they do not have the authority” he told Philstar.com.

Residents cited that some of the houses were built even before the PD 1064.

However, Nuque said the law still applies to these areas.

He said they are not discounting the fact that some of the residents also have tax declarations but he said this document is not enough to gain authority to stay on the property.

“The fact remains that it is a forest land,” Nuque said.

Nuque said one needs to secure a tenurial instrument that allows them to occupy areas categorized as forest land. A tenurial instrument grants an individual a limited period of stay of around 25 up to 50 years.

Nuque said structures on forest land will be demolished.

State-owned land

In an interview with ABS-CBN’s Teleradyo on Tuesday, DENR Undersecretary for Policy, Planning and International Affairs Jonas Leones said that notices to vacate had been issued. He warned that the residents should eighter vacate their structures forest land, self-demolish, or face arrest.

“This is was what happened on November 24, they were arrested because they have refused to leave the forest land while some were violating the easement rule,” he said.

Leones stressed that no land titles will be granted for forest lands.

He also said that those who had been living in the forest lands even before Arroyo’s presidential decree “ran the risk of being ejected” for staying there. He said the land the structures are on are not theirs.

“Their staying there does not mean they have a right to the areas, especially since the area is classified as forest land,” the DENR undersecretary said.

The DENR official cited the October 2008 Supreme Court ruling that classified Boracay as both forest and agricultural land that belongs to the state. This decision also junked the ownership claims of several resort owners.

READ: Boracay wholly state-owned — 2008 Supreme Court ruling

“We clearly showed them when we sued them that authorities found probable cause in their violation of forestry laws and violation of the easement [rule],” Leones said.

The DENR in July last year sought the assistance of National Mapping and Resource Information Authority to settle the issues on the accuracy of the measurement of the establishment of the “25+5-meter” easement rule of Boracay island.

NAMRIA subsequently conducted verification survey and densification of Geodetic Control Points (GCPs) in various parts of the island, specifically commercial establishments and private residences that continue to violate the easement rule.

In this July 2019 photo, officials marked establishments that are violating the easement rule with red paint marks of 25+5.

NAMRIA/Released

The authorities then placed markings on affected areas.

Residents’ concerns

Aside from the claims of ownership, residents also questioned the timeliness of the arrests as it occurred amid the pandemic.

“In the middle of a pandemic, after numerous destructive natural disasters, and only weeks before Christmas day, government agencies are expected to ensure safety, food, and shelter for their people. But that is not the reality and the future is uncertain and scary,” concerned resident Leonae Graf wrote in a Facebook post.

According to a report by Boracay Informer and radio host Jonathan Cabrera, some residents affected by the forestland clearing are seeking financial aid from Duterte. They cited that they also lost their livelihoods during the pandemic.

Cimatu has yet to respond toPhilstar.com‘s request for comment on the clearing activities.

What’s next: Relocation, appeals

Meanwhile, in an interview with Radyo Todo Aklan 88.5 FM’s Todo Latigo, Community Environment and Natural Resources Officer Rhodel Lababit confirmed that the DENR has issued a final notice to vacate forest lands. The notice also ordered affected residents to self-demolish within 15 days.

He denied speculations that the government timed the forestland clearing amid the pandemic, stressing that notices had been sent since 2018.

“That’s wrong because since 2018 we have been sending notice to vacate, notices, show cause order and we just prioritized commercial areas. You can see that clearing of the four-kilometer beach from Station 1 to Station 3 is now 100% accomplished,” Lababit said.

“And then, we we moved to clearing Bulabog, which is more complicated. Now, we’re here in the part (of the beach) were there are more affected structures,” he also said.

Lababit said they noted 339 establishments affected by the “25+5” easement rule in 2018.

Of that number, 91% of commercial establishments have been demolished while 40% of residential areas have been demolished.

The DENR only issued notices to the occupants of the remaining structures.

He said these notices are also regularly relayed to barangay officials.

According to the Boracay Action Plan, Lababit said, the local government unit of Malay and provincial government are in charge of the relocation of residents.

He cited a similar case where Tumandok residents were evacuated from Wetland No. 6 or “Dead Forest” and relocated.

He said the DENR coordinated with the Department of Agrarian Reform for the relocation of families from Wetland No. 6 to Sitio Angol in Barangay Manoc Manoc. The relocated residents were given certificates of land of ownership award.

The CENRO said those who received notices to self-demolish are advised to write him a letter of appeal with attached documents such as tax declaration, among others.

On Wednesday, BIATF officials Cimatu, Año and Puyat are set to visit the island for an interagency meeting.