Hardy Filipinos fly flag, fight loneliness on Kalayaan isle



PRICE OF FREEDOM For the few dozen Filipinos living on remote Kalayaan Island, each day is a battle against loneliness and a love affair with nature. This photo handout released on July 13 shows Kalayaan, which means “Freedom” in Filipino, which was created in 1978 mainly to assert the Philippine claim to the disputed territory in the Spratlys. AFP / KALAYAAN MUNICIPAL OFFICE

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—For the few dozen Filipinos living on a remote speck of land in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), each day is a battle against loneliness but also a love affair with nature.

Contact with the outside world is limited and comforts are few for the residents of Kalayaan town, which exists mainly to raise the Philippine flag and fend off the other claimants to the Spratly Islands.

“People here just play billiards, ping-pong. We have no markets and no malls. You need a special mindset to stay here,” said Eugenio Bito-onon, 55, mayor of the town of Kalayaan, the Filipino word for freedom.

Bito-onon, who initially went to Kalayaan in 1997 to work as a town planner, said he learned to cope by playing guitar, watching videos and simply walking around the small islands surrounded by the purest blue ocean waters.

“I love the beauty of the place. It is so peaceful,” the deeply suntanned Bito-onon said while on a visit recently back to Puerto Princesa, the nearest major Philippine city on Palawan Island.

Kalayaan was created in 1978 mainly to assert the Philippines’ claim to the Spratlys, a group of more than 700 islets, reefs and atolls in the West Philippine Sea that is believed to sit above vast natural resources.

The Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei claim all or part of the Spratlys.

Most of the other claimants have a presence on some of the other islands in the Spratlys to help boost their positions.

But the Philippines insists Kalayaan—which covers five islands, two sandbars and two reefs—has the only functioning local government of its own in the Spratlys.

Tensions barely felt

Regional tensions in the long-running territorial dispute have flared again in recent months, with the Philippines accusing China of taking increasingly aggressive actions in the Spratlys and nearby waters.

But Bito-onon said the diplomatic tensions barely affected the residents, most of whom live on the 37-hectare island widely known as Thitu, which the Philippines calls Pagasa, or Hope.

Mostly this is because of their isolation.

Pagasa is about 450 kilometres northwest of Palawan, roughly 600 km from Vietnam’s coast and more than 900 km from China’s Hainan Island.

Residents or others traveling to and from Pagasa normally have to hitch a ride on a creaking military supply ship that takes seven days to make the journey, according to Bito-onon.

There is an airstrip in Pagasa, but it is made mostly of compacted earth and cannot be used when it rains.

Everything is free

Aside from about 100 Filipino soldiers assigned to the area, the town has about 200 registered voters but only about 60 live on Kalayaan at a time because that is all government provisions can sustain, Bito-onon said.

Aside from a few fishermen and construction workers, most residents are government employees and their families who take turns, each serving for about three months on the islands.

Residents are attracted there by the government-provided jobs and housing, as well as the free provisions of essentials such as rice, cooking oil, sugar, noodles and canned food, according to Bito-onon.

Fish are also plentiful in the sea and wells provide residents with more than enough fresh water.

But Bito-onon said it was not easy to get used to the isolation and lack of amenities—there is no school and no town health worker since the local midwife resigned last year to get married.

“Some people can’t take it. They snap and begin talking to the flies or get drunk all the time. They get into fights while drinking,” he said.

Children live elsewhere

Although several families have raised children in the islands, they have to be sent to live elsewhere once they are old enough for school.

Bito-onon’s wife lives and works in Puerto Princesa. When the couple’s two sons were still children, the family would only spend about a month and half together on Kalayaan.

Kalayaan has an administration “extension office” in Puerto Princesa, which the mayor visits frequently.

The island does have satellite television but the satellite discs are slowly being corroded by the sea spray that has already destroyed solar power generators.

A mobile phone company has struggled to set up services on Pagasa, but Bito-onon said the signal was inconsistent.

He complained that despite the Philippines being the closest of the claimants, its occupied islands were among the least developed in the Spratlys.

Some other islands have strongly built structures with concrete airfields and one held by Malaysia even has a hotel for tourists, Bito-onon said.

In his “extension office,” Bito-onon displayed pictures showing Chinese, Malaysian and Vietnamese-occupied islands with marinas, where ships can dock.

A good life

Bito-onon hopes that someday he can attract tourists and even investors from the fishing industry to Kalayaan.

But first, the national government will have to upgrade and lengthen the airstrip and build a marina.

Construction worker Nonelon Balbontin, 34, said life was much better in the Spratlys than in chaotic, overcrowded and polluted Metro Manila, where he used to live.

“It is very beautiful. It has a good climate, I have a job there. We have no problems, no sickness, the food is free, paid for by the government,” he said while visiting Puerto Princesa.

Balbontin, who also works on Kalayaan’s salt-making project, said that in his free time, he caught enough fish, both for his family and for sale.

He also plays basketball with the military men who are eager for any recreation.

At night, he likes to roam around the island to spot sea turtles laying their eggs so he can report them to a local environment officer for tagging and protection. AFP

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_V6IXCDE2EQ7WEN55LPQBJGQCTQ methinks

    wonderful island.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_V6IXCDE2EQ7WEN55LPQBJGQCTQ methinks

    wonderful island.

  • John Puruntong

    why not ask Casey ‘Horse Face’ Anthony to live there to pleasure the lonely men?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ETNUG6HPDQOSLORHMP6IHT4XDU ricky

    it’s good to invest  in this island for a cool resort. Malaysia already did that there. Perhaps the local government in Palawan can solicit investments from local hotel operators to develop this island into an adventure island for tourists and enthusiasts. i’m willing to shell some fundsand join in this development…there are tourist adventurists who are willing to visit this island around the world. we just don’t know how to promote it. But this can be done. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Badajosnon-Macabaian/100002348566742 Badajosnon Macabaian

    this story is a good eye-opener.  I understand some lawmakers and many others will visit the place soon. Congressman Rufus Rodriguez is reported to have proposed a P1-Billion budget for the place. I hope everything will be looked into and everything will be all right.
    Dapat lang na bigyan ng tamang attention ang parteng ito ng ating bansa bago maging huli ang lahat. Ang lahat ng ito alang-alang sa darating na mga henerasyon.

  • http://joboni96.myopenid.com/ joboni96

    ipa kontrata na lang ang maintenance ng airfield at iba pa

    sa mga nandyan for extra income at may pagka abalahan

    kaysa ipa kontrata pa sa mga negosyante

    pwede ring pang attract for more settlers

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Badajosnon-Macabaian/100002348566742 Badajosnon Macabaian

      good idea.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=665074086 Ronaldo Patrocinio

    If magkakaroon ng free wifi dyan, I’m willing to live there hehehehe :D

  • http://twitter.com/soul_jacker Mugen

    Pag Asa Island could be a substitute for Boracay.  Imagine having an off the beaten track tourist destination.  Sama mo pa yung mga islands sa Tawi-Tawi.  

  • pina katagotago

    how to go to kalayaan, any idea? i would love to spend a night or two on the island… 

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ric-Cruz/1364874464 Ric Cruz

      I read in yesterday’s news that civilians hitch a ride in military boats going there, and it seems to be for free if you ride from Palawan.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_C5FUFQSTMILJD2ZMIDDLRJKL6E Rafael III

    mas maganda pag i landscape ang isla na yan…pg sa top view Bandila nga Pilipinas, para kung mg ikot yung mga chinese bandila nga pilipinas ang makikita nila he he he

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VY25ZOHU3FJFFX6CYSH5W4AX3I sugbu

    develop Spratlys as a local tourist spot….myself would love to have an island cruise on that place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000201927042 Jasper Ibanga

    Gawin nalang resort or the next Boracay ang Kalayaan group of island.

  • http://google.com Silverfilter

    I believe this island should be made more accessible to Filipinos. Gutsy travelers, photographers, and those who just want to explore the unexplored will help our claim in the long run. 

    If the Chinese will attack, they will be branded as cowards. If they will do business, there actions may also be seen as tainted with other motives. But if the government will allow more Filipinos to visit this place by providing shelter and safe transport, then we enhance our claim with to the islands just with the mere presence of peace loving Filipinos. But the military assigned should remain there of course. No sense in letting your bully neighbor see your guards are not around. 

  • Anonymous

    Nice place. I just hope they maintain the cleanliness in the island and its surrounding waters if they happen to successfully convert it to a tourist spot.

  • Anonymous

    I hope that they could maintain the cleanliness in the island and the surrounding waters if they decide to convert the island into a tourist spot.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ric-Cruz/1364874464 Ric Cruz

    Sana nga gawing tourist attraction ang mga Isla ng Kalayaan. Nakakapanghikayat din ang isyu ng panghihimasok ng Tsina.

  • Anonymous

    Inject life and activities by developing the Pag-asa Islands to a world-class tourist destination like Boracay.
    These isolated islands can also be converted to Alcatraz Islands to decongest the New Bilibid Prison.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IIKSUPR3Z5L4O5CBR3RIIGGIG4 jacko14630

    What a Beautiful  little island be a good tourist place for a holiday.Good for Investments for Hotel,

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