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Senate probe: Local, DENR execs blamed for Boracay rot

Senators hold a public hearing on the degradation of Boracay Island on Friday, finding out for
themselves how environmental laws have been violated in plain view of local and environment
officials. —CHRISTINE O. AVENDAÑO

BORACAY ISLAND—Senators were aghast on Friday to find out that business establishments on Boracay Island violated environmental laws in plain view of local and environment officials.

The violators included hotels and other establishments that encroached on five of Boracay’s nine wetlands and others that operated without business permits and environmental compliance certificates.

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Sen. Cynthia Villar, head of the Senate environment committee that spearheaded the one-day public hearing on the environmental degradation of the world-famous resort island, said if President Duterte were to impose a  closure order of Boracay that this be enforced only on those establishments that failed to comply with environmental laws.

‘Cesspool’

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Villar and four other senators held the hearing, following last month’s threat by Mr. Duterte to close down Boracay, which he had described as a “cesspool.”

Villar’s committee was assisted by the tourism committee headed by Sen. Nancy Binay and the finance committee chaired by Sen. Loren Legarda.

The senators ganged up on both local and environment officials after Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, who leads five departments tasked by the President to rehabilitate Boracay in six months, disclosed that five wetlands had been encroached upon.

Wetlands serve as catch basins to prevent flooding.

Cimatu showed a 2008 satellite image of Boracay’s wetlands and another image in 2018 showing the wetlands that had been “covered.”

He said that the four remaining wetlands were occupied by 100 informal settlers. He said he had ordered the demolition of their structures as they were contributing to waste and pollution.

Asked by Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri who should be held accountable for the illegal construction of buildings, Cimatu said “it must be the local government.”

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Legarda requested Cimatu to submit the list of the nine wetlands, the area they covered in 2008 and the settlers and others that had encroached on them, as well as the names of the officers of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) responsible for Boracay.

Jim Sampulna, DENR regional director for Western Visayas, said a rationalization plan implemented in 2013 abolished many community environment and resources offices, including those in Aklan province.

Legarda also asked for a list of hotels, restaurants and malls that “blatantly” occupy the five wetlands.

Valentin Talabero, the head of the provincial environment and natural resources office, said among those illegally occupying the five wetlands were the Seven Seas hotel, which was under construction in Barangay Yapak, as well as the D’Mall. Cimatu added King Fisher hotel to the Talabero’s list.

Talabero said show cause orders, which required erring establishments to respond or comply with regulations, had been issued to 842 establishments that occupy forest lands.

Sampulna said West Cove hotel, which recently demolished a structure it had illegally built on a rock formation, had an agreement with the government for tourism purposes in 2008 allowing it to build on 998 square meters of forest land but this was canceled in 2015 after it was found to have expanded its area to 3,000 sq m.

Appealed cancellation

Sampulna said hotel owner, Crisostomo Aquino, appealed the cancellation in the Office of the President and this had not been resolved.

Legarda said there was nothing to appeal because the Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the DENR in the West Cove case.

She said West Cove was illegally operating and illegally built structures and thus had “no reason to exist.”

She asked authorities to make an example of West Cove hotel, otherwise it would “send the wrong signal that violators would just violate … and get away with it.”

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