SEPTEMBER 6, 2006 (STAR) By Delon Porcalla - A lawmaker has protested the issuance of a presidential proclamation classifying land on Boracay island in Aklan as "forest and agricultural land," which would allow the government to sell off the land even if it’s already occupied.

President Arroyo issued Proclamation 1064 in May reclassifying Malay town — where most of the beach resorts are located — upon the recommendation of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

"All of a sudden, the bright future has been dimmed by a proclamation that classifies the property as alienable and disposable (land) and these properties will be up for auction," Aklan Rep. Florencio Miraflores said in a privilege speech Monday night.

He questioned the DENR’s recommendation, saying it was an injustice to local resort owners and residents who made Boracay what it is now.

"Is this the most viable, effective, just and equitable option? This is alarming, to say the least," Miraflores complained. "For if the principles of justice and equity be rigorously applied, the sales option would be the greatest injustice to be inflicted on the long- time property owners of Boracay."

Citing the Public Land Act, Miraflores argued that the subject of the law’s intent was underdeveloped agricultural land, which he said was clearly not the case on Boracay.

"In fact, we have been accused of over development," he said, referring to the dozens of resorts and businesses that flourished because of the island’s popularity with foreign and local tourists. "From this provision alone, it is very clear that the intention of the law is to sell undeveloped agricultural land."

Miraflores added: "How could the DENR ignore the fact that the 628.96 hectares they categorized as alienable and disposable and which they intend to sell through bidding, are long developed and occupied by owners who have been there for a long time?"

He also cited a Supreme Court ruling involving a controversial land dispute.

"While the government has the right to classify portions of public land, the primary right of a private individual who possessed and cultivated the land in good faith prior to such classification must be recognized and should not be prejudiced by after events which could not have been anticipated," he said, quoting the ruling.

Miraflores said the Supreme Court in effect said that "in no way shall the rights of private individuals be compromised. Meaning that, in the case of Proclamation 1064, government should take cognizance of the rights of individuals who possessed and cultivated their Boracay properties in good faith for the required number of years." Bone of contention The government has warned that as much as 90 percent of the 1,002-hectare island is not covered by land titles, meaning the government could sell off the land — much of it occupied — as it pleases.

This would put under a cloud the many millions of dollars invested in luxurious resorts for the wealthy as well as humbler establishments offering dormitory-style rooms to budget travelers.

Boracay residents had won a ruling from the Court of Appeals, saying that they are entitled to own land on the island. The DENR, then under Michael Defensor, now Mrs. Arroyo’s chief of staff, appealed the case before the Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on the matter.

Defensor had argued that the island’s land ownership system must be formalized to enable investors to borrow money and to allow for better regulation of the expanding tourism industry there.

Last year, hundreds of residents marched on the streets of Boracay against Defensor. Even the local government of Boracay took an adversarial stance.

There are over 300 registered businesses on the island, ranging from five-star country clubs to tiny shops and restaurants all catering to tourists.

About 458,000 tourists visited the island in 2004, at least 30 percent of them foreigners.

The national government collected P7.8 billion in taxes from Boracay tourist establishments in 2004, according to local officials, not counting local taxes and other indirect financial benefits.

The DENR argues that the government aims to "provide security and stability to the people of Boracay through the issuance of land titles," and to "preserve the beauty of the island for future generations."

But to issue land titles, most of the island must first be declared as "alienable and disposable land" which can then be sold off — or in rare cases, granted to private individuals.

However, Boracay residents say the government’s plan could result in their having to buy back land they already consider to be their own — or worse, have it sold out from under them.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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