In Boracay, life goes on despite the island’s closure

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Boracay during habagat season and in the middle of its six-month rehabilitation looks like a ghost town.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Boracay shoreline is calm. There is a soft sea breeze billowing the leaves of coconut trees while the postcard-perfect white sand remains empty, seemingly untouched. It is as if one is transported onto an empty island; a place where no man has gone and no damage has been done.

The cleanliness of the beach is in part due to the island’s residents who have been working to free the shore from trash, dirt, and debris. By 7 a.m., some residents gather in front of the beach, pick up their broomsticks, and start sweeping. Most of them are wearing a navy blue pullover with the “DSWD Cash For Work” printed across their chests.

Boracay.jpg Residents are largely positive that the rehabilitation is, at the end of the day, for the welfare of the island they call home.

The cash-for-work is a scheme devised by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) for Boracay residents who lost their jobs after the government announced in April that the island would be closed for six months. Vilma Arellano, a resident who has been living in Boracay for over 13 years now, is one of these residents.

“Naglilinis po kami ng beach, ng Boracay, para ma-maintain ang kalinisan,” she says. “So far happy kaming lahat, willing kaming maglinis.”

But this hopeful sentiment is quickly abated by anecdotes of controlled resentment. Shiela Inguillo, a resident who used to work for a spa on the island, says that it’s been hard to make do with the cash-for-work program, especially since they now only earn ₱323 a day when she would usually earn more than ₱3,500 a week.

“Nahihirapan kami kasi walang trabaho. Dito lang kami nagtratrabaho,” she explains. “Lalo na [para] sa mga estudyante, ‘yung mga pag-aaral ng anak namin, [sana] matustusan kasi ngayon ang hirap talaga.”

IMG_6256.jpg The cleanliness of the beach is in part due to the residents of the island who have been working to free the shore from trash, dirt, and debris.

The cash-for-work scheme is only good for two people in a household, so after two turns, the family is back to looking for other ways to earn money. The DSWD did promise a one-time release of ₱15,000 for households to use as capital for plausible livelihoods, but since a lot of residents are applying for this scheme, the process takes time, and some residents have not yet received a single centavo.

Small enterprises that have relied on large groups of tourists for their income have also been affected by the closure. Felimon Abayon, a sari-sari store owner, has always depended on the influx of tourists in Puka Shell Beach, where his store is located, and he would earn up to ₱10,000 daily. But now, he only earns up to ₱400 a day.

“Sa budget mo sa araw araw na pagkain, talagang hindi kaya tapatan ang kita mo sa pang araw araw,” he says. “So minsan nga nagkakaroon ng siyempre utang doon, utang dito.”

Diptych 3.jpg Residents of Boracay, even before the closure, all have their grievances, but it is without question that the top concern at the moment is how they will be able to live off of the measly cash-for-work program for another two months, which they tell CNN Philippines Senior Anchor and Correspondent Pinky Webb during an interview.

Elina Tandog, another store owner, says that even when there has been difficulty in getting income, she thinks that the rehabilitation could be a good opportunity for the government to limit the number of outsiders who may be competing with her enterprise.

“Kasi kung masyadong maraming [dayo], di na kami halos makabenta nito. Siyempre magaganda ‘yung mga paninda nila,” she says.

“Marami kasing mga recruiter na sinasamantala ‘yung bisita. Mahal mahal sila mag-presyo. Hindi taga rito ‘yan na tao. Mga dayo. Kaya ‘yun na nga, nasira ‘yung Boracay, sa sobra nilang samantala sa bisita. Eh kung kami ditong mga Tumandok? Hindi ganoon.”

Residents of Boracay, even before the closure, all have their grievances, but it is without question that the top concern at the moment is how they will be able to live off of the measly cash-for-work program for another two months.

The government though says there are plans in place to compensate the residents of Boracay and complement their income from the cash-for-work scheme.

“Nag-adjust na ang DOLE and DSWD kasi marami pa silang pera not because konti lang ang nag-apply,” says Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu, who is also the head of the Boracay rehab Inter-Agency Task Force. “Ang maari mangyari diyan ngayon, kasi ‘pag medyo natapos na ito lahat, several weeks before the opening, talagang papaayos ko lahat ito, papapasukin ko sila ulit lahat. We’ll clean everything again including the kalsada.

The government has been firm that in order to preserve Boracay, the rehabilitation is necessary, especially since they found 836 establishments out of 2,600 that discharged waste directly to the water, a violation of the clean water act, as well as the issue of illegal structures in forest lands and wetlands.

IMG_6105.jpg Pipes being laid down for rain water treatment and drainage.

The streets are busy with backhoe loaders and excavators that demolish buildings and roads to make way for new ones. Al Fruto, the assistant regional director of the Department of Public Works and Highways in Region 6, tells CNN Philippines Senior Anchor and Correspondent Pinky Webb that the 12-meter right of way has already been cleared and demolished.

However, the DPWH’s master plan is still far from finished, as the roads are also meant to have sidewalks, a bike lane, street lights, and Anahaw trees lining the sidewalks. DPWH personnel are also expected to work for 16 to 24 hours a day to finish the island’s main road, the circumferential road, as well as the diversion road from Cagban port that will be used by vehicles to transport goods and services.

As of early August, DPWH Secretary Mark Villar says that the rehabilitation of the island’s main road is “40 percent complete.” While the missing gap between Barangay Manoc-Manoc to Barangay Yapak is "60 percent [complete]."

The DPWH is also constructing a road network along Bulabog Beach that will serve as an alternate route while the main road is being rehabilitated.

While majority of the pathways look undone, Fruto assures that once the island reopens on Oct. 26, the site will be better. “Kino-commit natin na ang road and ang drainage ay mailatag natin and ‘yung road ay maging passable,” he says.

Boracay.jpg One of the most striking and apparent changes so far in Boracay is how clean the shoreline is now, such as here in Puka Shell Beach.

But even when residents do harbor a bit of indignation from losing jobs and livelihoods, most of them are just excited for Boracay to reopen so they can start earning properly again. Residents are also largely positive that the rehabilitation is, at the end of the day, for the welfare of the island they call home.

“Dapat alagaan talaga ‘yung Boracay para hindi na mag-ganito ang sitwasyon,” says Inguillo.

Abayon agrees, saying that from hereon, there should be cooperation between barangays on proper waste management.

“Ang ganda siguro pag makita ng bagong dating dito galing [ng] ibang bansa, [masasabi nila na] iba na pala ngayon kaysa noon.”