Tue, Oct 17, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Boracay's Aborigines losing their home as tourists start to flood in

The Aetas, the Philippines' earliest settlers, are afraid they will be forced from the small plot they call home due to increasing encroachment by voracious developers

AFP , BORACAY, PHILIPPINES

While tourists frolic in the crystal clear waters lapping the tropical island of Boracay, local natives forced from their land by developers are fighting for their piece of paradise lost.

With its warm blue waters, powder-fine white sand and palm fringed beach Boracay, in the central Philippines, is widely regarded as having one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

But away from the foreshore, hotels and restaurants there is another side of paradise that many tourists don't see or simply choose to ignore.

For the community of Aboriginal Aeta -- descendants of the first Filipinos who are believed to have come to the archipelago tens of thousands of years ago -- the island that was once their sole domain is being taken away from them.

Many of Boracay's 180 Aeta people fear that soon they will be forced from the one-hectare plot that is their home.

Their concerns are hardly surprising. In front of their humble homes, a South Korean company is building a water sports center. Nearby, a 1.5m concrete wall is going up that will obliterate what tiny view they still have of the famous beach.

As the bricks and mortar move steadily towards them, few of the Aeta who live here have faith that a court order protecting them from eviction will save them from the encroachment of voracious developers eager to stake a claim to the profits on offer from the lucrative tourist industry.

"They are making us leave," said Paulo, a 30-year-old Aeta who asked that his full name not be used. "We know they will remove us once they need the land."

Bining Salibio, 68, who works as a laundry woman, said: "They build a wall and a building. They told us we would have to leave. I don't know where we will go."

The Aeta, a once-nomadic people who are generally shorter and darker, and have kinkier hair than most Filipinos, are considered the oldest inhabitants of the archipelago.

Historians believe they crossed from Borneo island to the Philippines between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago using a land bridge that was partially covered by water around 5,000 years ago.

They are among the first -- if not the first -- inhabitants of the Philippines, according to the official National Commission on Indigenous Peoples.

The commission says that there are about 140,500 Aeta left in the country.

Although some have migrated to urban areas, small pockets of Aeta, like those in Boracay, can still be found all around the country especially on the main island of Luzon.

But in Boracay, they have become almost invisible.

Over the last 20 years or so Boracay has grown into a world-class tourist destination. While it was originally a backpacker paradise, giant hotels and sprawling resorts are slowly spreading across the island's landscape.

Boracay's tourism revenues last year hit a record high of 9.18 billion pesos (US$183.64 million) brought by nearly half a million foreign and local tourists, according to the Department of Tourism.

Edwin Trompeta of the department's Western Visayas region said the amount represented a 16.5 percent increase over the 7.882 billion pesos recorded in 2004.

Visitor arrivals to the island grew by 16.5 percent to 499,457 last year, the latest figures available, from 428,755 a year earlier.

Unlike their counterparts in other Philippine cities who have turned to begging, the Aeta people of Boracay are known for their industriousness, and many work as carpenters, gardeners, janitors and general workers at the island's resorts.

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