- Philippine authorities are preparing to lift the protected wilderness area status of the Bantayan island group in the central Philippines.
- The status, imposed in 1981, limits the construction of buildings and infrastructure on the main island of Bantayan and 22 nearby islets, and prohibits residents from owning titles to the land.
- A long-running campaign by residents and business owners to have the protected status lifted to allow for development has culminated with authorities agreeing to open up the coastal areas for new development while retaining a core protected area inland of 540 hectares (1,334 acres).
- While most residents have welcomed the move, some say the area under protection should be expanded to safeguard the island group’s sole source of fresh water — the rain-fed aquifer on Bantayan — from contamination, saltwater intrusion, and blockage.
When rain falls on Bantayan Island, the supply of fresh water rises. If the rains fail, it becomes scarcer. The more than 120,000 residents of Bantayan and 22 nearby islets in Cebu province, in the central Philippines, get all their fresh water from an aquifer that’s replenished by rainfall.
Demand for the precious resource in this expanse of clear blue marine waters has surged with the COVID-19 pandemic, as residents look to keep infection at bay through frequent handwashing and cleaning.
“There has been a very significant increase in water consumption during these two months,” says Junald Ango, a community organizer in Bantayan.
But there are concerns that this vital freshwater supply may come under even greater pressure from a move to lift the protected area status of the islands. Such a move would inevitably expand development and construction activities, Ango says, which, if not properly regulated, could cause the collapse of Bantayan’s freshwater system.
In 1981, then-President Ferdinand Marcos declared Bantayan Island and its surrounding islets—an area of pristine beaches, mangroves, and coral reefs—a protected wilderness area. The declaration, however, was vague about exactly which of the islands and what areas within them fell under this new designation. So the Ministry of Environment (today the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, or DENR), placed all 23 islands under the Bantayan Island Wilderness Area (BIWA).
“Bantayan has so many islands,” says Gal Castro Meñoria, from the Bantayan chapter of the Cebu Chamber of Commerce. “The government [declared] the whole island of Bantayan Island as a wilderness area, but the bill only says an ‘island of Bantayan’ should become a protected area.”
By 1992, the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) had legally reinforced Bantayan’s classification, meaning that only the passage of another law can lift its protected status.
This status would have impacts for decades to come, Meñoria says, including on the main island, which had already been developing residential and shopping areas in the 1980s. Bantayan had a population of 82,363 in 1980, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority; by 2015, its population had grown to 120,447.
Because the islands are formally protected, residents can’t own the land or receive titles for it, Meñoria says. So even as they continued to develop the area, they were not legally recognized landowners under Philippine law. Instead, they’ve had to keep paying rent and other fees, and it’s this restriction that pushed business owners and others to start calling for the lifting of the islands’ protected status in the early 2000s.
“As long as this [region] is a wilderness area, we will never have land titles,” Meñoria says. “We need land titles, or we cannot move ahead [with development].”
The issue became particularly pronounced in 2013, after Typhoon Haiyan hacked through the Philippines, causing severe damage in Bantayan. Thirty percent of residents lost their homes, and 90% of the homes left standing had lost their roofs. Bantayan’s protected area status hampered reconstruction efforts.
The following year, in 2014, the DENR conducted a series of surveys on the island to come up with a management plan that would allow it to identify areas where construction of housing and other facilities for Haiyan’s survivors could go ahead.
The decades of advocacy finally led to the passage of a House bill in October 2019 to lift the Bantayan island group’s protected status, but it still requires Senate approval. This year, the DENR is close to approving the reclassification, which will significantly shrink the area under protection. Those areas will be limited to the 20-meter (66-foot) easement zones on all 23 islands, an elevated zone on the main island spanning 540 hectares (1,334 acres), and 12 full islets. This leaves about 7 percent of the main island protected, though when the easement zone is subtracted (because this is area that would be protected regardless), the true protected area comes out at just 4.7 percent.
While many residents have welcomed this long-anticipated opportunity to finally obtain land titles, others are concerned about its impact on the main island’s natural resources, particularly the water supply.
“The most important issue here … is the sustainability of our water resources,” Ango says. “Commercial development will reduce the water absorption capacity of the island. And the sole water supply is already in a precarious condition, if not yet on the verge of crisis.”
Threat of contamination
Under the DENR’s proposal, Ango says, it’s inevitable that development will sweep through the main island, whose teal waters and fine sand have already attracted a steady flow of tourists.
He says this expansion of the tourism industry will put the island’s resources and one-of-a-kind ecosystems at even graver danger, including by blocking rainwater from reaching the aquifer. That’s because while the new proposal does retain some protected areas on the island, it doesn’t cover the waterways and wetlands that nourish the aquifer.
In fact, Ango says, the DENR’s proposal allows development across most of the land that sits above the water table, which poses the additional threat of water contamination.
Contamination of Bantayan’s freshwater supply has been an ongoing problem for the past 25 years. In 1996, researchers conducting a water study found that human waste and poultry farms had contaminated several of the island’s shallow wells. They also recorded instances of saltwater intrusion, especially in suburban areas, which subsequent studies have since corroborated. These problems will only worsen as development ramps up, the 1996 study said.
“Any damage to our water supply, especially if it’s saltwater intrusion, will be irreversible,” Ango says.
‘Not just a business opportunity’
While the COVID-19 pandemic has stalled congressional deliberations on the lifting of Bantayan’s protection status, Ango has organized a campaign to educate residents and to prompt the DENR to include the water table under its protection mantle.
He says 540 hectares isn’t enough to preserve Bantayan’s water supply in the long term. The campaign doesn’t fully oppose the lifting of protected status, but instead urges the DENR to increase the size of the protected area to as much as 1,500 to 2,000 hectares (about 3,700 to 5,000 acres) to include all the land that sits above the island’s water table.
“What we are proposing will actually not directly affect businesses, because we want to expand the protected area in Bantayan on land that is not infrastructurally feasible to build on,” Ango says. “Commercial development will actually become more sustainable if you care for the environment, because it supplies your water needs.”
Proponents of the reclassification largely agree. Meñoria, one of the key advocates for lifting the protected status, says he understands the importance of safeguarding the island’s water supply.
“If you are for the environment, for sustainability, for longevity — then there is no reason not to support the increasing of the land area [under protection],” he says.
The pandemic pause has given the DENR more time to consider conducting a water study, which Ango says would “more accurately calculate the necessary land area to protect Bantayan’s water table.”
The delay could also give local authorities time to study programs on proper waste management, a common problem in tourist areas across the Philippines.
“Bantayan is not just a business opportunity,” Ango says. “Bantayan is also our home, so let’s care for it.”
Angus Jr, P. M., & Jaque, D. T. (1970). Bantayan Island water resources study. WIT Transactions on Ecology and the Environment, 18.