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Sunday, August 30, 2015
- Its 116 km coastline cradling white sand beaches and coral reefs already makes this island a paradise in the Philippine south.
But Samal, a two-hour plane ride from Manila, also boasts of clear springs, waterfalls and wildlife sanctuaries, prompting the Department of Tourism (DOT) to do double time in trying to make the most of the island’s dollar-earning potential.
Out of DOT’s efforts has emerged the partially operational Samal Island Tourism Estate (SITE) project, which is spearheaded by the Malaysian conglomerate Ekran Berhad. Said to be the largest tourism project in the Philippines, it will encompass 6,000 hectares, including some sites in nearby Talikud Island.
The land on which now sits the billion-peso Samal Casino Resort, however, is actually part of a curiosity called an “agri-tourism district”. The 250-hectare area is the property of 332 farmers who had been awarded a 705-hectare chunk of land in 1993 by virtue of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP).
Once part of a family-owned estate, what was supposed to be a source of pride and everyday sustenance for former tenant farmers has now become yet another prime example of how CARP’s noble intentions have been subverted by its presumed champion: the government.
Begun in 1988, CARP was purportedly a key concern of the Corazon Aquino government and was meant to correct the failures of the land reform programme of Ferdinand Marcos. Under it, millions of tenant farmers and agricultural workers were supposed to finally own pieces of the land their families had tilled for generations.
But a landlord-heavy legislature produced an imperfect piece of legislation that would prove easy for vested interests to play round with later.
CARP has had its successes. Its implementing agency, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), says one of these is the near completion of land distribution in six regions and in 921 agrarian reform communities. By end-1997, 60 percent of the total CARP- covered lands of 4.29 million hectares had been turned over to farmers.
But Horacio Morales, set to become DAR secretary next week, when the newly elected government is sworn in, describes CARP’s achievements as a “qualified success”. According to Morales, the remaining 40 percent of land “left to us to distribute pose the greater difficulties”.
He also worries over CARP’s ambiguities. Morales stresses the need for clear policies and laws, particularly on land and water use. “These ought to be the subject of in-depth studies,” he says. “Ambiguities in the law will always result in ambiguities in policy.”
One ambiguity related to CARP is “agri-tourism,” which seems to be based on the idea that tourism and agriculture can be combined. How this can be brought about is unclear, though the development of part of the Samal farmers’ land into a tourist playground was a test to see if it could done and then replicated in other CARP areas.
At present, though, the only thingevident here is that instead of coconut and traditional crops like corn, cassava, mongo, soybean, peanut, sweet potato and banana, the farmers’ 250 hectares now have a 300-room luxury hotel that has a host of recreational facilities.
And instead of being free of worries about employment and food, the farmers have been left with only two-thirds their CARP land award to survive on.
They had been given 47 million pesos (1.1 million dollars at current rates) as lease fee. But the initial 20 million-peso payment has long been spent. They are now down to the last remaining pesos of the balance, much of which went to lawyers, livelihood assistance programmes, and salaries and bonuses.
More than half of the cooperative’s membership have also had to pack up their possessions and relocate because they were living within the project area. Today, not only do they have considerably smaller plots compared with the other farmers, the land they have is also less fertile and harder to till.
At first glance, it may seem like the prospects of being part of a high-profile project proved too tempting for the farmers. But it had taken the intervention of the DOT and the Philippine Tourism Authority (PTA) before the farmers – who had been hastily organised into a cooperative agreed to lease the land.
Ekran had earlier offered to lease the farmers’ CARP property for 50 years, renewable for 25 years. But the offer was based on a valuation of only 10.8 million pesos (263,400 dollars) for the farmers’ entire 705 hectares, so the cooperative did not say yes readily.
By then, though, Manila had already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Kuala Lumpur regarding the development of Samal Island into a tourist resort. The farmers’ property was smack in the middle of the proposed project.
Ex-cooperative chair Ricardo Perigo recalls how negotiations between them and the DOT/PTA saved the project for Ekran-and Manila. What DOT/PTA did was to enter into a lease contract with us for the amount of 47 million pesos, he says. “It then subleased te land to Ekran for the amount the Malaysian firm originally proposed.”
Given the gap between the amount DOT agreed to give the farmers and the value of the Ekran sublease, the government seems to have been put at a disadvantage.
But SITE assistant project manager Ernesto Malay Jr says: “Think of the investment Ekran has poured into the project. That’s 1.3 billion pesos in terms of resort infrastructure.”
In truth, CARP and a slew of Philippine laws should have prevented a tours resort from ever rising here. After all, 73 percent of Samal is devoted to farming. The agriculture department also certifies Kaputian as agricultural and prime for coconut plantations, though some portions have limestone as subsoil material.
But the Ekran project apparently had “special status”. Just last year, it was declared an eco-tourism area. Last April, President Fidel Ramos firmed up his commitment to SITE by declaring the 250-hectare Ekran investment area was a special economic zone.
The efforts to push tourism development seemed to have been made at the expense of land reform, according to an internal memo prepared by a member of the SITE advisory committee.
“CARP was used as a ploy for development, but it was not agricultural development. CARP was used (to circumvent the law)…And it set a precedent on how those technicalities could be circumvented,” it said.