When I wrote that post. over a week ago, on the Britania islands or islets (can someone please tell me which is it really?) of San Agustin town in Surigao del Sur, I did not expect to put an unwary foot forward into what may be an potential minefield of controversy. Sometimes, things just happen when we least expect it and in my case, it came with what first looked like an innocuous e-mail from outside the country.
The e-mail was from Dr. N. A. Orcullo, Jr. who now works for one of the universities in the south of Manila. He is an agricultural engineer with a PhD. in Business Management and is a consultant on renewable energy matters and a management professor. He was e-mailing me from Mexico City where he was invited to be a resource person at a workshop on energy efficiency sponsored by APEC and the Mexican government.
He had accidentally bumped into this blog while trawling the Web for hits on anything about Britania, Lianga and Surigao del Sur. The post on Britania prompted him to write me.
It turned out that our families know each other and after touching base, he immediately voiced his concerns about Britania, the community and resource development programs being implemented in that barangay and the much touted plan to turn it and its islands (or islets) into world class tourism destinations. The views he raised, in many ways, echoed many of the same issues raised by the more skeptical and discerning individuals in the Britania and Salvacion area regarding these much protracted developmental efforts but Jun Orcullo is simply more convincing and believable because he not only backs his views with the analytical skills and tools available to one trained in the academe but also because of his sentimental ties and long, detailed familiarity with Britania's people and community.
You see, Jun traces his roots to Britania and its sister barangay, Salvacion, and as a consequence of being a frequent visitor, he has for some time now been watching the developments there with no small degree of concern.
First, he laments the fact that much of the shallow waters forming the frontage of this coastal village is now heavily planted with mangrove trees as part of the an ambitious mangrove reforestation program funded by borrowed funds from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. This program which has been widely publicized for being an outstanding success is, in his opinion, not only misleading and irresponsible but essentially environmentally unsound.
Much of the area now reforested with trees, he affirms, was never originally a mangrove forest but essentially a sea grass ecosystem. Thus what is essentially happening in Britania is environmental transformation or engineering that runs counter to the idea of environmental protection as a concept and science. The effects of such unwarranted reforestation would have have dire effects, he warns, on the existing marine ecosystem and would impact negatively on the local economy which is heavily dependent on the harvesting of marine products from what has always been a predominantly sea grass area.
I am a regular visitor to Britania and recently I have been somewhat nonplussed at the extent of the coastal area targeted for the planting of mangroves. Since I was a young boy I have always seen the shoreline and shallow waters of Britania as free of mangroves which, as Jun Orcullo has pointed out, were always largely restricted to the northern side of the barangay. One wonders how a potential tourism destination proposed to be marketed on the basis of pristine beaches, unimpeded panoramic vistas, and crystal blue waters can be reconciled to the rather jarring vision of tidal mudflats and mangrove forests.
How did it happen then that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources approved a mangrove reforestation program on an area that never was a mangrove forest in the first place? Was there ever a proper ecological study or environmental impact assessment done of the Britania area before such a massive reforestation program funded by borrowed foreign funds was ever implemented?
Was this just another of those "let's just use the money, make some money and never mind the consequences" kind of enterprise government agencies like to indulge in at the taxpayer's expense? Or was it just the DENR displaying its usual incompetence at what is supposed to be competent at, which is to protect and preserve the fragile ecosystems and natural environment of small, coastal communities like Britania?
And what is happening to the tourism development plan for this barangay and its islands? Much has been said about it but little concrete, in terms of something actually and potentially benefiting the local community, has really been done. Some residents have been relocated to a new barangay site allegedly in preparation for an influx of investments in tourism infrastructure but no one really is really sure where or from whom the money is coming from or if it is ever coming at all.
And the big question that remains is whether Britinia and its people will indeed benefit from this new tourist mecca in the making or whether they will, as they have so often in the past, be left once more hungry and empty handed while outsiders and interlopers have their fill of the barangay's riches.
Jun Orcullo, myself and undoubtedly many others, especially the residents of Britania, would like very much to know what the real score is. If you please.