Friday, July 26, 2013

Too Fast And Gone Awry

If you are a visitor or tourist planning to visit Surigao del Sur, then it would be fair to assume, if you have done your research or have asked those in the know about the places and locations worth visiting here, that you would come up with a list at the top of which would be the names of the province's top three tourist destinations. That would be the Tinuy-an Falls of Bislig, the Enchanted River of Hinatuan and the Bretania Islands of San Agustin.

The first two on the list have their own unique allure and particular points of interest but I have always felt a more sentimental attachment to the islands (or more accurately islets) of Bretania for the simple reason that the jump-off point for reaching the islets is just a half-hour's drive from Lianga where I live and because my paternal grandparents were actually from the small barangay or village of Salvacion which is just thee kilometers away from Barangay Bretania which happens to be the coastal village on whose coastal waters the now fabled islets lay scattered like a loose spray of emerald green jewels floating on a blue-green sea.

In the past few years, Bretania has seen tumultuous changes brought about by the sudden influx of visitors drawn initially by word of mouth to the pristine and unspoiled beauty of its islets, their white sand beaches and crystal clear waters.  Nowadays, of course, news about Bretania on the internet and aggressive advertising on the part of local tourism agencies had seen a dramatic increase in the volume of tourist arrivals.

In just over half a decade, I have seen the barangay explosively transformed from a quiet and sleepy fishing village to a hodgepodge of beach resorts crowding each other along a stretch of sandy coastline.  The seaside area had been cleared of most residential houses years ago and most of the locals relocated to a new village site a short distance farther inland.  Where the old houses used to be is now a patchwork of new infrastructure development ranging from the crude and simple to the elaborately ambitious as the area's landowners (both old and new) vie and compete with each other for what is clearly a burgeoning tourist trade.

I have written several posts in the past about Bretania and its lovely islets (see herehere and here).  But I have not yet updated the readers of this blog on how the growing popularity of the islets and the resulting influx of visitors eager to sample its unique seascape and other scenic attractions have changed the area. These changes have, in my view, sadly not been all for the better.

As one with extensive familial roots and deep emotional ties to the area, I have always been in favor of developing the Bretania islets tremendous tourism potential.  Like so many of its very own local people, I had envisioned many years ago the Bretania area as the nucleus of a growing and expanding tourism industry that would take advantage of this part of the Surigao del Sur province's unmatched beaches and unrivaled coastal scenery.

But the tourism development would have to be tailored, in the view of many concerned residents here including myself, to insure that it would primarily benefit the local people and the local economy while at the same time preserve the integrity and viability of the same natural wonders and the unique natural environment that have made this part of the world a veritable tropical paradise.  In both cases, the present situation in Bretania may be not proceeding exactly as it ideally should. I have been visiting the place every now and then and I have seen with my own eyes what seems to me like a tourism destination expanding too fast and in what may be the wrong directions.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of having been invited to a series of consultative meetings called by the municipal government of San Agustin (which has overall jurisdiction over Barangay Bretania) and attended by the many private landowners, barangay officials and other parties which have private and community interests in the Bretania area.  In the vigorous discussions that characterized the said meetings, a series of basic points in a general tourism development plan was agreed upon which was envisioned to be later formally embodied in a special municipal ordinance.

The dominant consensus then was to adopt a strict eco-tourism model to whatever tourism infrastructure may be built within the barangay and its surrounding area.  All efforts must be made to protect and preserve the pristine condition of the local scenic attractions and limit the impact of any infrastructure development on the natural environment.  Adequate sanitation and waste disposal facilities and procedures were to be given top priority by the municipal government and barangay officials. Landowners also agreed that a portion of their landholdings will be utilized for an access road that will traverse the western side of the barangay opposite that of the shoreline thus opening all areas within the community and connecting them to the main national highway.

Today, little of what was agreed upon in those meetings has been implemented.  Instead, the mad rush by local stakeholders and outside investors to put up resorts and visitor facilities and take advantage of the area's growing popularity as a tourist destination has led to an every man for himself situation where the big losers are the natural environment and the area's native residents while the local municipal and barangay governments have inexplicably stood idly by.

A quick tour of Barangay Bretania today will clearly show this sad state of affairs.  The main road connecting the village to Barangay Salvacion and the national highway remains a narrow, poorly maintained, three kilometer stretch of dirt road pockmarked here and there by potholes and mud puddles.  The promised access road along the western side of the resorts development area adjacent to a protected mangrove forest remains unfinished and that what has so far been completed is no more than an undulating ribbon of poorly compacted dirt suited more to four-wheel drive vehicles than anything else.

Despite the heavy visitor traffic especially on weekends, the seacoast side, lined with beach resorts of every type, is a confusing, topsy-turvy mess, the weed-choked access trails winding through coconut trees and open spaces cluttered with unused building materials and debris.  There seems to be little order or organization evident or proof of a coherent, generalized development plan being strictly followed.

The poor state of the existing access roads and trails particularly to those resorts and real estate properties located farthest from the national highway have also led to complaints by the owners and developers of these same properties.  They say that it is only the more easily accessible areas who are cornering most of the visitor traffic and that some of these resorts near the entry point have actually been putting up barriers and fences that discourage vacationers and visitors from proceeding further inland.

Near the entrance to the development area, there is evidence of extensive building and earth moving activities.  This area is adjacent to the La Entrada Resort said to belong to Manuel Alameda, the current provincial vice-governor of Surigao del Sur and another resort still under construction said to be being funded by Philip Pichay, the incumbent Congressional representative of the province's 1st district.

Both resorts (high-end facilities by local standards) have been panned by concerned local residents and environmentalists who are worried that the unrestricted expansion of resort facilities into what are essentially mangrove forest reserves which should be protected by law may have dire, negative environmental consequences.  These same critics have voiced the opinion that the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) should be more vigilant in seeing to it that the Bretania area's sensitive flora and environmental ecosystems are shielded from improper and perhaps too aggressive infrastructure development.

It is evident, that the quick rush by many landowners and resort developers in Bretania, who may have felt hemmed in by the limited space available for the expansion of their visitor facilities, to start building structures on the mangrove sites surrounding the main barangay site and shoreline may be the best proof that the original plan for an eco-tourism model for the development of the entire Bretania area has been practically trashed. What is even more worrying is not only have the local governments having jurisdiction there have allowed this to happen but that it may be high government officials with financial interests and real estate investments in Bretania who are at the forefront of this incursions into what should be protected areas.

The current situation in Bretania and the fabled islets it shelters is, in my view, very clear.  The present and future potential of this now increasingly popular scenic attraction and vacation destination is limitless and but that can only be sustained for the future if the municipal and barangay governments there work hand in hand with landowners, stakeholders, investors and the local people.  They all must come up with a coherent, viable and doable development plan for the area, one that seeks not only maximum profits from the visitor trade but, more so, one that preserves the natural beauty and allure of the islets and the very land and coastline that sustains and protects them.

I was in Bretania some days ago and it happened to one of those glorious, sunny mornings.  From the seashore of the village where the large, wooden motorboats with their bamboo outriggers stretched out like bird wings lay moored, their gaily painted hulls bobbing up and down in tune with the gentle surf, the islets reveal themselves, gleaming bluish-green in the near horizon, their beaches gleaming like white, misty ribbons in the distance.

These same boats will be, their owners and operators were hoping, soon chugging their way to sea and around the islets, their decks loaded with eager passengers. But the competition between boat operators for paying customers is fierce and just as unrelenting as the mad scramble between resort owners to draw in visitors to stay in their cottages and sample their restaurant fare.

As I made my way home and out into the highway, a convoy of cars and vans began snaking their way in, slowly and in a single file along the Salvacion-Bretania road.  Yes, Bretania is indeed becoming increasing popular and developing fast.  The question that many here is asking is at what cost and if it is the kind of development that its people want or really need now and for the future.


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