EDITORIAL: Environmental management and the Boracay solution

President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to close Boracay for six months has emboldened the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to adopt the same decisive posturing in other tourism hubs of Palawan, particularly El Nido and Coron.

The DENR’s regional office last week began a compliance enforcement campaign in the two towns and has been issuing notices of violations against establishments that have deficient operating permits or were in violation of zoning and easement laws.

The track being taken by the DENR in El Nido and Coron mimics the president’s temperament and flare for the dramatics. It has given no room for compromise to errant establishments, demanding that they comply within 30 days from receipt of notices, or else.

The closure of Boracay set a precedence for a build-and-destroy approach to coastal management, a straightforward but rather simplistic policy solution to a complex problem of environmental degradation that is largely a product of weak governance and bureaucratic corruption.

In the case of El Nido and Coron, the illegal occupation of easement zones and forest lands happened not solely at the behest of the occupants but with tacit approval of government regulators including the DENR itself and the municipal government that gave out endorsements and issued business permits to them. To be sure, the DENR has acknowledged its own fault and has vowed to go after officials who had been responsible for facilitating the issuance of private titles to supposedly public lands.

The environmental issues hounding El Nido and Coron are similar to those being faced by Boracay, all summed up as a failure of coastal management and weak governance. The issues are all basic – unregulated access to forestlands and public beaches by commercial establishments and settlers, non-enforcement of environmental laws and safeguards, tolerance and perpetration of rent-seeking practices that contribute to poverty and social malaise.

It remains unclear if the closure of Boracay and the solutions they will try to apply within a 6-month period will effectively reverse all these problems. The president has acknowledged he didn’t have a plan and government has been scrambling to figure out ways to minimize the economic impact of the closure on the many residents that had long depended on its tourism economy. Duterte even offered a knee-jerk suggestion to revert the island to an agriculture state.

The positive side of what has happened in Boracay is the awareness and sense of urgency raised among all stakeholders in Palawan on the need to do things right and fast, and decisively. Palawan cannot afford a closure of El Nido or Coron as is not prepared to cushion the social and economic impact of such a scorch earth approach to environmental management.

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