THIS LAND IS OURS Or so says Maribojoc Mayor Leoncio Evasco Jr. (right), pointing to a strip of broad, flat reef covered with seagrass, corals and other marine organisms that used to lie on the seabed until exposed by the undersea upheaval caused by the destructive 2013 Bohol quake. The 137-hectare strip being claimed by Maribojoc and Loon towns, which envision it as an ecotourism site, counter the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ declaration that it is a “geological monument” owned by the state. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
TAGBILARAN CITY, Philippines—The strip of undeveloped dry land by the sea may not interest buyers of beachfront property in Bohol province, one of the Philippines’ top tourist destinations known for its sandy shores and other natural wonders. Nearly all of the strip’s 137 hectares on the edges of two towns seem riveted down with rocks, some sharp enough to thwart a barefoot walk.
Scientists explain the strip as a phenomenon caused by the heaving of the seabed more than a meter above the water during the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that brought Bohol to its knees in October 2013.
The undersea upheaval exposed a broad, flat reef covered with seagrasses, corals and other marine organisms that once lived undisturbed despite the neap and ebb tides.
To the municipalities of Maribojoc and Loon, which share stories of devastation caused by the quake and are contoured by the new coastal crust in the southwestern part of the island-province, the strip offers exciting ecotourism opportunities.
But the hopes of Maribojoc and Loon have been dashed by a recent Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) declaration that the strip is owned by the state and is a “geological monument” that “constitutes an irreplaceable segment of the earth’s history and geological heritage.”
According to the DENR, geological monuments are sites that “show outstanding features or processes considered by geologists and other scientists worthy of conservation.”
Such geological monuments include the Chocolate Hills, also in Bohol; the Hundred Islands in Pangasinan province; the sand dunes of Ilocos Norte province; the St. Paul Limestone Formation in Puerto Princesa City in Palawan province; the Taal Volcano in Batangas province; and the Montalban Limestone Gorge in Rodriguez, Rizal province.
Mayor Leoncio Evasco Jr. of Maribojoc, a fourth-class heritage town (annual income: P25 million-P35 million) about an hour’s drive from the famous dive sites of Panglao Island, lamented that he and the other local officials were not informed about the DENR plan until recently.
“Maribojoc is very much interested to develop the area … so that it can generate income for the municipality,” said Evasco’s vice mayor, Fructuoso Redulla Jr.
Redulla envisions a recreation area with basketball and volleyball courts, a concert hall, a dock and a government center on the part of the strip in Barangays Guiwanon and Punta Cruz.
Also envisioned for the area are restaurants, fruit stands, massage and spa service areas, and souvenir shops.
The more progressive Loon, a second-class municipality (P45 million-P55 million) wants to put up a Loon Coastal Geomorphic Conservation Park in their portion of the strip in Barangays Cuasi, Song-on, Tangnan, Tontonan and Napo.
The park will feature a southern coastal road, amusement and recreational centers, an area for sports and extreme adventure. Also envisioned are the improvement of the existing fish sanctuaries and the development of other fishery-related projects.
“I believe the 137 hectares should not be declared and utilized solely for geological monument activities,” Loon Mayor Peter Lloyd Lopez said.
Evasco and Lopez said a portion of the strip should be reserved for projects that would bring socioeconomic development to their municipalities, benefiting fishermen who have been suffering from dwindling catch.
There used to be a marine sanctuary off Punta Cruz that teemed with fish but the earthquake pushed it farther out to sea, Evasco said.
Lopez said the coastal waters used to be rich fishing grounds.
But since the strip appeared, fishermen have been complaining that their catch dropped from 2 to 3 kilos a day to half a kilo—if they are lucky.
DENR order for safety
Eddie Llamedo, DENR spokesperson in Central Visayas, said that as a geological monument under Administrative Order No. 2015-08, the strip is public land and that the construction of any structure there is prohibited.
The order also allows researchers to conduct geological studies on the strip, he said.
“The area has not been declared stable,” Llamedo said. “For safety reasons, the place should be kept from habitation, including building of any structure or infrastructure.”
But fishermen are not barred from mooring their boats or passing through the strip when heading to the sea, he said.
“They can still go on with their routine, like fishing and gathering shells. Only habitation and building structures are not allowed,” he said.
At least 35 structures sprouted on the strip about four months after the quake, but these were demolished by both the Maribojoc and Loon municipal governments.
Some fishermen continue to build sheds on the strip, though.
Jes Belarmino Tirol, director of planning and research at the University of Bohol and a specialist in geotechnical and structural engineering, said the strip was safe from quakes because of its strong foundation.
“Structures can be built in the area,” he said, but clarified that any development plan by the local governments should conform to the guidelines set by the DENR.
Tirol is a member of the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, a nonprofit organization established in 1949 to reduce the impact of earthquakes through seismic studies, inspection of earthquake damage, education and technology transfer.
In 1998, Tirol warned that Bohol should brace for a strong earthquake after 2006, pointing out that it would have been 100 years since the Central Bohol Fault Line moved.
The last strong quake from the fault line occurred in 1906.
The earthquake-raised strip is now known as the Loon-Maribojoc Geological Monument, as declared by DENR Administrative Order No. 2015-08 issued by Environment Secretary Ramon Paje.
The DENR order “serves to provide a legal framework for the recognition, preservation and protection of the uplifted coast, as well as encourage further [research] and [study] on the monument for the advancement of geosciences in the country,” Paje said.
According to Llamedo, the whole strip covers 450 hectares in the towns of Maribojoc and Loon, but only 137 hectares have been declared a geological monument.
He said there was no need to include the remaining 313 hectares because these were covered with mangroves, which are already protected under the Revised Forestry Code.
The geological monument spans open areas where structures can be built, he said.
The DENR’s Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) recommended the declaration after an initial survey that showed the area formed “unique geological features” after the quake lifted the seabed by 1.2 meters.
After ground verification as indicated on the survey map, the MGB will install a marker containing the geological history, description and significance of the strip. The MGB will coordinate with other government agencies and the local governments concerned to prepare a management plan for the park.
The plan will focus on enriching understanding and appreciation of the geological phenomenon, and the promotion and maintenance of the area as a potential ecotourism destination, as well as for scientific and educational purposes.
But local officials and fishermen are unhappy.
Mayors Lopez and Evasco lamented that they were never consulted by the DENR before issuing the administrative order.
They said their municipalities were deprived of real estate because the strip was now owned by the national government and supervised by the DENR.
The two towns also would have received bigger internal revenue allotments, which are based on land area and population.
The fishermen are apprehensive that they will no longer be allowed to put up structures or gather shellfish on the strip.
“The problem is where we will get our means of living,” said Edmar Ucat, 53, one of the more than 200 fishermen of Loon and Maribojoc.
On May 15, a day after the DENR order was issued, the Loon municipal council passed a resolution expressing its “strong objection” to the declaration.
It asked the DENR to conduct a public consultation and to empower the local government to administer and manage the strip that stretches over the coastlines of five of its barangays.
“The declaration has kept our constituents guessing as to how such an act will affect [them], especially that no public consultation has been done to make them aware of the consequences,” Mayor Lopez said.
Mayor Evasco called the declaration “unjust” because the local government was not even told that Paje would issue such an order.
“We were not informed. So you cannot blame us if we suspect that they are planning something bad. If they have good intentions, how come they didn’t inform us?” he said.
Lopez and Evasco said they had not even seen a copy of the administrative order.
Llamedo said consultations were conducted before the order was issued.
“There were several meetings and consultative dialogues. During the consultative meetings, they sent their representatives. We visited their offices but they were not around,” Llamedo said.
He, however, gave assurance of a “full-blown consultation” before a presidential decree would be issued, declaring the strip a “national geological monument.”
In the meantime, structures should not be put up there, he said.
But Maribojoc and Loon officials reject a presidential proclamation, insisting that they should have control over the new land.
Last year, the Loon municipal council passed a resolution asking President Aquino not to declare the strip public land and maintaining that its administration should be the task of the local government, as provided for under the Local Government Code.
On Dec. 17 last year, the council approved an ordinance establishing the Loon Coastal Geomorphic Conservation Park from Barangay Song-on to Canhangdon Occidental on the strip.
Maribojoc has its own plans for its “territory.”
In October 2014, the Maribojoc municipal council passed a resolution asking President Aquino to issue a special patent declaring the 40.3566 hectares of the strip alienable and disposable.
On April 13 this year, Municipal Ordinance No. 010 was passed, classifying the area in Punta Cruz as “special use” zone.
A ground survey conducted by Emiliano Hormachuelos of the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office in March 2014 showed that the former seabed had dried up and was not encroached on by seawater even during high tide.
He, however, opined that the strip is considered public land.
In a memorandum dated June 9, 2014, Isabelo Montejo, DENR Central Visayas executive director, said the area was already considered public land and did not need a presidential proclamation to declare it as such.
Being state-owned, it should be under the administration of the DENR under the Commonwealth Act of 1941, or Public Land Act, he said.
“The next rounds of consultations will open more discussions on the plans for the area and to ensure that the [local governments] concerned will not be left out and their sides will be heard,” Llamedo said. “We will solicit their thoughts and inputs with the objective of properly managing the area as a geological monument.”
The proposals of Maribojoc and Loon will be submitted to the DENR central office for approval, he said.
“Any plans by the [local governments] concerned have to be carefully reviewed and studied since the area is still unstable,” he added.
Once a presidential proclamation is issued, he said, exploration for minerals and oil will be prohibited, as well as destructive methods of fishing.
Tirol agreed with the DENR move to declare a geological monument to allow scientists to study the strip and prevent private individuals from filing ownership claims and filling the area with commercial establishments.
But the challenge now is not another strong earthquake, he said, but the significant rise of the sea level caused by global warming.
By 2020 to 2025, the sea level would have risen significantly and the strip would have been covered with seawater, he said.
“Sea-level rise is inevitable. Therefore, proper planning is vital for adaptation and mitigation,” Tirol said.
In the heart of seismically active Bohol, another national geological monument, the Chocolate Hills of Carmen town, has become a world-famous tourist destination.
The giant mounds, actually raised coral deposits, were declared a geological monument on June 18, 1988, by then Environment Secretary Fulgencio Factoran Jr. for their special characteristics, scientific importance, uniqueness and scenic value.
Since the 2013 quake, the monument’s concrete marker has remained clipped and cracked on the ground—a reminder of nature’s destructive convulsions. With a report from Carmel Loise Matus, Inquirer Visayas