Boracay Island, Home of the Atis and their Struggle for Land

Chaya Go is a UBC Anthropology student and works for the Assisi Development Foundation, Inc., a private non-profit organization in the Philippines which proudly supports the Ati community of Boracay Island in various development projects.

Boracay Island, Philippines – voted in 2012 as “the world’s best island” by international travel magazines, and ranked “Asia’s #1 beach” by Trip Advisor in 2013. Powder white sands and turquoise blue waters have long painted this tropical paradise. “Like an ambitious and beautiful pageant winner unwilling to relinquish her crown, Boracay primps and preens year after year to stay the trophy beach of the Philippines,” writes the Lonely Planet. This dreamy island-resort is perfect for soaking in the endless sun, and for the night parties that never sleep. It knows no on- and off-peak seasons now; the airport’s runway roars today with planeloads of travelers craving for a taste of this tropical paradise.

Little do many travelers know that their island-resort is the ancestral land of the Ati community, people who have called the island home since time immemorial. Underneath the sprawl of hotel-resorts are the Atis’ burial and sacred grounds found all across the island. Even the word ‘Boracay’—now a household word for Filipinos—is a name the Atis’ ancestors gave the island in the Inati language. Every year the island puts on a grand show to celebrate the Ati-Atihan Festival, a Philippine ‘Mardi Gras’ of sorts, inspired by the Ati culture in full brilliant costumes and dances –but what has become of the real living Ati community today?

With the obsessive rush of resort developers, and in a mad grab for every square inch of land and shoreline, the once- nomadic Ati tribes have been pushed into smaller and smaller patches of land. They now live as squatters in their own home. While bikini-clad tourists bake under the sun, the Atis who have traditionally danced and sung by the waters are now being policed by local businesses from swimming. Because of their darker skin and curly hair, the Atis are called “eye sores” who “dirty” the photographic image of a beach paradise. And as the island grows richer and richer, as palacial hotels continue to rise and golf courses expand, ancient burial grounds are dug up, and the Atis are pushed farther back into new ghettos.

On February 22, 2013, Ati youth leader and our dear friend, 26-year old Dexter Condez was murdered. Investigations are underway, but suspicions are high that his brutal death is related to the Atis’ struggle for land. The community of only 42 families has been struggling for over 10 years to secure their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT). But when the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) finally granted them the title to 2.1 hectares in 2011 –the smallest certified ancestral domain in the world!—other land claimants continue to contest the Atis’ peaceful residence. Why is it so difficult for over 200 Atis to live well, and without discrimination, in such a small portion of land? The Atis continue to grieve for the murder of their brother, and for their ancestral land.

As a Filipina who has worked with the Atis, the Boracay I have known from my childhood summer vacations and travel magazines will truly never be the same. The island is not only for weeklong getaways, but it is home to an entire people, an entire culture, and a unique way of life. While the tourist population continues to share the island with the Atis, let us make sure we also ask about Dexter and the Atis. If given a chance, visit the community, talk to them, and most importantly let us learn to listen to their stories. As conscientious world travelers and as concerned citizens, we cannot allow our ignorance to decimate the island paradise, including those who call it home.

To stand in solidarity with the Atis, to help bring justice to the murder of Dexter Condez and to the Atis’ struggle for ancestral land, join the public awareness campaign: “Boracay Ati Community” on Facebook