Updated December 15, 2008 12:00 AM [ philstar.com ]
CARLES, Iloilo – Tension in a once famous tourist paradise here is feared to turn violent due to a “tug-of-war” between a family claiming possession of the entire 1,160-hectare Sicogon island and at least 100 peasant-islanders asserting their rights over a portion of it.
The peasants recently staged an “exodus march” from the island to the town hall on the Iloilo mainland to seek urgent attention from concerned government agencies such as the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and Department of Environment and Natural Resources to immediately resolve the “island row.”
The Sicogon peasants, encamped at the plaza near the municipal police headquarters since Dec. 10, said they decided to leave the island due to alleged harassments because they had petitioned 334 hectares of the 809-hectare area owned by the Sicogon Development Corp. (Sideco) to be covered under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
“We have become afraid and unable to sleep well on the island because armed men have been harassing us,” said Elsa Bulaqueno, 46, adding that her house on a “public land” was torched and a gun was poked at one of her 13 children.
The island of Sicogon is located at the northern tip of Iloilo and is comprised of three villages – San Fernando, Alipata, and Buaya.
Before Boracay was touted as the country’s premier resort island, Sicogon used to be a favorite destination of vacationers because of its long stretch of white sand beaches, said to be longer than Boracay’s seven-kilometer shoreline, and abundant coral reefs ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling.
According to the Panay Rural Organizing for Reform and Social Order (Progreso) Inc., Sideco only owns 70 percent or 809 hectares of the 1,160-hectare island, while 30 percent or 351 hectares are classified as “public forest land.”
Progreso said more than 200 farmers are asserting their rights over 334 hectares of the Sideco property under CARP.
In 2003, the DAR issued a notice of coverage on the 334 hectares. But Sideco did not accept it and instead filed for CARP exemption in 2005 and secured an injunction from the Iloilo regional trial court against the notice of coverage.
Earlier this year, reports surfaced that Sideco had been in talks with foreign investors for a joint redevelopment of Sicogon Island, as the company had plans to reopen the area as a tourist destination in line with the government’s thrust to develop tourism in the Visayas.
To give way to the proposed Sicogon Island Complex Resort, Progreso said Sideco would relocate the residents who have been on the island for more than three decades, to another island in Carles town.
The island of Sicogon is one of the 23 small islands of this town. The Sarrosa family reportedly bought the property from the family of First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo in the 1970s. – Katherine Adraneda