Outrage on Boracay after Arroyo acts to legalise titles Resort and land owners on the holiday island of Boracay are in uproar over a government proclamation that they no longer own their land and will have to buy back the properties at auction. A protest was held at the weekend to highlight the moves, which were made official on May 22 when Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo quietly signed a presidential decree that the entire island was state-owned. About 400 hectares of the 1,038-hectare island, famed for its powdery white sand and clear waters, were classified as 'forestland' to be protected, with the rest designated agricultural land to be auctioned off. The latter includes land occupied by Boracay's most popular beach resorts. 'It's really unfair,' Congressman Florencio Miraflores said this week of the buy-back arrangement. The situation stems from the island's confusing land-title history. Only a fraction of the island is covered by formal land titles. The government stopped issuing land titles in 1978 when then president Ferdinand Marcos declared Boracay a marine and forest reserve and tourism zone, and before then the only existing land titles were issued to the well-known Tirol family in the 19th century under colonial Spain. But when tourism started to boom in Boracay in the 1980s, those who came to build resorts, such as Orlando Sacay, were allowed to buy 'rights' to the land from its occupants. Mr Sacay said he bought nearly 2,000 square metres of beachfront property - then occupied by a lone cottage - for 275,000 pesos (HK$42,800), about 150 pesos per square metre, 20 years ago. His only proof of ownership came in the form of 'tax declaration' certificates dating back to 1946 that the original occupant - a woman living on another island - turned over to the local resident who sold Mr Sacay the land. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the forced buy-back was the first step towards formalising land ownership in the area to ensure an ecologically balanced development and to provide investors with a sense of security. But Mr Sacay and hundreds of Boracay businessmen have started holding a series of protests against the moves. 'All of us who have land here, we have to buy our land all over again and at market value,' said Mr Sacay, who chairs the island's business organisation, the Boracay Foundation. 'That's unjust.' He said a public auction would likely see beachfront property fetch about 30,000 pesos per square metre. He estimated it would cost more than 50 million pesos to buy back the land on which he had built up his Waling-Waling Beach Resort, a five-star hotel that has become among the area's top three taxpayers. But a government source said the planned auction was fair because resort owners knew what they were getting into when they bought the 'so-called rights'. Mr Sacay faces yet another problem. The government may not even allow him to buy back his land, since it occupies land classified as 'forestland'. A property bought by Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts had likewise been classified as forest reserve. But Neil Rumbaoa, spokesman for Shangri-La Boracay, said: 'We don't think this is going to affect us.' He said the 11 hectares bought by Shangri-La was covered by a land title, noting that President Arroyo herself had earlier issued a separate proclamation classifying the Shangri-La property as part of an 80-hectare 'special tourism economic zone'. Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts is controlled by the Kerry Group, which also controls the SCMP Group, publisher of the South China Morning Post. Mr Sacay and Mr Miraflores criticised the environment department for acting without first consulting Boracay businessmen. Almost half a million tourists - nearly a third of them foreigners - visited Boracay in 2004, with the national government collecting 7.8 billion pesos in taxes that year from 300 businesses registered on the island. President Arroyo's chief of staff, Michael Defensor, promised to sit down with Mr Miraflores, who belongs to the same Liberal Party wing. 'He is open to other options,' Mr Miraflores said, citing Mr Defensor in a phone conversation. Boracay's businessmen want the government to shelve the auctions until the Supreme Court rules on a petition they have lodged claiming full ownership of the land by virtue of continuous possession.