Residents near famous pink sand beach in Sta. Cruz Island worried over eco-tourism project if they don’t get land title

ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 23 Oct) – A tribal leader here said they fear for their homes in Little Sta. Cruz Island, home of the famous beach with pink sands, as an eco-tourism project is being introduced while they still don’t have a title of a parcel of land care of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP).

The Department of Tourism has recently identified the area as a priority for a community-based eco-tourism project (CBEP), supposedly to benefit 82 Sama-Bangingi families living one lagoon away from a beachfront with pink sands.

According to Salasain Olay Julhani, who leads a tribe of around 300 Sama Bangingi in the community, tourism is not new to the residents of the 1,877-hectare island five nautical miles from mainland Zamboanga City.

Julhani said, however, that without a title that legitimizes their residency in the area, the project could go to waste since the government could remove them from the area any time.

“We have been asking the [NCIP] for a title for a small property,” the tribal community leader said. “It’s not just for one individual or one family. The entire community will benefit,” he pointed out.

Julhani said the claim amounted to nine hectares, for a property he claims their families have lived in since 1945.

According to DOT assistant secretary Arturo Boncato Jr., the project aims to firm up Sta. Cruz Island as a tourism destination in the country and hopes to improve the lives of the Sama-Bangingi community through livelihood projects.

Boncato said in an interview with Davao City journalists during a visit to the site that the project would encompass several parts, including trainings on tourist reception, as well as identifying areas where the community can earn from visiting tourists.

Among the ideas for tourism in the area include a tour of the Sta. Cruz beach, as well as opportunities for tourists to make and buy their own souvenirs and net weaving.

“We want to push this, especially if the community wants it,” Boncato said.

Julhani said the site has been visited by local and foreign tourists, among them birdwatchers and visitors to the pink beach at Sta. Cruz.

The tourists were mostly European tourists coming from Italy, Germany, and France, as well as Japan. “We don’t have too many American visitors,” he noted.

Members of the community are used to foreigners, he said, with some of them even teaching them words from foreign languages like Italian and Japanese.

The community’s tourism-based income comes from boat tours to visitors, as well as the selling of souvenirs.

Otherwise, the community relies on fishing on peak seasons.

“If there is no moon, we don’t fish, and there is little to earn from since we are not allowed to gather wood,” he said.

Mary June Bugante, regional director for DOT IX, told reporters in an interview Monday night that part of the CBEP application includes training for the community to promote their dances and other aspects of their culture.

“Their culture and practices are slowly being forgotten, even the dances and songs,” Bugante said.

She added that part of the tourism setup is a multi-agency involvement, with the Department of Education tasked to teach the children the Sama dances.

Mildred Bayona, principal of Silsilah Elementary School, said the 80 students from kindergarten to Grade 6 can easily become the next wave of tourism manpower in the area, with interest peaking from students in the island secluded from the mainland.

The oldest elementary student, she said, is 26 years old.

Bayona said the students were competitive enough to speak English, even with Chavacano being taught as a mother tongue medium of instruction since 2011.

Aside from being a leisure destination, Sta. Cruz is also rich in biodiversity, with several endemic bird and marine species found in the island.

Bugante said the first major event that was held in the mainland after last year’s siege by Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels was the 9th Philippine Bird Festival, a gathering in February by bird watchers and conservationists that was attended by 80 participants from all over the world.

The tourism official said the arrival of the foreign nationals was the first signal that the city was ready to rise from the siege again.

“We saw them walking around the city,” she said. “They felt safe in the city already.”

The birds, in effect, helped put Zamboanga back on the map of destinations tainted by the conflict in last year’s siege, Bugante said.

Thousands were displaced from their homes in October 2013 when MNLF rebels loyal to Nur Misuari attacked the city and fought it out with government forces.