Editorial: Maria Hangin’s Project in Ruins
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Editorial: Maria Hangin’s Project in Ruins

The mysterious armed group set up an outpost on the picturesque Maria Hangin Island in Barangay Bugsuk in Balabac after a tense confrontation with locals on June 29, during which one of them fired a shot to scare the villagers.

More than a week has passed, and the Philippine National Police (PNP) still has not fully explained what is happening in the remote village on the island. According to locals, police officers who came to the island to investigate the shooting even helped the unidentified person who was shooting at the residents by allowing him to leave the area to cool off somewhere else instead of arresting him.

The last and only press statement from the PNP on the matter was that they were still investigating. The investigation has been ongoing for over a week as I write this. No arrests have been made, not even a proper identification of the gunmen who have already set up camp on the island.

“What we wrote is just terrifying because people can’t wait to do it,” Oscar Pelayo, a resident of the island, told Palawan News after visiting the island recently.

This is a situation that requires intervention by higher authorities, as the local Philippine National Police clearly can no longer handle it. Worse, they may be in cahoots with the armed group, whoever that is, if local residents are to be believed.

From what Palawan media has gathered, the case is a developing land grab. Locals believe that San Miguel Corporation, which allegedly owns the most valuable property on neighboring Bugsuk Island, also wants to build an eco-tourism resort in Maria Hangin. SMC denied the claim and issued a statement indicating that it does not own any property on Maria Hangin. It also distanced itself from the gunmen who terrorized locals.

The recent decision by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to declassify the island from agrarian reform has sparked local fears that they will soon be evicted. About 100 families currently live there, and local men have vowed to fight to keep their land.

In the past, social injustice occurred far from the prying eyes of the public. Back then, it was worse – the victims were so helpless that the only salvation was to join the rebels.

It’s somehow different these days, in an era where information technology and social media play a role. A local resident filmed the shooting and the outright harassment on his phone and posted it on Facebook, and now the whole world can see what happens next at Maria Hangin.

The clear plan to turn Maria Hangin into an eco-tourism enclave started off on the wrong foot, raising issues of social injustice that they don’t need. It will be a difficult task for whoever is behind it to smoothly implement such a plan unless we all go back to martial law times when such things can happen, damn the consequences.

We were there and saw for ourselves the island’s potential as a tourist attraction. It boasts wide beaches that surpass what popular destinations like Boracay currently offer. Heck, there are still crocodiles lurking in the waters, which is indeed a sign of danger, but also an indicator of the pristine marine ecosystem and the raw beauty of the place.

The people of Maria Hangin have vowed that they will not go down without a fight. Unidentified parties with agendas for the island, noble or otherwise, will not have it their way through mere intimidation, much less through direct force. It is appropriate for the provincial government and other higher government offices to step in with a nonsensical conflict resolution plan.

In the meantime, anyone interested in Maria Hangin should either go back to the drawing board and do this properly, or pack up and leave the settlers alone.