Grabbing of Masbate farmlands in the name of ecotourism

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Over 21,000 residents will lose their farmlands and fish farms with the construction of the Masbate International Tourism Enterprise and Special Economic Zone project of the Empark Land Development Inc. The project covers more than 1,854 hectares of agricultural land across seven coastal barangays in the town of Dimasalang and four in Palanas. Prior to the project, residents have long been prohibited from fishing in around 222 hectares of sea and mangrove forests in the area as these were declared marine sanctuaries. However, even these are bound to be destroyed with the construction of the project by Empark.

Rodrigo Duterte touted the program as the biggest tourism project. More than ₱190 billion was invested in the project by Huang Rulun, a Chinese billionnaire and owner of Empark who has close links to Duterte. Huang currently faces various cases of corruption in China. At the start of Duterte’s term, he also gave ₱1.4 billion for the construction of two drug rehabilitation centers.

Empark began its operations in April 2018 to convert the area into an ecotourism zone which has continued even amid the pandemic. Casino, malls, hotels, a golf course and port are set to rise in the area of this grandiose project. This is on top of 50 other facilities. Given the large and broad scope of the project, its construction is projected to be completed only in 2044.

Tourism for foreign capital

The Duterte regime is pushing to strengthen investments in the tourism industry even as these have rapidly declined during the pandemic. In 2019, around 12.7% of the gross domestic product of the country came from the tourism industry, higher than the 12.3% share it recorded in the previous year. The government gained revenues of ₱466 billion, 21% higher than in the previous year. In 2019, private investments in the tourism industry stood at ₱569.1 billion.

Through the Republic Act 11262, the Duterte regime further opened up the tourism industry to foreign investments. The Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA) gave numerous incentives to investors in tourism enterprise zone (TEZ). This includes tax holidays for six up to 12 years, tax and duty free importation of capital investment, equipment and services, carryover as a deduction from the gross income for six years, and other benefits. Investors are also allowed to lease land for up to 75 years.

This is the same offer extended by TIEZA to 12 priority TEZs in nine provinces. This includes 20 tourism clusters in the country targeted by the Department of Tourism to generate a revenue of ₱3.9 trillion by the end of Duterte’s term. Within these priority TEZs, at least 2,000 hectares of land and fishing grounds will be sold by TIEZA.

Across the country, the Duterte regime is determined to have all farmlands being cultivated by farmers be placed under a titled in order to sell these to developers. In 2019, Duterte ordered the Department of Agrarian Reform to expedite the process of use conversion of agricultural lands. Aside from being used for tourism projects, these vast lands are sold to capitalist plantations, mining companies, and real estate developers.

Grabbing of Masbate farmlands in the name of ecotourism