ILOILO CITY — The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) has ordered giant property developer Ayala Land Inc. (ALI) and private landowners of high-end resorts on Sicogon Island in Carles town in Iloilo to stop development activities in a disputed parcel of land being claimed by farmers.
While two resorts operating on the island were not covered by the Cease-and-Desist Order (CDO) issued by DAR, these had been temporarily closed, according to Ryan Ybanez, general manager of the ALI-controlled Sicogon Island Tourism Estate Corp. (SITEC).
SITEC is a joint venture company of Ayala Land Hotels and Resorts and Sicogon Development Corp. (Sideco).
In the seven-page CDO dated March 6, DAR Secretary John Castrociones ordered ALI, Sideco and the persons acting in their behalf to refrain from continuing with construction activities until a petition for revocation of conversion was resolved or acted upon.
Aside from the construction of structures, the CDO prohibits ground preparation; preparatory works such as testing, measuring and surveying; and earth-moving.
The CDO covers 334.64 hectares of land, nearly a third of the 1,160-hectare island.
The DAR has requested the Philippine National Police and other agencies to assist in the implementation of the order “to ensure that the last, actual, peaceable, and uncontested state of affairs (are) being preserved.”
In a statement, SITEC said the company has complied with the CDO and “remains open to dialogue and compromise to ensure that a mutually beneficial resolution is arrived at for all stakeholders involved.”
Development of the island has been in full swing since it opened to tourists last year.
Part of Carles town, Iloilo, some 146 km northeast of Iloilo City, Sicogon was a top tourist destination in the 1970s because of its pristine waters and white beach even before Boracay Island drew worldwide attention.
Since last year, two resorts have opened on the island and they have their own airport and port.
The CDO was issued one year and seven months after members of the Federation of Sicogon Farmers and Fisherfolk Associations (FESIFFA) petitioned the DAR to revoke a conversion order covering 334.64 hectares of land.
The parcel of land was placed under compulsory acquisition under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.
But Sideco applied for land conversion, a move opposed by FESIFFA, which represents more than 700 agrarian reform beneficiaries and residents.
For years, residents were locked in a dispute with Sideco, a company controlled by the Sarrosa family, which owns 70 percent or 809 hectares of the 1,160-hectare Sicogon Island.
The dispute heightened after Sideco announced plans to reopen the island as a high-end tourist destination in partnership with ALI.
On Nov. 8, 2014, FESIFFA entered into a compromise agreement with Sideco and ALI.
The agreement provided for the withdrawal of agrarian reform claims of the residents against Sideco in exchange for residential and agricultural land totaling 70 ha on the island.
Sideco and ALI also promised to provide the residents with livelihood and training programs amounting to at least P38 million. Another P76 million will be allocated for the construction of amenities and other improvements in the relocation site.
They were also assured to be given priority in the hiring of personnel in the development project.
DAR approved the land conversion on February 29, 2016.
But the FESIFFA on Aug. 4, 2017, filed a petition for revocation of the conversion order.
In their petition, the residents and agrarian reform beneficiaries said the Sideco and ALI failed to comply with the terms of the compromise agreement, including providing relocation site, housing, and livelihood.
SITEC denied these in their statement.
“SITEC has faithfully and consistently complied with the terms of the CFA, and has, over the years, entertained numerous revisions on the resettlement plan as requested by the FESIFFA,” according to the statement.
The company has built 50 houses on a 30-hectare area out of the 70-hectare land promised to the FESSIFFA. It said it has also provided the livelihood support as provided in the agreement.
Raul Ramos, FESIFFA president, appealed to government agencies to decisively and swiftly act on the concerns of the beneficiaries and residents.
Several residents have been holding protest actions at the offices of DAR and Department of Environment and Natural Resources in Manila.
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