The island awakens from a scarred history.
A pristine island off the tip of Northern Luzon, Fuga forms part of the
Babuyan Channel and is a barangay of Aparri town in Cagayan province.
The island, with a land area of 10,000 hectares, is about 14
kilometers long and is surrounded by 70 kilometers of fine white
Fuga’s more than 2,000 inhabitants now awaken after a long history of violence. After the demise of Filipino-Chinese billionaire Tan Yu, who owns the island, and the departure of a paramilitary group in 2002, residents now have the opportunity to rebuild their lives.
Yet questions of ownership still haunt Fuga residents.
Young Ilocanos on the island say the family of the late Tan Yu owns Fuga. But the elders say the island is theirs.
Based on records, Alfonso Lim Sr. claimed ownership of the entire island after World War II. Lim, who died three years ago, was a close friend of the deposed dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Lim was the owner of the defunct Pamplona Redwood Veneer Inc. and the Taggat Industries Inc., logging companies that operated in western Cagayan and the Cordilleras in the 1950s up to the time the government imposed a moratorium on commercial logging early in the 1990s.
Tan Yu bought the island from Lim on June 11, 1991, for P280 million, including buildings, livestock, and trees.
The ownership was transferred to Fuga Island Holdings Inc. (FIHI) and Barit Resort and International Tour Inc., two developer companies owned by Tan Yu, represented by Benito Dy and Hermilando Mandanas, FIHI’s president and executive vice president, respectively. The transaction, covered by Transfer of Certificate of Title No. 27175, was entered into with Lim, his wife Juliet Velasquez Lim, and their lawyer daughter, Ruth Lim Santiago.
FIHI deposited P163,780,000 in escrow with the Philippine National Bank under Lim’s Asset and Privatization Trust account immediately after the deed of sale was entered into. The remaining P116,220,000 was deposited in the same Lim account on or before Sept. 30, 1991.
Lim was forced to sell the island to his friend Tan Yu because he failed to pay taxes to the national government under President Corazon Aquino.
But even if Tan Yu had already absolute possession of the island, the descendants of Lim retained their rights to the island such as landing rights of planes and helicopters, parking of aircraft, land/docking rights of sea craft, and access to collect “fresh water” in Fuga.
Epafanio Cruzado, 63, like many other Fuga elders whose ancestors were the stewards of the island for centuries, laments their disenfranchisement. “We don’t have land titles to speak of, not even the lot where our houses stand today.”
As we went to press, NEWSBREAK learned that Elena, Tan Yu’s daughter, had completed a transaction with a developer to sell a portion of Fuga. A new developer, who is associated with FIHI, told NEWSBREAK that Fuga could be developed as a “second Hong Kong.” He explained that this was the original plan of the late Tan Yu “which has not changed as far as the tycoon’s children are concerned.” He was referring to Elena and Washington, Tan Yu’s children.
In the early 1990s, news reports about Fuga landed on the pages of several newspapers because people were barred entry for lack of “passport” or “permit.” The newspapers also reported cases of fishermen who were either killed or driven away by armed men for “intruding” into the island’s fishing grounds. At that time, Tan Yu was planning to develop the island into a world-class recreational facility and gambling hub in Asia. Fuga was Tan Yu’s US$50-billion fantasy island.
When Tan Yu ruled the island from 1991 to 2002, residents complained of oppression. Both Lim and Tan Yu employed ferocious guards to frighten the natives.
“We were treated like slaves. We were shackled worse than animals,” Fermin Pablo, 75, said in Ilocano.
Karie Garnier, a Canadian filmmaker married to an Ilocana from Fuga, said he witnessed the inhuman treatment of the islanders by Tan Yu’s guards.
“Human rights violations were never documented since the time of Lim and Tan Yu,” said Prof. Ronel de la Cruz of St. Paul’s University in Quezon City, who went to Fuga for three weeks early last year to do research for his doctoral thesis.
He added: “There were numerous cases of human rights violations. People were afraid to talk for fear of being beaten up by the guards. The atrocities of the guards produced an adverse effect practically on all aspects of their lives: malnutrition, poverty, miseducation, loss of lives, decimation of marine resources, and isolation. Local police had to travel for four hours if there are reports of killings, violence, and disappearance on the island.”
People close to Tan Yu deny reports of human rights violations, calling these “fabrications.”
In various interviews including those unearthed by De la Cruz, the following atrocities were alleged to have been committed by Lim and Tan Yu’s minions:
• Residents were not allowed to collect eggs of the ukong bird, gather honeybees, coconut crabs, and lobsters.
• They were not allowed to expand their farms. The encargado (manager) would visit their kaingins (slash-and burn farming) and he would determine the size. If the farm was too big, they would destroy the kaingin even if the plants were ready for harvest.
• The guards made sure that the produce from their farms was good only for family consumption. The people were not allowed to sell their products to the mainland. The guards put up a single docking port to monitor the people and their products.
• Even if they were born in Fuga, residents were required to get a permit from Lim, and Tan Yu’s managers during his time, in going out and entering the island.
• The people were not allowed to rebuild their old huts. Trees that were cut for their house need permission from the guards.
• They were not allowed to build their own boats. If residents were caught in the sea riding their banca, guards riddled the boat with bullets. The guards had two speedboats and a helicopter to chase off the small boat owners.
• Guards threatened the villagers with their high-powered guns: M-14, M-16, 30 cal. machinegun, carbine, and shotgun.
• During harvest season when the villagers could not give their 30 percent share to the owner of the island, they were obliged to clean the hacienda for five days. If they could not compensate for the share for the company, they were evicted from the island.
• Some abusive guards forced women to marry them even if these guards had families. Once they fathered children by these young women, they asked the company for re-assignment outside Fuga.
• Villagers who marry outsiders are not allowed to stay in Fuga.
• Fishermen from the mainland who came near Fuga were killed. The guards riddled their boats with bullets and drove them to the open sea.
Fuga Island is very much different now. Residents are free to fish and farm. There is no more fear on the island. The Ilocano natives now have the opportunity to do something for themselves.
Visitors and nature lovers who come to the island need not secure a “passport” or “permit.”
But residents have a long way to go to rebuild their lives. The problems of inaccessibility, isolation, and lack of communication render the people helpless when sickness and calamity come.
Moreover, majority of the population did not finish elementary education. Health services are lacking. Many of the children are malnourished. And sources of livelihood are limited.
Recently, the body of Lazaro Bagaoisan, 70, was found by fishermen along the coastline in Abulug town a week after he was declared missing together with another man.
White pebble poaching is the reason why Bagaoisan is gone. In January, he and his still missing companion sailed to Aparri with their boat loaded with 700 sacks of white pebbles. In the middle of the sea, they were met with giant waves and their boat capsized. In 1986, Bagaoisan’s daughter, then a high school student in Claveria, met the same fate along with 23 others in between the open sea of Fuga and Claveria. Only one person survived. The unpredictable open sea claims lives every year.
The poaching, some said, is financed by several local politicians and influential personalities engaged in the illegal pebble business. Early this year, police authorities in Nueva Vizcaya apprehended two truckloads of white pebbles smuggled from Fuga. The confiscated documents showed that Gov. Edgar Lara of Cagayan and the mayor of Calayan Island, also in Cagayan, had issued the permit to transport the smuggled minerals. Lara, however, denied this.
With little help from the mayor and local government, Fuga residents have to rely on themselves to move forward.
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