CEBU Governor Gwendolyn Garcia on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, ordered all floating cottage operators to voluntarily demolish their cottages. She gave them until Oct. 4 to do so.

Garcia made the decision after discovering the illegal practice of throwing septic waste into the ocean by some of Cordova’s floating cottage operators. The practice was uncovered by SunStar Cebu in the first part of its special report on Cordova’s fixed and floating cottages which was released on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022.

Read: Special Report: 'Cottage' industry in Cordova under fire (First of two parts)

Garcia is set to issue an executive order (EO) that will tackle the demolition of fixed and floating cottages in the town. Ahead of that order, she issued Tuesday an EO prohibiting swimming and other activities in the waters of Barangays Catarman and Poblacion.

Despite Garcia’s decision to remove fixed and floating cottages in Cordova town, Cordova Mayor Cesar “Didoy” Suan on Tuesday said he would push for the resumption of floating cottage operations after they come with up with their own regulations.

Before Garcia’s meeting with stakeholders on Sept. 20, Suan disclosed to SunStar Cebu his options on how to redevelop his town’s cottage industry into a world-class destination, including a suggestion from Garcia to enter into a public-private partnership (PPP).

But while fixed and floating cottage operators might not see any operations for the meantime, they will be given initial assistance by the Cebu Provincial Government.

Demolish or else

During the meeting with stakeholders at Cordova’s multipurpose gym on Tuesday, Sept. 20, Garcia gave operators and owners of the floating and fixed cottages the option to demolish their own cottages along the shore or on the sea.

Garcia said they can drag their floating cottages back to the shore and convert them into beach huts, provided that they follow the law and observe the 20-meter easement.

She, however, denied the request of fixed and floating cottage operators to just remove their cottages and transfer them to other areas or sell them to others.

Garcia said she does not want floating cottage operators to sell their cottages to others after she received reports that some cottages had cropped up in other parts of Cebu such as in Lapu-Lapu City and Talisay City.

Jose Cleo Cary Colis, head of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources-Central Visayas’ (DENR 7) Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (Penro), said the presence of floating and fixed cottages in Cordova’s coast is considered illegal based on Presidential Decree (PD) 1067 or the Water Code of the Philippines and Republic Act (RA) 8550 or the Fisheries Code of the Philippines.

Lawyer Donato Villa of the Provincial Legal Office echoed Colis’ claim, adding that fixed and floating cottage operators were also conducting business without any business permit and other requirements issued by the municipal government.

Garcia added that the provincial government together with the law enforcement agencies will send personnel and crews to demolish and remove the remaining illegal structures in the coastal waters of the two barangays.

Aside from the floating and fixed cottages, Garcia will include in her EO the demolition of the stalls of vendors operating along the Bantayan Wharf as their operations were also causing contamination of the town’s coast.

No swimming, for now

Ahead of her impending EO on the demolition of fixed and floating cottages in the town, Garcia signed EO 35, series of 2022, which prohibits public swimming and similar activities within the defined foreshore area, mangrove zone, public beach zone and municipal fishing zones in Cordova.

Garcia signed EO 35 on the evening of Sept. 20.

Garcia issued EO 35 in response to the health warning issued by the Department of Health (DOH) in Central Visayas concerning the health hazards brought about by swimming in waters contaminated with fecal coliform.

Garcia said that despite the DOH 7’s warning, she still received reports that public swimming and other similar activities within Cordova continued.

Garcia warned that violators of EO 35 can be apprehended, citing Section 465 of RA 7160 or the Local Government Code as legal basis for the apprehension.

Engineer Cindylyn Pepito-Ochea, spokesperson for the DENR 7’s Environmental Management Bureau, told SunStar Cebu on Sept. 3 that they recommended to the municipal government the temporary closure of Cordova’s coast from any tourism activities because the high fecal coliform level (FCL) there made it no longer fit for swimming.

The EMB 7’s recommendation was supported by officials of the DOH in Central Visayas, who issued a warning on Sept. 8 to the public against swimming and doing other similar activities within Cordova’s coast, particularly in Barangay Catarman.

In a statement, DOH 7 Director Dr. Jaime Bernadas said an assessment team from his office observed that floating and fixed cottages in Catarman had poor sewage and wastewater disposal systems, which violated standards set by PD 856 or the Sanitation Code of the Philippines.

He added that the high level of fecal coliform bacteria monitored by the DENR in the area could cause water-borne illnesses if ingested. Symptoms of water-borne disease may include fever, loss of appetite, vomiting, stomach pains and loose bowel movements.

Ochea said that aside from FCL, the municipal government also must take into account other pollutants that the EMB 7 monitored to have exceeded the allowable amounts.

Ochea commended the municipal government of Cordova for acting immediately, preventing more environmental impacts and protecting the town’s coastal water against pollution.

She said the temporary closure of operations of the town’s floating and fixed cottages was just one way to rehabilitate Cordova’s coast.

Aside from pollutants being produced by floating and fixed cottages, Ochea said the town’s temporary public market near Bantayan Wharf, illegal settlers along the coastline, public restrooms and shower rooms, and the Roro Port were considered contributors to the rise in FCL and other pollutants in the area.

‘Frankenstein’s monster’

During the meeting with Cordova’s cottage stakeholders on Tuesday, Garcia reprimanded floating cottage operators for their failure to manage their septic waste.

“Tambok gyud diay ang isda dinhi. Mao diay lami kaayo ang bakasi sa Cordova?” Garcia said in jest, referring to fish eating anything that comes down from the surface of the water.

(That is why the fish in Cordova are fat. So that is why the eels in Cordova are so delicious?)

Barangay officials of Catarman and Poblacion were not spared from Garcia’s scolding for their failure to regulate the operations of fixed and floating cottages operating in their areas.

Garcia said Suan’s EO 1 was meant to regulate the operations of cottage operators in the town as the new industry had become too large and unregulated.

“That is why we have come to this. He (Suan) initially wanted to stop your operations temporarily until he can come up with a policy to regulate your operations because you have grown too numerous. We were creating a monster, a Frankenstein (monster),” Garcia added.

Garcia said she fears that swimmers who come to Cordova might suffer several ailments such as skin and bowel diseases because of fecal coliform contamination brought about by cottage operations.

Garcia added that aside from environmental issues, floating and fixed cottages situated in the coastal waters of Barangay Poblacion and Catarman were considered “illegal structures” under environmental laws and regulations.

Garcia said that before Cordova’s cottage operations can be considered a full-fledged industry, its operators must regulate their operations in compliance with the law.

“First of all, before a business can be called an industry, let’s see if it is within all the laws that have been set up so that we don’t have chaos, we don’t have trouble or unfortunate events happening,” Garcia said in Cebuano.

During the meeting, a cottage operator who declined to identify himself questioned the findings of the DENR on the ambient water quality monitoring conducted in the coasts of Barangays Catarman and Poblacion which, he said, was done without any witnesses from the barangay or from the operators.

“My request is to redo the testing because from what I hear, no barangay official or any operator witnessed the testing,” he said in Cebuano.

The cottage operator asked Suan and Garcia to order a retesting in the coast to remove any doubts concerning DENR’s water sampling.

In response, Suan said he himself was among those who accompanied personnel from the DENR who conducted the three testing events.

“I know how you feel,” Suan told the cottage operators. “Before I became the mayor of this town, I was a businessman. But let us also look to the future. What is a few hundred thousand pesos if we also lost our precious marine resources in the process?” Suan said in a mix of Cebuano and English.

Garcia was irked at the cottage operator’s request for a retesting.

“Just because all of you benefited from the cottage operations does not mean that what you did was legal,” Garcia said.

Suan urged the cottage operators to be patient and wait until Cordova’s waters are rehabilitated.

Suan assured cottage operators that DENR personnel will conduct regular water testing activities in the town to determine if it is safe to swim in the sea again.

He added that floating cottage operators can resume their operations once the municipal government has come up with a set of regulations for them to follow.

“Tanang tag-iya sa floating ug fixed cottage, duna moy kapadulngan nga inyuhang kanegosyuhan inig balik nato og butang og negosyo diha sa atung kadagatan,” Suan added.

(All owners of floating and fixed cottages, you will have business opportunities once business operations return in our seas.)

No rehab plan yet

Suan told SunStar Cebu last Sept. 13 that more than three weeks after Governor Garcia’s EO 25 was implemented, they had yet to have a clear plan on how to rehabilitate the town’s shores.

Garcia’s EO 25, implemented on Aug. 29, prohibited the operation and use of the illegal structures in the coastal waters of the town to pave the way for the rehabilitation of the area. The governor’s EO aimed to curb the operation of fixed and floating cottages and the construction of new structures due to the findings of the DENR 7 that their operations had contributed to the high fecal coliform levels found in Cordova’s coast.

Public-private partnership

Suan disclosed that during a meeting at the Provincial Capitol on Sept. 5, Garcia suggested to him that one option that the municipal government can consider to rehabilitate and develop Cordova’s coast is to enter into a public-private partnership (PPP).

To fast-track the rehabilitation and development project, Suan said the municipal government is open to entering into such a partnership.

Garcia told Suan that through PPP, their potential partner could rehabilitate Cordova’s coast, develop the town’s floating cottage operations into a regulated tourism venture, and initiate the construction of their proposed terminal and renovation of their roro (roll-on/roll-off) port in Barangay Poblacion.

For Suan, choosing PPP could be the quickest way to rehabilitate the town’s coast and at the same time, develop their tourism venture.

Other options

If they initiate the rehabilitation process themselves, Suan proposed to come up with a clear set of policies that will regulate the operations of floating cottages in the town, remove fixed cottages as they are illegal by law, and come up with a clear plan on how they will collect and dispose of septic waste from cottage operations.

During the first stakeholders meeting with Governor Garcia and representatives of government agencies at the municipal gym on Aug. 17, Suan said once they have successfully rehabilitated Cordova’s coast, they will implement policies that will regulate cottage operations in the town, in compliance with environmental laws.

This includes setting up a standard design for the floating cottages, improving their waste collection facilities and coming up with a standard protocol for waste collection and disposal.

Due to environmental laws and regulations, Suan said fixed cottages will be removed from the town’s coastal areas and also within the easement zones.

He explained that the municipal government and the DENR cannot issue any permit to fixed cottage operators, as these are considered “illegal.”

The sandbar and beach area along the foreshore, where the fixed cottages are situated, must remain for public use, Suan said.

Organizing floating cottages

In terms of organization, Suan said they would reorganize and rearrange the floating cottages into two parallel lines following the shoreline towards the sea.

This alignment will have a proper distancing and delineation of the navigational lines and ensure the safety of the guests, he added.

The mayor said the center or the spaces between the two parallel lines of cottages will be for swimming and recreational activities only. The areas outside these two lines of cottages will be for docking and unloading of passengers from the pump boat into the cottages for safety concerns.

Suan said this would prevent pump boats traveling to the cottages from accidentally hitting swimmers.

World-class design

Suan said not only does he want the floating cottages to be uniform, their design should also be “world-class.”

He plans to consult with the concerned government agencies on how they can come up with a standard design for the floating cottages.

To ensure that there won’t be another environmental crisis in the town, Suan said the floating cottages should have an adequately sized septic tank that can store up to five to seven days’ worth of human waste.

To complement the septic tank, the municipal government will designate personnel and pump boats that are specialized in handling, transporting and disposing of human waste into a final disposal facility.

Aside from an adequately sized toilet, the floating cottages should have their own washing areas where guests can wash their hands, utensils and cookware.

The washing area should have its own water tank, and the municipal government can supply potable water to the cottages just before they are used by guests, Suan added.

Garbage bins intended for biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste will also be placed inside the cottages.

Aside from waste disposal facilities, the floating cottages will also have their own life-saving equipment such as life vests and flotation devices.

Strict regulation

Once Cordova’s coast is fully rehabilitated, the town and operators of floating cottages must comply with the requirements set by the DENR before they can fully operate, Ochea said.

This includes requiring floating cottage operators to secure an environmental compliance certificate (ECC), a certification signifying that any proposed proponent, project or undertaking has a minimal negative impact on the environment.

To secure an ECC, floating cottage operators must send a letter of request addressed to the EMB declaring their intent to receive an ECC.

Other requirements include the following: authorization from the local government unit confirming the sustainability of the proposed project to the existing land use plan; geo-tagged photos of the proposed project site; map of the project area and affected areas, displaying a minimum of one kilometer from the project boundaries; staffing requirements; project description, including raw materials that will be used and the type of technology to be used; type and volume of products and discharges; schematic diagram of wastewater treatment facility; and an accomplished Project Environmental Monitoring and Audit Prioritization Scheme.

Solutions so far

Apart from regulating the town’s floating cottage operations, Suan also vowed to complete the construction of the town’s three-story new public market in Purok 3, Barangay Catarman, within three to six months.

The market and stall vendors currently operating in the temporary public market will be prioritized in the transfer to the new public market, he said.

Last Aug. 23, Garcia sent the Provincial Engineering Unit to the unfinished project for inspection after Suan asked for her assistance in finishing the new public market in time.

Another proposal was the construction of another terminal, complete with a docking facility for pump boats at the Bantayan Wharf which will serve as entry point for those availing of floating cottages.

The proposed terminal will accommodate guests and tourists and be the venue for a demonstration on the do’s and don’ts before they board the floating cottage.

Suan also asked for Garcia’s help in renovating their existing terminal at their Roro port which was heavily damaged by last December’s Typhoon Odette (Rai).

Like the proposed second terminal, Suan wants to incorporate a docking facility for pump boats at the terminal at their Roro port.

Assistance

Some officials have started providing financial assistance to those affected by EO 25.

The office of Cebu Rep. Daphne Lagon (Cebu, sixth district) has released a one-time financial assistance of P3,000 for pump boat operators who lost their income when EO 25 was implemented.

James Gallarde, Lagon’s political affairs officer, told SunStar Cebu that 142 pump boat operators had received the financial assistance on Sept. 8.

Most of the beneficiaries were residents of Barangay Catarman, while pump boat operators from Barangays Buagsong and Hilutungan also received the aid.

Gallarde added that there will be another batch of over 100 beneficiaries to receive the financial assistance from Lagon in the coming weeks.

Aside from pump boat operators, at least 60 ambulant vendors based in Barangay Hilutungan who sold fresh seafood to floating cottage guests will also receive the aid.

Gallarde said Lagon also plans to collaborate with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority and the Department of Labor and Employment to provide technical livelihood assistance to the stakeholders and their families.

Aid announced Tuesday

On Tuesday, Sept. 20, Garcia also promised that cottage operators, stall vendors and pumpboat operators would receive aid on Sept. 21.

Garcia announced in the meeting that the 127 operators and 16 stall vendors operating in Bantayan Wharf will receive P10,000 in financial assistance.

Suan apologized to cottage operators who will not yet receive the financial aid from the Province on Wednesday, saying that those who will receive the aid on Wednesday were based on the list provided by the town’s Bantay Dagat and the barangays.

He assured that they will list operators who were not included in their first list and process their request for aid.

Garcia said 147 pump boat operators will get P5,000 in cash aid from the provincial government.

She said cottage operators and owners can also avail of the Province’s Sugbo Negosyo card worth P10,000.

With the card, the owners and operators have the option to buy materials and groceries from the selected supermarkets and stores if they wish to venture into other businesses.

However, Garcia said only those owners who voluntarily demolish their cottages before Oct. 5 can avail of the cards.

“Contact (Provincial) Board Member (Glenn) Soco or Board Member (Thadeo) Ouano if you’re interested in the card. Someone will mentor you,” Garcia said.

The provincial government will also offer the Enhanced Countryside Development Program, a loan program from SB Corp. for those seeking capital to build another business.

The loan will have zero interest and be payable in five years.

Garcia urged the pump boat operators to register their motorboats with the Maritime Industry Authority whose representative will go to Cordova on Thursday, Sept. 22.

Garcia said the provincial government will shoulder the expenses of the motorboat registration, which will help the pump boat operators to be legally recognized to ferry passengers particularly for island hopping.

Suan said the municipal government will look for funds so it can give aid of P5,000 to each cottage owner and P2,000 to each pump boat operator.

After the meeting, the municipal government distributed one sack of rice weighing five kilograms to each cottage and pump boat operator.