A web-press release by CALG (Coalition against Land Grabbing)
What development, for whom and what purposes, how and where, and with what implications? These are only some of the many questions raised by the people affected by oil palm development in Palawan's UNESCO declared Man and Biosphere Reserve, the most valuable ecological sanctuary in the entire Philippines.
The group belonging to the newly established Coalition against Land Grabbing (CALG) said that, in addressing rural poverty, the Government of Palawan should focus on concrete and sustainable plans to improve production on farmers’ land, rather than pushing for massive oil palm plantations. As oil palm expansion continues unabated, the household economy of small farmers and indigenous peoples is now breaking apart. “We are being strangled by huge debts with both Agumil Philippines, Inc (the major oil palm company) and the LandBank (the key financer) and our land titles are being withhold by the bank as a collateral” says Welly Mandi (CALG’s secretary).
“The expansion of oil palm plantations in Palawan is a blatant example of companies defying international law, state laws and the rights of communities through the connivance of unscrupulous and short-sighted government officials” says Marivic Bero (CALG’s Secretary General). One can only speculate why the Government of Palawan remains passive while huge expanses of land, forest and fertile grounds of the “last Philippine Frontier” have been given away for agribusinesses. But, at least, we know the official explanation: oil palms are only planted on ‘idle’ and ‘abandoned’ land to enhance the province’s economy while increasing job opportunities and transforming unused areas in productive plantations.
But are such lands really ‘idle’ and ‘abandoned’? A recent study carried out by ALDAW (Ancestral Land/Domain Watch) with the support of the Non-Timber Forest-Exchange Programme and the Broederlijk Delen, has clearly proven the contrary. The study argues that most of these so called 'idle' and 'unproductive' lands include areas that have been used since time immemorial by IPs societies. “The removal of natural vegetation and of previous agricultural improvements by oil palm plantations is leading to the total collapse of traditional livelihoods, thus fostering communities’ impoverishment and increasing malnutrition” says Dr. Dario Novellino, an anthropologist of the Centre for Biocultural Diversity of the University of Kent (UK) who has lived in Palawan over a period of almost 30 years.
ALDAW - NTFP-EP supported reesearch shows that the disappearance of useful plant species due to oil palm expansion is extremely alarming. For instance, in one particular area of Barangay Iraan (Municipality of Rizal), local indigenous informants claim that, because of oil palm development, at least 145 species have completely disappeared from the areas where these were traditionally gathered. The study also indicates that, in some oil palm impacted communities, the most common plant species used in basketry have dramatically declined. Overall, if massive land conversion for oil palm plantation will be allowed to continue, this may cause the additional exhaustion of plant material and fibers which are essential to sustain people’s cultural practices, artistic expressions and daily needs.
Staring from 2010 ALDAW has used geotagging technologies to determine the impact of deforestation caused by agribusiness enterprises such as Agumil, PPVOMI, Sant Andres and CAVDEAL, a road construction company which has recently included oil palm plantations in their business. AGPI is 75 percent Filipino-owned and 25 percent Malaysian and works hand in hand with its sister company, the Palawan Palm and Vegetable Oil Mills Inc. (PPVOMI) that is 60 percent Singaporean and 40 percent Filipino-owned.
GPS surveys carried out by CENRO itself have further established that oil palm plantations have encroached on virgin forest found on Alienable and Disposable Land (94.2930 ha) and on Timberland (185.2398 ha) in the Municipalities of Quezon and Rizal. Forest conversion into oil palm plantations has also occurred in other municipalities. Interestingly enough, Agumil Philippines Inc and its sister company PPVOMI have never received ‘tree cutting permits’ from the DENR and thus their operations have flagrantly violated the DENR forestry code and, in particular Executive Order no.23 (the nationwide ban on the cutting of trees in natural and residual forest).
“All of this has allowed to happen because widespread [...], lack of coordination between agencies of government, failure and incompetence of government officials to ensure laws compliance, lack of accountability and transparency of agribusiness enterprises” says Marivic Bero, CALG’s Secretary General. It would appear that Agumil and other oil palm enterprises have bypassed, with impunity, the Strategic Environment Plan (SEP), the very law which should ensured sustainable development and environmental protection in Palawan. This law further mandates that no development project should take place unless the proponents secure the so called SEP clearance, being issued by the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD). Furthermore, according to a Memorandum of Agreement between PCSD and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) signed on December 29, 1994, the latter shall not issue an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) without the project promoter having secured a SEP clearance first. However, as far as concerning oil palm development, evidence indicates that DENR did in fact issue several ECCs to PPVOMI prior to SEP clearances. The latter, instead, were never secured by PPVOMI except for a SEP clearance issued for its nursery and oil mill area (about 13 hectares only). Surprisingly, there are no SEP clearances released for the remaining thousands of hectares being converted into oil palm plantations. In so doing, the DENR has overstepped the bounds of the law that it mandates to uphold, placing Palawan’s natural and cultural heritage at great risk.
“A major problem we face” says John Mart Salunday (ALDAW activist) “is that oil palm development schemes have been highly supported by the provincial government. As a result no government agency or department dares to openly contradict and challenge the decisions made at the level of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan (Provincial Government)”. It must be pointed out that the Governor himself (a well-known supporter of agro-industry) is a member of the same family which logged Northern Palawan forest in the eighties and he is also chairing the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD). Clearly as it appears, the absence of a credible and committed political class in Palawan (and in the Philippines as a whole) is one of the root causes of environmental destruction and of the ongoing socio-economic marginalization experienced by indigenous peoples and the rural masses.
Oil palm development in the Philippines is bound to become a major issue. The country, in fact, aspire to become one of the key exporters of oil palm kernels and palm oil in Southeast Asia, after Malaysia and Indonesia. Indeed, this is not such a remote possibility, considering that, recently, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje has proposed the conversion of some 8 million hectares of ‘idle’, denuded and unproductive lands across the country into oil palm plantations.
The present trend suggests that more land conversion into oil palm plantations will lead to decreasing households food self-sufficiency and increasing malnutrition. In this respect, Sofronio Espanola Municipality provides a clear example. This Municipality has the highest percentage of land (over 45%) covered by oil palm plantations. Nevertheless it is a 4th class municipality and it is also one of the 100 poorest municipalities in the country. However, “if public-private partnership had been based on fairness and transparency, it could have play an important role in supporting our farmers in Palawan who have no capital to develop their land” says CALG’s secretary Welly Mande. Instead, local food security is being sacrificed in the name of oil palm development. “If the government is serious about ensuring the welfare of its constituents” adds Mande “ it should enhance the capability of small holding farmers to compete and produce enough food, rather than becoming indebted with the Agumil company and Landbank”.
A cursory look at the so called Production Technical Marketing Agreement (PTMA) entered between farmers’ cooperatives and the Agumil shows the enormous asymmetry of power between the former and the company. For instance PTMA Section 1.14 recites that: If the cooperatives mismanage the operation they shall “…hand over the management to AGPI…". A former cooperative chairman explains that 'mismanagement' must be interpreted here as the inability of farmers to produce the required quantity of fresh fruit bunches per hectare, e.g. as the failure to meet the company's own production expectations and projections. In short ‘underproduction’ and partial crop failure are regarded by Agumil as sufficient reasons for taking over the management of the land and for taking away from cooperatives all decision-making power.
When agri-business enterprises enter indigenous territories, local communities have no capacity to deal with such forces which are powerful and invasive. Many indigenous communities, due to lack of background knowledge, tend to believe in the corporations’ promises of a prosperous future (e.g. free medical assistance, livelihood projects, big and quick profits. etc) and they simply sign what they should never sign. However, in recent months, indigenous peoples and farmers in Palawan have learned about the dark side of oil palm development (also with reference to Malaysia and Indonesia) through advocacy videos being shown to them by members of the Ancestral Land/Domain Watch (ALDAW). “Thanks to the support of our partner, Rainforest Rescue, we have been able to travel for months from one community to the other sharing with people videos on the adverse impact of oil palm development” says an ALDAW activist, “the people we have mobilized have become aware of the risks, and we hope they will refrain from entering into future memorandum of agreements with oil palm firms”.
For more information:
ALDAW Network firstname.lastname@example.org and the Coalition against Land Grabbing (CALG) email@example.com