Oil palm development should never have been initiated in Palawan, the last ecological frontier of the Philippines. In fact, in the late eighties, because of its unique biocultural diversity, the whole province was declared by UNESCO a Man and Biosphere Reserve. About two decades later, massive conversion of land into oil palm plantations is endangering biodiversity, water resources, the quality of topsoil and the livelihood of indigenous peoples and traditional farmers, while undermining Palawan local food sovereignty and exacerbating rural poverty. Palawan, in fact, has the last remaining contiguous forest block in the country: oil palm plantations are breaking the contiguity between different and interrelated ecosystems, such as hilly forest, lowland forest, shrub/grassland and wetlands, etc. thus having adverse consequences on animal species that move and thrive in different ecological niches, as well as on the integrity of each specific niche.
The loss of medicinal plants is also another topic of discussion amongst indigenous communities being affected by oil palm development. Traditional leader, Panglima Kenisio Malasan, from sitio Marebong in barangay Pulot (Municipality of Espanola) speaks passionately about the importance of medicinal plants and their decline: “It is like we are dying little by little because we no longer have the plants needed to cure ourselves [...] before we only walked half hour to get the raw material for building our houses, for our artifacts and medicinal plants. Now we have to walk half day to the other side of the mountain before we can find the plants we need”.
Amongst indigenous elders there is a deep concern on whether the coming generations will be able to use and recognize medicinal plants: “We are afraid that the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants will not be passed to the next generation, also because these plants are now located very far from our settlements and it is difficult to bring the children with us when we look for them. Nowadays, our children cannot identify these medicinal plants, because they haven’t had a chance of seeing them,” says Nestor Aplaon a Pala’wan from the same community.
The Philippines is a land and resource rich country, but its government is ‘cash poor’ and this is why it is seeking foreign direct investment in land and agriculture. However, “In the context of weak land governance and insecure land tenure, plans as those suggested by DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) undersecretary Paje to convert 8 millions of Philippines’ land into oil palm plantations are suicidal for our country,” says John Mart Salunday, a community organizer of ALDAW (Ancestral Land/Domain Watch) a local organization that has been at the forefront of the struggle against oil palm development in Palawan.
As it is well known, industrial cultivation of oil palms in Palawan is not for local consumption but for export and it is geared towards quick profits. “What we would need instead,” says CALG’s secretary Welly Mandi, “Are lower risk models of agricultural development that give a greater share of benefits to the poor while improving and fostering the production of endemic crops such as coconuts”.
As far as oil palm development is concerned there are still many questions which need to be answered: What will happen to the future generation of indigenous peoples’ living in oil impacted areas? What will happen to Palawan land after 30 years of oil palm cultivation? Will traditional owners have sufficient resources to rehabilitate soils that have been subjected to heavy chemical fertilization and herbicides? Before all such questions are answered, what needs to take place is a complete stop to all further oil palm expansion and a complete rethinking of government approach towards agricultural development. In this respect, CALG’s presentation of a petition for a moratorium is a remarkable starting point for preventing that more land will be taken away from traditional users, especially indigenous communities.
“Here in Palawan,” says Marivic Bero (CALG’s Secretary General), “We have the best laws in place to protect both the environment and the rights of our indigenous peoples. However, the limits of law lie within the implementation process, wherein rules and regulations are conditioned by the inability of concerned government agencies and their officials to stand by their own mandates”.
Indeed, this gap between law and practice has allowed oil palm plantations to expand in the absence of maps and permits. In a letter dated Aug.15, 2013, the Palawan Provincial Office of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) ascertained that oil palm plantations overlap with the ancestral domain of Tagbanua and Palawan tribes in at least 16 barangay belonging to five municipalities. Thus, the Agumil oil palm company has been formally requested by NCIP-Palawan to comply with Section 59 Certificate of Precondition of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act 8371 and to coordinate with NCIP Provincial Office. As of now, not only Agumil has failed to reply to NCIP request, but also NCIP has failed to do any follow up on that initial letter. It must be pointed out that the notion of Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) is not only a central component of the IPRA law, but it is also enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) which sees the Philippine Government amongst one of its state-signatories.
Kemil explains that those bearing the risk of crop failure are the farmers’ cooperatives; they are ultimately blamed by Agumil if plantations do not bear enough fruits. CALG’s Welly Mande speaks passionately on how his people (the Tagbanua and farmers of Barangay Aramaywan, Quezon) were seduced by the “sweet talks” and “empty promises” of Agumil to the extent of entering into memorandum of agreements with them. Such agreements are written in technical English which is incomprehensible to local farmers who signed them mainly on the basis of the optimistic prospect being presented to them by Agumil’s managers (e.g. long term employment and quick economic profits). Such explanations, of course, did not match what the contracts actually stated. “It is clear that Agumil has engaged in deceptive and clearly fraudulent conduct to obtain large tracts of land from local communities in Palawan” says Atty Awat, CALG’s legal councilor.
Aside from Agumil, another agribusiness enterprise known as “Green Power Palawan” (GPP) has gone so far as to promise indigenous communities financial and technical assistance for the demarcation and recognition of their ancestral domains. “Of course these promises had been given only for the purpose of getting people’s consensus about the development of large-scale plantations on their land.” says Motalib Kemil, who joined one of the meetings being organized by GPP. Unofficial sources reveal that GPP works like a sort of middleman: they try to negotiate agreements directly with ancestral land holders and eventually they invite venture groups to occupy and develop these lands with monocrops, such as oil palm, rubber, cacao, etc. “They are trying to convince our indigenous peoples to rent their lands for prices as low as 500 pesos (about 11US$) per year, per hectare! This is unacceptable,” says Kemil.
Write a polite letter addressed to the Governor (Jose Chaves Alvarez ) and Vice Governor (Dennis Socrates) of Palawan, asking to immediately implement a moratorium on oil palm expansion in Palawan.
Governor Email: [email protected]
Vice-Governor email: [email protected]
The letter should also be copied and emailed to the President of the Philippines and to the following government officials
The National Level
H.E. Benigno C. Aquino III
President of the Republic
E-mail: [email protected] / [email protected] / [email protected]
Dr. Marlea Pinor Munez, Executive Director and Mr. Ruben S. Bastero, Regional Director RIV, National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) [email protected]
NCIP Commissioner Dionisia Banua [email protected]
Hon. Ramon Jesus Paje
Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Email: [email protected]
Hon. Proceso J. Alcala
Department of Agriculture (DA)
Email: [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]
Euclides G. Forbes and Carlos B. Carpio (Philippine Coconut Authority - PCA) [email protected]
Executive Director: Mr. Nelson P. Devanadera
Palawan Council for Sustainable Development: [email protected]
[email protected] and Mrs. Mearl Hilario, PCSD Committee on Tribal Affairs: [email protected]
Mrs. Gilda E. Pico, President and CEO, Land Bank of the Philippines
[email protected] Fax: 0063 2 528-8580
For additional information contact the ALDAW Network [email protected] and the Coalition against Land Grabbing (CALG) [email protected]