Land converted for biofuels, farmers harassed

 As the debate on biofuels and whether or not it is an effective alternative source of energy to mitigate the impact of climate change continues to rage, the effect of converting thousands of hectares into biofuel plantations is already being felt. Agrarian reform advocates and patriotic scientist and environmental groups are highlighting the activities of corporations involved in biofuel and alternative fuel production, and their reports are not good.
 Recently, an organization championing the cause of indigenous peoples is up in arms against what it alleged to be a landgrabbing campaign of a giant palm oil company in Opol, Misamis Oriental.
Pangalasag is fighting against the attempts of the A. Brown Company to take-over hundreds of farmlands that the Higaonon tribe of the Mindanao Lumands have long planted with bananas, coconuts and other crops.
According to Pangalasag, the A. Brown Company is bent on planting the land with palm oil, a project that did not go through any consultation with the residents, much less secure their free, prior and informed consent. (1)
Now, the company wants to take over the land in Misamis Oriental and start a palm oil plantation.
Palm oil is found in almost 50 percent of the world's packaged supermarket products, including shampoo, biscuits and detergent. Like other vegetable oils, it can be used to produce biodiesel for internal combustion engines. It can be either a simple high quality processed palm oil mixed with petro-diesel, or processed through transesterification to create a palm oil-methyl ester blend of biodiesel. This can can be used in any diesel engine when mixed with petroleum diesel.
Last September 24, farmers and members of Pangalasag reported to the Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization that they are being harassed and intimidated by personnel of the ABCI. They alleged that the harassment began late last year and have since continued. Local officials of the indigenous people's organizations have also been reportedly placed under surveillance. They said they have been constantly been receiving harassing text messages, and some have been been accosted by ABCI security guards in the area.
Around 10 am last March 10, 2011,Pangalasag members Edwin Baranggot, Jemar Armilla, Fausto Magpulong, Raul Magpulong, Jose Paborada, Dante Paborada and Ruel Tagupa headed out to gather "bagacay," a kind of bamboo. They were prevented from proceeding to the bagacay harvest grounds by guards employed by ABCI.
The farmers then went to Sitio Limpasan in Barangay Tingalan, Opol, Misamis Oriental where they had a makeshift shelter. After almost an hour, and to the surprise of the resting farmers, a dump truck, two pick-up trucks and a jeep arrived. A man alighted from the jeep and ordered the farmers not to run. No sooner had the farmers absorbed what was happening when they found themselves being shot at. They attempted to run and Magpulong, the two Paboradas, and Tagupa were able to flee, but Baranggot and Armilla were caught by the gunmen.
Armilla, who headed towards a grassy area to hide, was taken at gunpoint. The man who held a gun against him taunted the victim, saying "Let's just kill him. He will just rot, nobody would look for him."
Another man reportedly handcuffed Armilla, and they told the victim that they were members of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
Baranggot who was hiding nearby surrendered himself after he saw the man pointing a gun at Armilla. He was also handcuffed and punched on the leg. Both Baranggot and Armilla were then taken to the Opol police station where they were detained for two hours while their captors ate lunch. One of the alleged NBI agents also punched punched Armilla on the chest three times. Throughout their ordeal the two farmers said they were subjected to threats and verbal abuse.
After a few hours, the two men were transferred to the NBI office at the Provincial Capitol Grounds in Cagayan de Oro City where they were further detained for one night and a day. There, the NBI charged them with direct assault.
As of September 25, the two have been released after posting bail. The two victims, their families and the other farmers who were with them during the attempted massacre continue to demand justice for what they suffered.
This case, observers say, is not an issue to strengthen arguments against palm oil as a fuel source or as a cash crop; what it is is a case that adds to the long list of massive land conversions for cash crops wherein the rights of farmers are severely attacked and violated.
Last September 27, the regional chapter of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) in Northern Mindanao announced that 13,000 farmers coming from various municipalities in Misamis Oriental and Bukidnon would converge at the Capitol grounds in Cagayan de Oro on October 21 to start a protest march dubbed "Lakabayan" highlighting the Peasant Day.
The group said the protests were in condemnation of the "continuing oppressive and anti-farmer land reform program of the Benigno Aquino government." It said that the demands of farmers continue to fall on deaf ears. Among their demands are an increase in the minimum wage of farm workers; and increase in prices of farmers' products; and a to stop land conversion.
Expanding palm oil plantations
In December, a business report came out in Sunstar.com that ABCI has begun to expand expand its 30-hectare palm tree plantation in Cagayan de Oro inside the Xavier Estates in Upper Balulang. The report quoted the company's manager on special projects Ruffy Magbanua who said that the palm tree project was providing jobs to local residents.
The report stated that the ABCI has already planted another 700 hectares of palm trees in Impasug-ong, Bukidnon, and employed 200 regular workers. The workers were said to make a living from making decorations and bahay kubo-type rest houses from the leaves and branches of the palm trees. In the meantime, palm fruits can be converted into soap, crude oil and biodiesel and are used in pharmaceuticals, among others.
Sunstar.com quoted Magbanua as saying that there was a need to plant more palm trees in the Philippines because only 10,000 hectares were devoted to it as of 2010. This is, he said, a very small area compared to the nine million hectares in Malaysia and Thailand that are planted with palm trees.
In the report, Magbanua said ABCI is also targeting to plant around 20,000 hectares of palm trees in Misamis Oriental.
Global protests against palm oil companies' landgrabbing
In Indonesia, cause-oriented groups are fighting to defend communities against companies that want to get their share of profits from the booming palm oil industry.
In a report from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more and more people are fighting the companies who are conducting massive landgrabbing campaigns and land conversion.
As of July 2010 and since 2006, the agency reported that 632 communities in Indonesia have clashed with palm oil operators because of a lack of community consultation, required as part of a project's environmental impact assessment.
In March 2011, Greenpeace International issued a report about the village of Long Teran Kanan in Sarawak, Malaysia where farmers blocked roads to stop global conglomerate Neste Oil´s palm oil supplier IOI from trespassing on their lands. The government of Malaysia had then announced that it will open one million more hectares of land for new palm oil plantations.
"Expansion of palm oil plantations is taking place in lands that are important for the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people. And the driving force is growing demand for palm oil, for instance the massive biofuel plans in Europe," said Greenpeace.
Palm oil is still an underdeveloped industry
In the Philippines, groups like the Philippine Palm oil Development Council, Inc are lobbying with the government to improve the palm oil industry in the country, saying that it is being "neglected."
In a paper prepared for the 7th Philippine Palm Oil Congress 2011 last August 25-26, 2011, the PPDCI said the continued government failure to support the palm oil industry in expanding to at least 144,000 hectares by the year 2017 would mean that by 2022 the country will be forced to import 576,596 metric tons of palm oil valued at $ 634.26 million or P27.26 billion.
"It shall also forfeit in favor of the Malaysians (through imports) the opportunity of giving high farm income to 60,000 would-be oil palm farmers and direct employment of 288,000 rural workers (sic)," the group said.
The PPDCI is insisting that even if the Philippines' palm industry is very underdeveloped compared to the coconut industry, there is a great potential in it as the local demand for palm oil is steadily increasing at 2.18 percent per year.
"Palm oil can replace part of the coconut oil consumption to allow more exports of the more expensive coconut oil.
Nevertheless, the Philippines is now starting to expand and develop its palm oil industry, preparing to be one of the major exporters from the East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA)," it said.
The BIMP-EAG a subregional economic cooperation initiative in Southeast Asia by the governments of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines which are all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Private-sector groups like the PPDCI and government agencies like the Philippine Coconut Authority and the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development have issued reports that there is a need to expand the country's palm oil industry and "to meet local demand for export, promote access to capital; promote joint ventures with foreign investors; and gain access to markets."
In the meantime, reports have it that the Land Bank of the Philippines now has a financing package for palm oil. The loan ceiling is about P 144,000 (US$3,349) covering the development costs for the first three years and for working capital for the fourth year. The loan ceiling is for cooperatives and small and medium enterprises, and loan terms is 10 years.Even small landowners are being encouraged to use their lands for cash crops such as oil palm.
Fight against land conversion for biofuels
For the most part, there have not been many protests against palm oil companies in the Philippines, but farmers organizations and human rights groups continue to campaign against the landgrabbing of various corporations that have jumped on the biofuel production bandwagon. Groups like Peoples' Coalition for Food Sovereignty, the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, and Danggayan Dagiti Mannalon ti continue to fight against massive land grabbing and conversion of agricultural lands into biofuel plantations.
During the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, the Philippine Agribusiness Development Corporation Center (PADCC) was able to earmark six million hectares of supposedly "idle" lands for the production of sugarcane, coconut, cassava, jathropa, oil palm and other high-value export crops.
Groups like the KMP said the country is now facing a situation wherein a significant percentage of agricultural lands are in the hands of foreign investors and their local business partners engaging in biofuel products. As the months pass, the proportion of produce retained for domestic consumption is being tragically reduced.
The claim of the KMP is bolstered because of government policies supporting land use conversion for biofuels.
In 2008, Joint Administrative Order (JAO) No. 2008-1, Series of 2008 was issued. These were the the Guidelines Governing the Biofuel Feedstocks Production and Biofuels and Biofuel Blends Production, Distribution and Sale , and it was enacted by the Departments of Energy, Agrarian Reform (DAR), Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources, Finance, Labour and Employment, Science and Technology, Trade and Industry, Transportation and Communication, the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, the Philippine Coconut Authority, the Sugar Regulatory Administration and the National Biofuels Board.
The Center for Agrarian Reform Empowerment and Transformation, Inc. pointed out that the order not only expanded the scope of coverage of lands that may be converted, it also exempts from DA certification landowners whose "effective area is twenty five (25) hectares or less."
" This means that all landowners with 25 hectares or less can arbitrarily and unilaterally decide to convert his landholding to a biofuel production site. The DAR estimates that 1.3 million hectares of land are undistributed. If these hectares of lands are made up of landholdings bigger than the retention limit of five hectares but less than 25 hectares, then they may immediately be converted into biofuel sites, no questions asked and no certification process required," it said.
The joint order made no mention of the farmers and tenants who cultivate the land, and by extension, it gave no assurance that the tenure security of the farmers is protected should there be an agri-business arrangement between the landowner and a foreign corporation. In the meantime, seeing how the government continues to take a position of apathy towards demands of farmers for genuine agrarian reform and actual land distribution, the human rights, economic welfare and the very future of millions of farmers and the country's food security is all the more threatened.
(1) According to business profile posted on the net from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC Form 17-A (2008) A. Brown Company, Inc.(registered as BRN in the SEC, but its acronym in business report profiles in ABCI) is a producf of a merger between three companies that focused on chemicals and real estate development.
In June 1993, the SEC approved the plan of merger between Brown Chemical Corporation, Brown Chemical Sales Corporation and Epic Holdings, with Epic Holdings as the surviving entity.The resulting company was renamed to its current corporate name, and ABCI serves as the holding company of the Brown Group of Companies.
Its primary focus are the real estate projects located in Cagayan de Oro City, Cainta, Rizal and Valencia City, Bukidnon. According to business reports, ABCI through its subsidiaries, has begun ventures into oil palm nursery and seedlings distribution, palm oil milling, operation of apartelles and real estate brokerage.
    Posted by: Arnold Padilla
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  • 29 Sep 2011
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