May 8, 2012, Misamis Oriental, Philippines — Delegates of an International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) expressed outrage at the ongoing landgrabbing and harassment of Lumads by the American firm A. Brown Company, Inc., which operates a palm oil plantation in three barangays in the municipality of Opol.
The International FFM, led by Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Asia and the Pacific, Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), Kilusang Magbububukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), and Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization, went to barangays Tingalan ang Bagocboc and heard the complaints of indigenous peoples who were forcibly driven away from their ancestral lands. Through collusion with local government officials, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, A. Brown has now entrenched its palm oil plantation in 520 hectares originally belonging to the Higaonon tribe, and is continually expanding.
The entry and expansion of A. Brown’s plantation is accompanied by gross human rights violations, including strafing, illegal arrest, and holding farmers at gunpoint while A. Brown personnel destroy their crops. For instance, many village families in Bagocboc were forced to flee after eight farmers were fired at by A. Brown guards and members of the National Bureau of Investigation last March 10, 2011. Currently, displaced farmers live on the fringes of the plantation, unable to farm and feed their families.
The IFFM itself experienced harassment as delegates were barred by company guards from visiting a Lumad’s house that was located inside the plantation, claiming that it was “private property”. A. Brown personnel also reportedly threatened to abduct villagers who will join the IFFM’s focus group discussion. Barangay officials colluding with A. Brown also told villagers not to talk with the IFFM delegates, whom they maliciously branded as New People’s Army rebels.
Rubenson Batuto, vice-president of Pangalasag, a local organization formed by tribal leaders, said that their family’s ancestors have been occupying the land even before Spanish colonization. “I was tasked to take care of our ancestral lands. So it pains me to see how we are being treated like outsiders in our own land,” he said.
In the 1950s, many members of the Higaonon tribe were displaced from their lands by a local landlord who used force to drive them away and convert their agricultural lands to pasture lands. As the lands passed the hands from one landlord to another, the remaining tribe members and settlers tilled and made the lands productive. However, through the facilitation by the DENR, A. Brown in 2010 was able to establish a palm oil plantation even without free, prior, and informed consent of the farmers.
“Our government is being used as tool to facilitate the entry of A. Brown, while farmers are being driven away from their lands. This is a concrete manifestation of President Aquino’s Private-Public Partnership program, which prioritizes the interests of agro-industry over the rights of farmers and indigenous peoples,” said Antonio Flores, National Council Member of KMP.
Rahmat Ajiguna, deputy secretary general of APC and secretary general of Aliansi Gerakan Reforma Agraria (AGRA), shared that he found the situation in Opol similar to many areas in his hometown Indonesia, where millions of hectares are already planted with palm oil. “The phenomenon of landgrabbing is global. Everywhere, lands are being taken away, and people are rightfully resisting and defending their lands.”
The peasant leader fears that blood may be spilt if A. Brown continues to inflict fear and violence upon farmers. He related that in Indonesia, 22 farmers were killed last year by state authorities in lands being grabbed by palm oil plantations. Ajiguna added, “Like Filipino farmers, palm oil companies promised us a better life. But they only took away our lands and livelihood.”
Palm oil, used in many commercial products, is a major export crop in Asia and the Pacific and is a rapidly-growing industry in Africa and Latin America. Large agro-industries favor the growing of palm oil, which is associated with slow production costs and fast profits. In the Philippines, the palm oil industry is geared for expansion. In Northern Mindanao alone, 20,000 hectares of agricultural land are being targeted for conversion to palm oil, according to Kalumbay. However, these monocropping plantations have adverse social, economic, health, and environmental impacts.
Several Lumads complained to the IFFM team that ever since the plantation started spraying pesticides, there has been an increase in the incidence of skin diseases and other illnesses, and their water sources have been contaminated. Dr. Romeo Quijano, president of PAN Philippines, has treated many palm oil plantation workers who have been victims of pesticide poisoning in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. “The longer the plantation stays, stronger and greater amounts of pesticides will be used,” he warned.
Farmers in Opol also attributed their sickly and dying coconut and banana trees to A. Brown’s use of agrochemicals.
The IFFM team called for the pull-out of A. Brown; the immediate return of farmers and indigenous peoples to their lands; and justice for victims of human rights violations. They also called for an end to landgrabbing and land use conversion; and to uphold food sovereignty. The organizations who participated in the IFFM vowed to take the campaign to the national and international levels.
After their stay in Opol, IFFM delegates will proceed to Manila and hold a dialogue with the DENR and NCIP and present their demands. “We hope that this IFFM will bring attention to our plight and help us in our fight to prevent the landgrabbers from taking away more of our lands, and drive them away for good,” said Batuto.
The international mission is composed of delegates from the Aliansi Gerakan Reforma Agraria (Indonesia), Sawit Watch (Indonesia), RMIT University (Australia), Pesticide Action Network Asia Pacific (Malaysia), Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD), Pesticide Action Network (PAN Philippines), Cordillera Women's Education Action Research Center, Kalumbay, Sentro Kitanglad, Pangalasag and the peasant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP). #
APC Secretary General