Philippines’ indigenous Higaonon fight for return of ancestral land

Brad Miller

1 June 2017

Residents of indigenous communities on the island of Mindanao say their
land was cultivated by palm oil companies without first obtaining their
“free, prior and informed consent.”

* The Higaonon filed an “ancestral domain claim” in 2002 for land they
have traditionally inhabited, which is their right under the Indigenous
People’s Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997. But the government allowed
agribusiness company A Brown Corporation, Inc., to establish oil palm
plantations through its subsidiary ABERDI on the land that same year.
* Members of local human rights organizations allege legally required
free, prior and informed consent was never obtained by the company
before setting up its plantations, and that some residents were tricked
into waiving the rights to their land.
* Residents claim intimidation and harassment by ABERDI and other
subsidiary company Nakeen, and say they were left with nothing after
plantation operations ceased – despite initial promises of benefits.
* A government representative said there is an ongoing investigation
into whether ABERDI is operating with the proper permits.

(BAGOCBOC, Philippines) – Morning hasn’t broken, but the town’s resident
fighting cocks are already awake, their crows rising and falling to
different decibel levels, the locations moving like lightning bugs
floating in the dark.

When the sun is higher, a few members of the people’s organization
called Pangalasag, meaning “Indigenous Shield,” gather behind the house
of Joseph Paborada, the group’s chairman, in the town of Bagocboc on the
Philippine island of Mindanao. He had been expecting more members to
attend the meeting, but the unannounced arrival of a handful of soldiers
who have decided to show up for a dialogue may have scared them off.

One man sits off to the side with one of the fighting cocks that has
befriended him, petting the top of the bird’s head and beak. From where
he sits you can see to the neighboring town of Tingalan and the palm oil
plantation that now covers what used to be his and other local farmers’
plots of land. After the corporation acquired his land he was left with
only a half-hectare to till, but he says it is enough to survive since
his children are grown and his wife recently died. He is hoping that
pending government legislation and legal action might help him get his
land back.

He looks off and waits. Paborada states his and Pangalasag’s desire
unequivocally: “We want our land back.”

Gifts of displacement and destruction

The native inhabitants of the Philippines (called Lumads), historically
have had their homelands targeted for large corporate development
projects, including mining operations, hydroelectric dams and mono-crop
plantations, as documented by organizations like the Rural Missionaries
of the Philippines-Northern Mindanao Sub-Region (RMP-NMR).
Representatives say the Lumads have been promised myriad benefits by
development companies, but have more often been delivered the gifts of
displacement, destruction of their environment, livelihood and culture,
and the killing of their tribal leaders.

“This is not the type of development people are asking for—the
destructive development that will ruin their lives,” Ailene Villarosa,
Advocacy Officer for the RMP-NMR’s “Healing the Hurt” Project explained
to Mongabay.

The RMP-NMR’s programs have monitored the government’s promotion of the
palm oil industry and what they describe as the “development aggression”
that arrived in northern Mindanao in 2002 in the form of agribusiness
company A Brown Corporation, Inc. A Brown partakes in trading, real
estate, mining and energy, and palm oil cultivation and milling, which
is handled by its subsidiary A Brown Energy and Resources Development,
Inc. (ABERDI).

Joseph Paborada was farming mango, bananas and corn on the land around
Bagocboc before ABERDI arrived, as did his family before him. The Office
for the United Nation’s Commissioner for Human Rights documents that the
towns of Bagocboc and Tingalan in the municipality of Opol, Misamis
Oriental province, both lie within the ancestral territory of the
Higaonon people. Jomorito Goaynon, Chair of the Kalumbay Regional Lumad
Organization, says that during a series of land-grabs and occupations by
cattle ranchers in the 1950s, the Higaonon were alternately forced off
their land and then able to move back as various landlords came and
went, even though the land was now deforested and their communal
structure of life fractured.

The Higaonon people filed an “ancestral domain claim” in 2002 for land
they have traditionally inhabited, which is their right under the
Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA) of 1997. Joseph Paborada and the
organization Pangalasag (then called the Sarahogon Bagocboc Farmer’s
Association) also petitioned the Department of Environment and Natural
Resources (DENR) for the land rights to 520 hectares of an old,
abandoned grazing concession they had reclaimed and were farming. But
according to both Joseph Paborada and Jomorito Goaynon, the local DENR
officials were in negotiations with a pro-corporation organization
called the KMBT, which ended in a Memorandum of Agreement allowing
ABERDI to establish its palm oil plantation on the already-cultivated
land under what is called the Community-Based Forest Management (CBFM)

While the DENR and Departments of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform are
mandated to facilitate business ventures in agribusiness, they are also
responsible for protecting the welfare of the inhabitants and ensuring
that corporations provide social services within areas of investment.
Paborada and Goaynon allege that some of Opol’s residents were tricked
into waiving the rights to their land using signatures transferred onto
documents they never read, and others were not even made aware of the
investment negotiations, and human rights NGOs and government agencies
have questioned whether the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples
(NCIP) ever ensured that ABERDI obtained the Higaonon’s free, prior and
informed consent (FPIC) that is necessary under the Philippine Constitution.

Jomorito Goaynon said that a 2014 Congressional hearing found that an
actual CBFM agreement for the area never existed. The DENR’s Assistant
Chief of Enforcement Division in Region 10, Sarah Chacon, said in a
March 2017 interview with Mongabay that there is an ongoing
investigation into whether ABERDI is operating with the proper permits.

Permits or not, ABERDI began clearing the land for its nursery and
planting operations in 2010/2011 under its subsidiary, Nakeen
Corporation. Pangalasag members say that even those who did not opt to
give up their land were barred entry to their farms by the company’s
armed guards, who were given what Joseph Paborada called a “shoot to
kill” order if anyone trespassed. Paborada said anyone not backing
Nakeen’s operation was harassed – their crops destroyed or planted over
with oil palm, their houses burnt.

One morning in 2010, Edwin Baronggot was working his land. He recalled
how a dump truck and several other vehicles arrived, loaded with armed
company guards, government security forces and members of the National
Bureau of Investigation (NBI). Shots were fired, he said, and people
ran. Baronggot said he was apprehended, beaten by an NBI agent and
thrown in jail for two weeks. His case was dismissed three years ago,
but he has lost his land and his livelihood, and hasn’t returned to his
farm since the incident. He says he lives under the pall of a death
threat, as does Joseph Paborada, whose brother Gilbert, the prior leader
of Pangalasag, was shot and killed on Oct. 3, 2012 in Cagayan de Oro
City by two men on a motorcycle. Joseph claims his brother was murdered
after refusing one million pesos to cease his opposition to the palm oil
operation. Then on December 2, 2013, one of the group’s founding
members, Rolen Langala, was allegedly killed by a Bagocboc town
councilor, stabbed and shot twice in the head at a community fiesta,
according to the Kalumbay Regional Lumad Organization.

But because of “money and power,” says Joseph Paborada, “the force has
continued.” He added that the murders have remained unpunished.
Pangalasag members say that the elected town leader of Tingalan,
allegedly a supervisor at the plantation, is now driving around in an
expensive SUV and protected by armed security. Tension remains in the
community, which is divided over the issue of palm oil.

An atmosphere of impunity and lack of responsiveness by government
agencies has left Paborada and others feeling abandoned and forgotten.
He says he has little faith in the squad of soldiers from the Armed
Forces of the Philippines (AFP) that are now camped out in the town hall
for what Staff Sergeant Felipe Minister told Mongabay was a
Civilian-Military Operation under President Rodrigo Duterte’s
Development, Support and Security Plan – the new program being employed
to fight the 48-year-old insurgency of the communist New People’s Army

From past experience, the indigenous Higaonon regard the military as
“protectors of the plantations,” as Paborada puts it, and claim it
brands anyone that opposes the palm oil industry as NPA.

The Nakeen Corporation suspended its operation in Opol in September
2016, and Joseph Paborada says the community was left with no benefits,
broken promises and one alternative: “If the government won’t help us,
we will seek help from the NPA.”

“We just want our land back”

Another community where the Higaonon and other tribal groups say their
lives have been critically altered by palm oil is the town of Kalabugao,
Bukidnon. ABERDI began planting here in 2006/2007, again under its
subsidiary Nakeen Corporation. And as in the case of Opol, the company
ceased operation – this time in the summer of 2016.

Just as they did in Misamis Oriental, the DENR facilitated an agreement
with a people’s organization, called KASAMAKA. This allowed ABERDI to
cultivate 1,000 hectares of traditional tribal land on a CBFM plot
allotted to local residents, according to Goaynon.

The CBFM program was ostensibly created to promote reforestation and aid
local economies. But combined with the DENR’s 2004 directive qualifying
the oil palm tree as a reforestation species, the program has also made
it easier for oil palm plantations to invade an area.

In this case, the people of Kalabugao were generally more open to
ABERDI’s arrival, welcoming the potential benefits and economic
prosperity. But with nine years still remaining on its lease, critics
say the company has left the people in places like the village of
Kaanibungan with nothing.

“Now they don’t have their land and they don’t have their wages,” said
Mary Louise Dumas, executive director of the Mindanao Interfaith
Institute on Lumad Studies.

Workers who have formed an offshoot of KASAMAKA called the Kaanibungan
Farmer’s Association (KAFA) say they aren’t exactly sure why the Nakeen
Corporation closed its doors, but speculate that it was for economic
reasons. They only know that one morning they arrived for work and the
company security guard informed them there wasn’t any.

Village leader Victor Sanugan said in an interview that some people were
able to rent land from their neighbors and plant corn and root crops as
they had before the company arrived. But for others, the unexpected
shutdown left them in crisis, with no jobs or land. He says that they
have received no severance pay.

“If any investors come back we will not accept them anymore,” said Amor
Pinaapol, a member of another community organization called Lagimo,
during Mongabay’s visit to Kaanibungan in March 2017.

During the same visit, one woman scoffed that palm oil is useless, good
only for cosmetics, while farming food maintains life.

“We just want our land back,” she said, adding that if they had the
resources, they would burn out all the oil palm and plant food crops again.

Community members took a similar action on January 17 of this year.
Frustrated by ABERDI/Nakeen’s lack of responsiveness to their situation,
they cut down a patch of oil palm. KAFA members say the company’s answer
was to alert the AFP. The 8th Battalion allegedly prepared to launch an
attack, assuming they were NPA, but a dialogue was initiated and
bloodshed avoided.

According to KAFA, the only other reaction from the corporation was a
letter addressed to the organization and the community offering an
arrangement where they would go back to piecework-based compensation,
but would be charged for everything from fertilizers to the use of
tools. The offer was not accepted.

Neither A Brown/ABERDI nor the Nakeen Corporation responded to
Mongabay’s requests for information, which were made both in person and
via email. Nakeen’s listed telephone number was disconnected, and
inquiries at A Brown’s office in Cagayan De Oro City were met with a
locked gate and no answers. In Kaanibungan, the workers’ quarters are
weed-ridden, the abandoned basketball court watched over by feral dogs.

Accounts from individuals were obtained through interviews conducted by
the author in March 2017.