LAMINGAN - It’s late November, patches of a green mountainous landscape are piercing through the morning fog. They follow a regular pattern, typical of palm oil plantations. The trees’ bases are surrounded by burned vegetation – a sign that pesticides were used.
The palm oil plantation, started in 2005 by Nakeen, a subsidiary of the Filipino group A. Brown Company Inc. (ABCI), is very small – 200 hectares. Yet it still managed to upset the natural balance of this isolated northern region of the island of Mindanao, south of the Philippines archipelago, which was struck by typhoon Bopha early December.
"The population has lost its unity," regrets Brando Pantaon, a 29-year-old resident of the village of Hagpa who is the representative of a Catholic organization that helps locals who oppose the plantation. The region is largely populated by the Higaonon tribe, one of the country’s many indigenous communities.
In 2008, the Hagpa Higaonon was awarded a certificate of ancestral domain title (CADT) for 14,313 hectares of their territory, in accordance with the Indigenous Peoples Rights Acts. A victory that doesn’t, however, make them immune to other people’s greed. Nakeen has already announced its ambition to expand its plantation, which is already partly on the ancestral domain. The Japanese group Secura also sent representatives to talk to the local residents about their "elephant grass" biofuel.
The new palm oil capital
"This a decisive moment in our history," says Pantaon, a few meters away from the Lamingan basketball court, surrounded by the local youth. Lamingan used to have plantations of coffee, manioc and abaca – a banana tree used for plaiting.
The arrival of Nakeen and its oil palms created a rift in the local population. The local authorities wanted to turn the region into the "capital of palm oil" in Mindanao. With their overwhelming support, Nakeen offered locals between 5,000 and 8,000 pesos ($121 and $194) a year per hectare to rent their land for 25 years. Those who accepted the deal are allowed to work in the plantation or pass on the job to a family member for a daily wage of 200 pesos ($4,87).
A mother of eight, Flora Suday, 56, is one of those who agreed to rent out their land to Nakeen. "I live a better life now," she says, "now, I earn enough money to feed and dress my family and I’m no longer worried about bad harvests like I was when I was growing coffee."
The Alternative Forum for Research in Mindanao (Afrim), a Filipino organization, claims that these rental agreements "turn farmers into farm workers" and that "jobs are only available for a small percentage of the population – for a wage inferior to the minimum legal wage."
According to those who oppose the plantation, only two of the 13 datu, clan leaders, were in favor of allowing a palm oil plantation on the village’s land. "They signed the contract without the village council’s consent," claims Pantaon. "The problem is, here, once the chief has spoken, no one can contest his decision."
Among the two datu in question, there was the village elder – meaning the most respected – who died in August. Today, the rumor has it that the two leaders were corrupted by Nakeen. "When the oldest datu fell ill, the company sent him a helicopter," says Pantaon. They also said they would build schools and health centers but nothing happened. Some of the village teenagers got their schooling paid for but that’s it.”
Chemicals in the water and the paddies
According to Flora Suday, the opposition to the project is fuelled by "jealousy." "What we need here, is for us to be able to afford to send our children to the junior high school in Malaybalay," she says, although she regrets that some villagers used the money given by Nakeen to buy motorcycles they can’t afford to finish paying off.
While an oil palm plantation in place of a forest that is already being exploited isn’t considered as deforestation in the Philippines, the environmental impact is very real. "The chemical products used in the plantation affects the quality of the water," says Pantaon. "People get rashes when they shower and the rice paddies downstream are affected as well."
The A. Brown group’s investments in palm oil are being monitored. In June, an international mission launched by NGOs concerning another Filipino group in northern Mindanao found that the rental agreements were illegal and human rights were violated. Meanwhile, in October, one of the main Higaonon opponents to the plantation, Gilbert Paborada, was shot dead.
The disappointment with last month’s COP26 outcome was focused on the failure to deliver on the promise of eradicating fossil fuels, opting instead for a watered-down compromise that merely “reduces” reliance on the polluting energy sources that cause climate change.
But the world leaders in Glasgow also missed another crucial opportunity: to squarely address the need for fundamental changes to intensive agriculture production, an industry that accounts for one third of global emissions. Indeed, the entire COP26 approach to the issue missed the mark, and the global community must urgently come together to forge a whole new approach to how the planet feeds itself.
For two days, the Nature and Land Use debate examined agriculture, ultimately merely offering suggestions (rather than binding commitments) for a “just transition” to more sustainable agriculture through technological innovations to lessen the carbon output of industrialized farming.
Yet, as Director of Slow Food Europe Marta Messa notes, relying on technological solutions is both insufficient and far too simplistic to make any dent in reversing climate change.
“For us, a just transition must be based on biodiversity, agroecology and social justice — and not on techno fixes. Climate change and biodiversity loss must be tackled together, they are closely interlinked problems,” Messa said. “Agricultural ecosystems must be restored in harmony with the natural environment. Techno fixes are a false solution, they are not based on the real innovations that communities come up with to be resilient.”
As writer and journalist George Monbiot points out, "the fruits of the new, 'clean' economy will, as before, be concentrated in the hands of a few. [...] It is not hard to envisage a low-carbon economy in which everything else falls apart. The end of fossil fuels will not, by itself, prevent the extinction crisis, the deforestation crisis, the soils crisis, the freshwater crisis, the consumption crisis, the waste crisis; the crisis of smashing and grabbing, accumulating and discarding that will destroy our prospects and much of the rest of life on Earth. So we also need to use the properties of complex systems to trigger another shift: political change."
Wrong questions, wrong answers
There were no COP 26’s proposals to mitigate the impact of these corporations. The Conference in Glasgow was disproportionately influenced by corporate actors. It is diverting energy, critical mass and financial resources away from the real solutions needed to tackle the climate crisis.
On the agriculture issue, the UN-backed conference largely focused on synthetic meat substitutes, digitalization and centralised industrialized farming. But there was no talk of the steps necessary to stop rising temperatures. What about rich countries cutting their herd numbers to reduce methane gas emissions, for example?
Instead, the presidents representing the UK’s four farming unions suggested that methane emissions could be solved by high-tech rather than diminishing their livestock. In the same spirit, the U.S. Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack told The Guardian during the conference: “I do not think we have to reduce the amount of meat or livestock produced in the U.S. And a significant percentage is exported. It’s not a question of eating more or less or producing more or less. The question is making production more sustainable.” It is a glaring non sequitur, as more sustainable agriculture necessitates curbing our consumption.
The Nature and Land Use debate also hinted that it was best to increase food production to ensure against crop failure — a foolish measure when you consider that 30% of our current food production goes to waste.
The prevalence of these recommendations is partly due to the unbalanced representation of agricultural actors at COP26. “Private finance, not governments, are making the decisions,” read the press release of La Via Campesina, a grassroots farming movement. “The farmers, the pastoralists, the peasants, black, indigenous, people of color, people who are experiencing hunger, poverty, the landless, we are the ones who should be the center of negotiations at COP26. We are the ones who hold the solutions.”
This week’s vote on Europe's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the latest example of leaders leaving biodiversity by the wayside. The CAP makes no explicit inclusion of the Farm to Fork Strategy, an EU-backed initiative that equates sustainability with a 360º approach. Nor did they include any real objectives linked to the EU’s Green Deal. Just like at COP26, the CAP deal opts in favor of compromise and half-measures rather than the radical rethink that is needed to reverse climate change and safeguard nature.
What must happen now?
Our entire modus operandi needs to change.
The only path to climate neutrality by 2050 is an all-encompassing commitment to change the fundamental ways we live, produce and consume, and we must start by immediately recognizing the importance of the agricultural sector in this fight. That 26% of the world’s carbon emissions come from food production is a fact every global citizen should know.
We must swiftly spread awareness that we can’t protect our natural ecosystems without changes to industrial agriculture and farming. This principle, known as agroecology, integrates science with economic, social, and ecological systems, taking into account every facet of climate change. It promotes practices that reduce waste and energy consumption.
It’s essential to advocate for a comprehensive approach that boosts small-scale producers and short supply chains, and gives power to “the ones who hold the solutions,” as Shane Holland, Executive Chairman of Slow Food in the UK, points out in a recent editorial. “Indigenous people make up only 5% of the worlds’ population but are the global stewards of 80% of the world’s biodiversity.”
Holland argues that it’s not just about funding any sustainable program that comes along — it’s about investing in the right ones.
After all, the small, sustainable farmers and agroecologists who work so closely with the land can’t make it on marketing alone: They need financial support. Let’s hope that by COP27, they’ll have the support of both citizens and policymakers of the world to make the change we all need.
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