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How A Palm Oil Boom Is Tearing Apart The Indigenous Tribes Of The Philippines

Green grows on the island of Mindanao
Green grows on the island of Mindanao
Gilles Van Kote

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.

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Manuel Cortina/ZUMA
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