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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Lebanon's recent elections have shrunk the legislative block led by national power-brokers Hezbollah. But will a precarious new majority be able to rid the government of the long shadow of Tehran?
The results of parliamentary elections in Lebanon, have put an end to the majority block led by Hezbollah, the paramilitary group concocted by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hezbollah and its Christian allies, the Free Patriotic Movement, led by President Michel Aoun, lost their 71 seats and will now have 62 (of a total 128 seats).
One of the big winners were the Lebanese Forces, the anti-Hezbollah Christian party, led by the former warlord Samir Geagea. Certain important Christian or Druze personalities backed by Hezbollah even lost seats.
Weakened Iranian influence in Lebanon
Hezbollah's downfall is a major defeat for Iran, which may also fail to put one of its friends as president in elections scheduled in October. It seems unlikely Aoun's successor will be another Christian friendly to the Islamic Republic, and he (or she) may well be a Christian from the opposition. That will constitute a second step after these elections in curbing the Islamic Republic's influence in Lebanon.
But the next parliament faces uncertainty, firstly in its bid to forge a working majority. There are 12 independent deputies (when only five or six were expected to win seats) known for their past criticisms of the entire political system.
As former protest leaders, they invited the Lebanese to vote their way out of their many problems. These deputies will have a crucial role in forging the 65-seat majority for one or another of the big groups.
A Lebanese woman casts her vote at a polling station during the 2022 Lebanese parliamentary election
A government without Hezbollah
The first sign of their intentions will be in the election of the parliamentary speaker, which according to set rules, must be a Shia Muslim. Since 1992, the head of the Amal party beholden to Tehran, Nabih Berri, has held the post.
Will the independents side with the Christian Party's Geagea to prevent his reelection? Will they also vote with it to form the first government in years without a member of Hezbollah?
Still, adopting an independent path could take this parliament the way of Iraq's legislature, where Iran-backed forces lost their majority but have still managed to paralyze the Iraqi political system to prevent a president or government working without their approval. Indeed, many observers in Lebanon and Iraq believe that stability in their countries first needs a basic change in Iran and while there is an Islamic Republic in charge, no regional country will be at peace.
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