‘Killed, forced, afraid’: Philippine palm oil legacy incites new fears

Despite decades of bloody conflict, the palm oil industry continues to push forward on the island of Mindanao.

“Without me, Guthrie would be nothing,” boasted Colonel Carlos Lademora in an interview with an unaffiliated journalist in 1989. The Colonel, laughing and elfin, reclining in a wicker rocking chair as his pink, freshly-painted toe nails dried, bore little resemblance to what one would picture to be the commander of a private army. 

But as the leader of the Lost Command, Lademora earned his reputation as “The Butcher,” his armed men accused of raping, looting and killing while they were employed as a security force in the 1980s for the palm oil holdings of NDC-Guthrie Plantations, Inc. in Agusan del Sur province on the Philippine island of Mindanao.

“I helped Guthrie drive out the Communists,” Lademora explained, referring to the leftist New People’s Army (NPA).

But most of those “Communists” were local farmers or native Manobos, according to a 1985 publication by the NGO Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao (AFRIM).

AFRIM claims more than 5,000 people were displaced from their rice and corn farms as Guthrie moved in, grabbing 8,000 hectares of land between the towns of San Francisco and Rosario.

The Lost Command consisted of 200-300 members, mostly ex-soldiers or criminals, with an armed core of 40.  They lived off the populace by extorting protection money from shop owners, looting stores, stealing farm animals and running gambling rings, AFRIM reported.

During an interview in February 2017, Josephine Canteros, who is now a village councilor in Maligaya, said her family moved to the area in 1980, just as Guthrie and the Lost Command started to dislocate the indigenous peoples (called Lumad) and log the virgin forest.

“Killed,” “forced,” “afraid” are some of the words she used to describe the atmosphere people lived in.

According to a 1988 report by the Philippine Partnership for Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas (PhilDHRRA), families waited out nights when men with guns arrived to knock on their doors, advising them on the benefits of abandoning their land.

The company automatically requests help from the military.

Tito Tanduyan, secretary-general in the Caraga Region, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU)

The report claims that those they couldn’t coerce or harass into selling out were often killed, as were some of the labor union leaders organising Guthrie’s newly-born work force.

An investigatory document by the University of the Philippines found that in 1981 alone there were 30 unexplained murders in the community.

The AFRIM report asserts displaced farmers turned to the NPA, exacerbating the tension and conflict in the area. 

In 1984 the NPA launched a series of raids designed to castigate Guthrie and the Lost Command.  They attempted to burn down the palm oil mill and were more successful in eliminating some of Lademora’s men, killing 37 of them in a single attack.

During his 1989 interview, Lademora claimed “Guthrie didn’t give me a single centavo,” but other sources like PhilDHRRA say he was paid over $500 a month for his services. 

In-country NDC-Guthrie manager at the time, Bruce Clew, was quoted by AFRIM as saying: “Guthrie wants an empire in the Philippines.” And the Lost Command helped them get it.

Conflict in the Land of Promise

Known as the “Land of Promise,” the island of Mindanao experienced a major rush of corporate investment in the 1960s by agricultural giants like Dole, Del Monte, United Brands, Goodyear and Firestone Rubber. 

There were a number of palm oil plantations in operation by then, including the Menzi Agricultural Corporation, established in the 1950s, but it was in 1980 that the British-, and later Malaysian-owned, firm Guthrie Plantations Inc. partnered with the Philippine government’s National Development Corporation (NDC), which allowed the joint-venture to circumnavigate constitutional limitations on foreign land ownership.

It was under the atmosphere of impunity created by the 1972-1981 period of martial law, imposed by President Ferdinand Marcos, that Guthrie started doing business in Mindanao.

In the 1990s, NDC-Guthrie was purchased by Filipinas Palm Oil Plantations Inc. (FPPI), a consortium of Filipino, Malaysian and Indian investors. While Colonel Lademora and the Lost Command have faded away like old soldiers, the stain left by the legacy of the corporation—that of alleged displacement, labor strife and conflict—has remained in Agusan del Sur, and spread to palm oil plantations in other parts of Mindanao.

The administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010) dubbed the oil palm the “Tree of Peace,” touting that its propagation and subsequent value as a food and cosmetic commodity and source of biofuel could go a long way towards elevating the national economy and living standards of the poor and thereby stemming armed conflict in the Philippine archipelago.

But Hong Kong-based NGO Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC) has a different take.

“Thirty years of the palm oil industry only proved broken promises of development, livelihood, and food security,” AMRC wrote in a statement for the National Palm Oil Conference of 2015.

“The people’s access to food and ownership and control of land has been undermined by massive crop and land use conversion from staple food production to oil palm.”

Despite the growth of the so-called “Sunshine Industry,” reported conflicts—land battles, labor unrest, armed insurgencies—go on.  And it is in areas of mono-crop plantations, including palm oil, that these conflicts are often the most intense.

‘Using arms to prevent the struggle of the people’

Historically, the establishment and growth of large plantations, both multinational and domestic, has thrived on the heavy presence of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to stabilise regions influenced by the communist NPA or Muslim separatist groups.

Corporations are also offered the service of militias specifically designed to protect their interests, called SCAA (Special Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit Active Auxiliary). 

SCAA are armed and trained by the AFP, and paid by the company they serve, said Tito Tanduyan, Secretary-General in the Caraga Region for the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), a progressive umbrella group for labor unions. Other organisations allege businessmen have reportedly hired vigilante groups or formed their own private armies.

In the beginning of 2015, the 4th Infantry Division announced it was beefing up its forces in Agusan del Sur and the rest of the Caraga Region in order to strengthen what it calls its ongoing “Community Organizing for Peace and Development.”

But human rights groups like Karapatan and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-Northern Mindanao Sub-Region have reported that the AFP’s counterinsurgency operations have continued to negatively impact the peasant and Lumad communities, with the military conducting house-to-house searches and accusing villagers of affiliation with the NPA. Reports of disappearances and extra-judicial killings have not ceased.

“You can notice military inside business investments,” said Tanduyan in a February 2017 interview. Tanduyan said he prefers that FPPI employs the SCAA along with its legal for-hire security firm rather than a private army, but that “sometimes the company is using arms to prevent the struggle of the people.”

Alejandro Albores Jr. is the president of the KMU-affiliated NAFLU (National Federation of Labor Unions) local chapter that represents the mill workers at Agumil, the sister company of Agusan Plantations Inc. (API).

In an interview, Albores concurred that any time there is an urgent problem in the area, “the company automatically requests help from the military, escorted by the SCAA.” The continued militarisation may be welcome to the business sector, but others, like Albores, view it as “development aggression.”

This security is used to protect the corporations from the leftist New People’s Army (NPA). The group acknowledges using violence as a mean to its ends in its 48-year battle “against landgrabbers, corrupt military officials, despotic landlords and other exploiters of the rural folk,” said NPA spokesperson Dencio Madrigal in a statement in 2010.

For instance, in 2010 they waged an assault against a Chinese-owned palm oil plantation in Columbio, Sultan Kudarat; in 2013 they reportedly executed another company’s chief of security.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.

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