If the street Pedro Arnado was looking down was on the Philippine government’s roadmap for future palm oil development, critics say it would be one highly dangerous to navigate, lined with the hazards of unfair labor practices, land poverty, militarization and environmental degradation.
Arnado is the Secretary General of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines) in Southern Mindanao, or KMP, and a spokesperson for the Farmer’s Association in Davao City.
On January 26, 2017, he stood on the edge of a crowded rally of peasants, trade union members and indigenous people at Rizal Park in Davao City, Mindanao, describing how the palm oil industry has affected the farmers and communities in other provinces of Mindanao where plantations have already been operating.
He says that the business-oriented development of palm oil “equals corruption and land-grabbing.”
While several palm oil plantations had been established on the island by the 1960s, it was what observers describe as an atmosphere of impunity born of the 1972-1981 period of martial law imposed by President Ferdinand Marcos that allowed corporations to increase their land acquisition, allegedly through coercion or force using the military and private armies.
During her term as president, which lasted from 2001-2010, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo continued to facilitate the growth of the palm oil industry, pushing through the Biofuels Act of 2006 and legislation that gave corporations tax holidays and fiscal incentives.
Now, with its renewed promotion of what it calls the “Sunshine Industry,” the Philippine government is looking to cultivate another one million hectares of oil palm, 98 percent of which would be on the island of Mindanao.
They are promising the alleviation of poverty and armed conflict through large investments from Malaysian, Indonesian and Singaporean firms and other foreign and domestic companies, as well as the revenue brought by palm oil’s increasing demand as a food and cosmetic ingredient and biofuel.
The people are not receptive to the plan. They fear displacement.
Chibo Tan, Regional Coordinator, National Federation of Labour Unions (NAFLU), Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU)
‘They fear displacement’
In its “Philippine Palm Oil Road Map 2014-2023,” the Philippine Coconut Authority, which is the government body overseeing palm oil production, foresees that 300,000 farmers will receive benefits like jobs, schools, health care and housing due to the cultivation of new oil palm plantations covering 350,000 hectares by 2023.
In 2014, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, tried to persuade the communist New People’s Army (NPA) to drop their opposition to the development of a 20,000-hectare oil palm plantation in Paquibato, Davao’s poorest district. He reportedly even offered the insurgents the opportunity at something resembling a joint venture.
But due to the continuing conflict in the area, the Malaysian investments were scrapped.
“The plan to plant palm oil was absolutely stopped,” Januario Bentain, Officer in Charge of Industrial Crop Coordination for the Davao City Agriculture Office, told Mongabay during a January 2017 interview. “The NPA don’t like that palm oil be implemented in the area.”
In their newsletter Ang Bayan, the NPA said they are still fighting the government after 48 years because: “Agrarian revolution is the movement’s key solution to widespread landlessness and land starvation in the country.”
But palm oil development in the Paquibato District was stalled for reasons other than peace and order and insurgency.
“The people are not receptive to the plan,” says Chibo Tan, Regional Coordinator in the Davao area for the National Federation of Labor Unions (NAFLU), an affiliate of the progressive labor umbrella organization Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU). “They fear displacement.”
A new push for palm oil
With the government holding intermittent peace negotiations with the NPA and their political wings, President Duterte is back pushing for investment in palm oil as an antidote to poverty and violence.
After a two-day visit to Malaysia in November 2016, Duterte stated that foreign investors are once again ready to put their money into palm oil plantations in Mindanao, and that the vast quantity of unplanted land in Paquibato is a suitable locale.
The new push for palm oil expansion in Mindanao is coming not only from the national government, but at the local level, with the Vice Mayor of Davao, Duterte’s son Paulo, and a number of City Councilors advocating new operations.
It was reported in the local press as recently as March 2017 that the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry has been working with the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) to establish agribusiness ventures in the districts of Paquibato and Marilog, including palm oil, that have been designated as CBFM (Community Based Forestry Management) lands under the city’s Comprehensive Land Use Plan. The CBFM program was ostensibly created in 1995 to encourage reforestation.
The KMP’s Pedro Arnado says there are currently ongoing talks between investors, the city government and the tribal leaders of the local indigenous peoples (called IPs or Lumad).
Regionally, economic development has been encouraged under the Davao Integrated Development Plan, a blueprint for the city and four surrounding provinces that “pursues external market-driven development” and established Davao City as the “Southern Gateway” for foreign investment.
To create a feasible environment for economic development, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has maintained a strong presence in the hinterlands of Davao, with combat and civilian-military operations conducted by the 11th Infantry Division.
The AFP has also promoted a counter-insurgency strategy based on the U.S. Armed Forces Montangard program in Vietnam, initially through the government agency PANAMIN (Presidential Assistance for National Minorities), where local IPs are recruited, trained and armed to fight the NPA.
Tribal issues are now handled by the NCIP (National Commission on Indigenous People), according to Major Medel Aguilar of the 5th Civil Relations Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Aguilar told Mongabay that the AFP designates an officer to run the IP Desk for handling military-Lumad relations, facilitating their “Peace and Development” scheme—where the ancestral domain is “cleansed” of NPA to allow business enterprises to enter and purportedly elevate the economic level of the community.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay. Read the full story.