JUNE 6, 2014 — Instead of 8 million hectares for oil palm, government should prioritize on land tenure security of land-dependent rural poor and food security of the country.
The claim of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Ramon Paje that there are 8 million hectares of idle and unproductive public lands available for oil palm plantation is not only disturbing but is also totally unbelievable. It is at best a pitch for foreign agribusiness sector who are being attracted to invest in the Philippines. It reflects the agency’s bias for agribusiness over the need of small farmers and land-dependent rural poor for secure land tenure. It also misinforms President Pnoy’Aquino about the real situation of public lands in the county.
This is not the first time that the DENR made such a fabulous claim about expansive idle and unproductive lands that are supposedly available for agribusiness or other government projects. In 2011, the agency claimed that 1.5 million hectares or roughly 5% of the country’s total land area were available for the resettlement of around 600,000 poor families from Metro Manila.
During the time of the late DENR Secretary Angelo Reyes, the DENR also promised then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that there are 2 million hectares of “new lands” for agribusiness, referring to idle, unproductive and untenured public lands consistent with the target of the Arroyo Administration to develop 2 million hectares and 2 million rural jobs from new agribusiness ventures. Upon validation by DENR regional offices, however, the target “new lands” was reduced to 1 million hectares and by 2008, upon further verification on the ground, this “available lands” went down to 349,000 hectares. DENR employees then also further stated that even these “available lands” are occupied but “untenured”.
The entry of agribusiness ventures in many rural areas today exposes this myth of “available public lands” for agribusiness. In Isabela for example, a company involved in bioethanol project targeted reformed private and unreformed lands through land reconsolidation after the failure of DENR to make these “new lands” available. Such claims of available lands, therefore, especially this latest 8 million hectares which represent 27% of the country’s 30 million hectares, are good only on paper. At the ground level, it’s a different reality altogether.
Paralyzed reform in public land
Before promising anything for agribusiness, the DENR should first focus on implementing agrarian reform in public land to secure the land tenure of forest occupants through the Community-Based Forest Management Program (CBMP). In many instances, however, the DENR refuses to exercise its full powers and jurisdiction especially in situation where farmer forest occupants are being harassed by influential claimants.
The experience of Bondoc Peninsula, in the province of Quezon, is instructive of such failure to assert jurisdiction over public lands. For close to two decades, public occupants in the Quezon province’s southern part, particularly in the municipalities of San Narciso and San Andres have been asking the government to assert its jurisdiction over thousands of hectares of timberlands to help the occupant against harassment by powerful claimants. But the agency has been unable to address “layered” legal obstacles posed by influential claimants. Some of the obstacles in fact were established, wittingy or unwittingly, with the help of the agency itself. One particular example involved 1,204 hectares of timberlands located in San Andres which was subjected by the DENR under the Social Industrial Forest Management Agreement (SIFMA) in 1999 under the name of three corporations owned by the family of the claimant himself despite the presence of occupants.
The occupants eventually petitioned for the cancellation of SIFMA in the year 2003. After more than a decade however, the DENR has yet to decide on the petition. But even before the formal cancellation of SIFMA is issued, the DENR said that the SIFMA areas are titled to the same family with SIFMA concession.
Another situation involves the application of three groups of occupants to DENR for the coverage under Community-Based Forest Management Program of around 1,000 hectares. When the DENR finally said that portions of the applied area under CBFMP are ‘clean’ after years of documentation, a claimant landowner surfaced, and claimed that the areas have titles.
In a titled timberland involving 201 hectare located in Brgy. Cambuga Mulanay, the commitment for the filing of case to cancel the title has yet to be done by the DENR. Affected farmers have been going back and forth at the DENR office since 1997 or close to 20 years since the problem was found.
There are many more areas where land claims of the rural poor have yet to be settled by the DENR resulting in the paralysis of agrarian reform in public lands. But here comes the incredible claim that 8 million hectares are available for palm oil.
The more problematic issue about this DENR claim is the assumption that so much land will be allocated on agribusiness especially in the context of the precarious food security situation of the country. Based on available data, of the country’s 30 million hectares, only 4.3 million hectares are devoted to rice production. Allocation twice the area of rice production to oil palm plantation clearly undermines the government target of food self-sufficiency under the Pnoy Administration.
It is time for the government to review its priorities. The need for land reform in public land is a serious concern that should be addressed immediately to reduce poverty in the countryside. The need to continue agrarian reform is a matter commitment that should be fulfilled by the Pnoy Adminstration. Farmers and occupants in public lands expect nothing less under the “tuwid na daan” of the Pnoy Administration.
By the first week of June, occupants of public lands in Quezon will join 5,000 marchers from various rural points to Manila to press the government to continue the agrarian reform program, including reform in public lands. Secretary Paje should show the way in making land reform in public lands work instead of making incredible, misplaced commitments to the agribusiness sector.
Kilusan para sa Repormang Agraryo at Katarungang Panlipunan (KATARUNGAN) – Quezon.