Recently, Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary William Dar claimed that indigenous peoples’ (IP) lands were idle and should be transformed into “vegetable and high-value crop farms.”
There is no basis to this view of the DA chief. IP lands or what remains of these ancestral domains are our last bastions against climate change. The remaining forest covers are mostly located in ancestral lands that absorb greenhouse gases.
Converting forests to farms, as what the DA chief pushes for, will only increase the emission of greenhouse gases that in turn will result in catastrophic floods, and extreme weather events such as severe storms or prolonged droughts that will then lead to shortage or loss of water supply, which in turn will threaten food production and security.
We are greatly concerned with the DA’s plan to “transform” these IP lands as this will do nothing but add fuel to the widespread encroachment on the already fragile ecosystems of our forests, and further dislocate IP communities.
Studies indicate that the COVID-19 virus originated from pangolins that jumped into bats and then to humans. These transmissions are mostly driven by the rapid, reckless, and unrestrained intrusion of human activities, such as farming, mining, logging, and housing, into the natural habitats of wildlife.
We thus appeal to the Agriculture department to change its mindset of promoting and expanding high-value crop farms by intruding into forested ancestral domains that buffer us from the worsening effects of climate change and the threat of another pandemic.
This policy of promoting high-value crops does not address the serious and widespread hunger in the country.
The Philippines ranks number 70 in the 2019 Global Hunger Index, a drop from 69th in 2018, and 68th in 2017. A survey by the Social Weather Stations released in January 2020 showed that an “estimated 2.1 million families claimed to have nothing to eat at least once in the past three months.”
The reason for this serious hunger stalking the country is that most of these high-value crops (e.g., bananas, rubber, pineapple, palm oil) serve foreign markets and mainly benefit large corporate farms. Issues of environmental harm, labor violations, and dislocations of IP communities hound this high-value crop policy.
We challenge the Agriculture department under Secretary Dar’s watch to push its neighbor agency, the Department of Agrarian Reform to stop the approval of land use conversion applications of prime agricultural landholdings and to revert all idle and exempted and converted agricultural lands to agricultural use.
Many of these landholdings are being converted into non-agricultural use to evade their coverage from the government’s agrarian reform program. Their conversions to residential, industrial, commercial, and industrial uses were done twenty years ago, yet many of these converted and agrarian-reform-exempted lands remain idle, undeveloped, and unproductive.
For numerous times, displaced farmers and agrarian reform advocates have exposed the folly of these conversions and exemptions. They raised the alarm that time would come that the Philippines might no longer have sufficient food if other countries would stop exporting their produce and prioritize the supply needs of their own citizens. The current travel restrictions imposed at the international, national and local levels brought about by COVID-19 have a grave impact on the food supply of our country.
COVID-19 confirmed how reckless those previous decisions were, and imprudent for the government agencies not to revoke the conversion and exemption orders that failed to comply with the conditions for their grant. The Duterte administration can rectify those mistakes, and the best time to do it is now with the very survival of the country at stake.
What the government should do now is to revoke all those conversion and exemption orders it granted where no substantial development on the land has been done; issue a moratorium on the processing of conversion and exemption orders; urge all local government units to reclassify as agricultural all lands whose actual use and declared for tax purposes as agricultural; enact a law banning the conversion and exemption of lands that are planted to rice, corn, vegetable and food crops to other purposes; and provide adequate support services to farmers.