Oil palm expansion in the Philippines leading to illegal deforestation and rights abuses

29.04.2019

In the province of Palawan, indigenous communities and civil society have denounced illegal clearing of pristine forests and indigenous rights violations by oil palm companies

An indigenous Palawan elder points to forest destruction by Agumil in Sarong, Philippines. Photo: Dario Novellino

Palawan, the Philippines’ westernmost province and known as the country’s last ecological frontier, is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which requires the province to promote a mix of conservation and sustainable development in dialogue with local communities. However, indigenous leaders and activists who have spoken with Earthsight tell a story that is far from this ideal.

In its latest annual bulletin, the Coalition Against Land Grabbing (CALG), a local collective of indigenous peoples affiliated with the Global ICCA Consortium, said that oil palm companies have violated environmental, health and safety laws and regulations, as well as indigenous peoples’ rights. 

“Oil palm is destroying Palawan’s forests, encroaching on ancestral domains and, increasingly, threatening the indigenous peoples’ food security,” the NGO said.

Oil palm companies operating in the province include Palawan Palm & Vegetable Oil Mills Inc (PPVOMI), a Singaporean-Pilipino joint venture that sells all its production to its sister company Agumil Philippines Inc (AGPI). 

CALG told Earthsight that information it has obtained from industry sources reveals that kernel and crude palm oil are being shipped from Palawan to refineries in Sabah, Malaysia, and that 70% of the total production is exported to Singapore, China and Malaysia. This bluntly contrasts with the government’s initial commitment to produce healthy and cheap palm oil for local consumption.

CALG accuses the company of encroaching on ancestral lands without the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities and in violation of the Philippines’ Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA Law). 

According to the organisation, oil palm companies have inexplicably been able to bypass provincial licensing requirements. CALG also points out that ‘Environmental Compliance Certificates’ – which do not authorise forest clearing – have been issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to Agumil and PPVOMI without sufficient evidence that environmental standards would be met.

It is estimated that over 9,000 hectares of land in southern Palawan have already been converted into plantations.

Indigenous community members impacted by oil palm plantations in the Municipality of Española, Palawan. Photo: Dario Novellino

In addition to the illegal clear-cutting of virgin forests, CALG has documented loss of biodiversity, genetic erosion of traditional crops, increasing malnutrition, low employment rates and exploitative working conditions at plantations. This contrasts with the prosperity promised by the companies and local authorities.

“Agumil told us that 70% of the benefits from the oil palm production would be given to us and only 30 percent to them. In less than one year, they said, we would have made enough profit to buy our own four-wheel drives,” says a CALG member.

Dario Novellino, an anthropologist at the University of Kent’s Centre for Biocultural Diversity who has documented the ecological collapse and social unrest taking place in Palawan told Earthsight:

“In the process of land conversion, natural resources on which traditional communities depend for their lives are completely washed away. Livelihood and cultural transmission are now irremediably affected.”

Kenisio Malasan, a traditional Pala’wan leader, speaks passionately of the importance of medicinal plants and their disappearance. “Because of oil palm plantations, it is like we are dying little by little as we no longer have those plants to cure ourselves,” he told Earthsight. 

“Before we only walked a few steps away from our homes to get the raw material for making artifacts and preparing herbal medicines. Now we have to walk half a day before we can find these.”

The official government line is that oil palms are only planted on ‘idle’ and ‘abandoned’ land to enhance land rehabilitation and boost rural economy. 

According to Novellino, however, “so-called ‘idle’ and ‘unproductive’ lands include ‘territories of life’ that have sustained indigenous peoples since time immemorial.”

Local communities also worry that land being converted into oil palm plantations is likely to be rendered infertile through the continuous use of chemical fertilisers. “After companies leave, it will be nearly impossible for indigenous peoples and poor farmers to revert such lands into cultivated fields,” Novellino says.

CALG has also drawn attention to the increasing violence and harassment to which indigenous leaders and other environmental activists have been subjected. In 2018 the organisation documented 25 killings of environmental human rights defenders in the country, the deadliest in southeast Asia. Activists in Palawan have received death threats.

In rare victories, CALG has succeeded in influencing the municipalities of Rizal and Quezon to pass their own resolutions against the further expansion of oil palm plantations. 

However, CALG and Rainforest Rescue have called for a province-wide moratorium on oil palm expansion as the only way to prevent further damage to forests and indigenous communities.

More from Illegal Deforestation Monitor

Covid-19 / Pandemic compounds local ire against palm oil firms in West Africa

Continue reading
ISPO / Indonesia's recent “reform” of palm oil sustainability scheme criticised for threatening forests and human rights

Continue reading
UK military / Brazil beef supplier used by Ministry of Defence buys from farmers guilty of illegal deforestation, fires and fraud

Continue reading
Cameroon / Local women fight back against controversial palm oil, rubber firms accused of destroying community way of life 

Continue reading
Mexico / Decline of monarch butterflies shows need for greater forest protections

Continue reading
Cocoa / New report emphasises threats major firms face in not having a full picture of their supply chains

Continue reading
Colniza massacre / Repórter Brasil investigation reveals links between JBS and Marfrig and  farmer accused of brutal 2017 killings

Continue reading
Tanah Merah / Auditor kayu Indonesia akan menyelidiki tuduhan izin-izin palsu bagi kayu senilai $6Milyar



Continue reading
Norges Bank / Norwegian sovereign wealth fund divests from consumer giant Alicorp over palm oil-linked destruction in Peru

Continue reading
JBS / Brazil meatpacking giant urged to improve monitoring as  politicians and NGOs pile on pressure 

Continue reading

Stay up to date with all Earthsight news & updates

Receive email updates for the latest news and insights from Earthsight and be among the first to read our new investigations.

We keep your data secure and don’t share anything with third parties. Read full terms.