An indigenous Palawan resident of Barangay Sarong points to the destruction of his community forest by Agumil Company
Campaigners are warning of massive palm oil expansion in the Philippine province of Palawan, threatening a return to the illegal forest clearances for palm oil that were documented between 2013 and 2015.
At least 9,000 hectares (ha) have already been cleared, with local organisations saying several companies are seeking to develop thousands of hectares each.
The renewed rush for land in the Philippines follows a statement by President Duterte that he welcomes foreign investment in palm oil, made during a state visit to Malaysia in November 2016.
Subsequent announcements have pointed towards vast investments in palm oil plantations. Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said Malaysian businessmen are planning to develop at least 80,000ha, with the possibility of expanding to 300,000ha.
Another senior official said that the Malaysian firm Alif is planning to invest $1 billion in planting 128,000ha of oil palms in the province of Mindanao, to the east of Palawan.
In July 2016, a petition signed by more than 4,200 farmers and indigenous peoples was delivered to the Philippine government, calling for a moratorium on palm oil expansion. It highlighted previous illegalities and human rights abuses perpetrated by palm oil firms.
Between 2013 and 2015, local NGO the Coalition Against Land Grabbing used geotagging to demonstrate the illegality of forest clearances being conducted by palm oil firms in Palawan.
They accused the companies Agumil Philippines and San Andres of “gross violations” of laws prohibiting clearing trees without a licence and occupying forest land (sections 68 and 69 of the Philippine Forestry Code).
Clearances by the firm Agumil were shown to have expanded into the territory of indigenous peoples without the Free and Prior Informed Consent of those communities.
They therefore contradicted articles contained in the Philippine Indigenous People’s Rights Act, as well as conventions ratified by the Philippine government such as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.
Large forest clearing for oil palm expansion in Palawan ancestral land
The reports also highlighted the absence of public records of the leases and sales that enabled palm oil companies to take control of land in Palawan, raising questions over the legality of the appropriation of this land.
In several cases, indigenous communities alleged that they received only partial or untrue information from local government.
As well as such illegalities, palm oil in Palawan has had a catastrophic effect on local biodiversity. It drastically reduced populations of non-timber forest products (NFTPs), including food sources, medicinal plants and other products essential to the livelihood of local communities.
The fencing of large areas of oil palm plantations made it impossible for these communities to move freely in their land.
Palawan people are concerned that palm oil could bring violent conflict to the province
Beyond Palawan, serious human rights abuses have been documented as a result of palm oil in the Philippines.
The province of Mindanao was the site of prolonged clashes between palm oil companies and indigenous Higanonon peoples.
In October 2012, the leader of a group opposing the expansion of palm oil plantations was shot dead by an assassin riding a motorcycle.
Global Witness later described Mindanao as “one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a land and environment defender.”
Campaigners worry similar violence could come to Palawan, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve known as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier.
Communist guerrillas have already set themselves against palm oil expansion, burning and destroying companies’ equipment, and indigenous communities fear they may be caught in the crossfire if the military is sent to intervene.