Controversial Almavida Holdings, Inc. denied accusations that it is engaging in island grabbing in Culion and is driving away Tagbanua residents from their ancestral land on Lamud Island in Barangay Luac to develop a high-end resort.
Ernest Villareal of Almida said Thursday afternoon to Palawan News that their purchased property on Lamud has been cleared with local and national officials.
“I am not a lawyer, but our lawyers cleared the purchase with local and national officials. Let’s leave it at that,” Villareal said.
Villareal said this in response to recent allegations by Culion Rev. Fr. Roderick Yap Caabay and the Tagbanua leaders of Lamud that Almavida is “island grabbing” in Luac by fencing the island with barbed wires and threatening to shoot anyone who will cause the delay their resort development plans.
Villareal added that on the contrary, Almavida is even providing employment to the residents of the island.
He also accused Joy Aguilar, who came to Caabay for help, of illegally occupying the property they have legally bought on Lamud.
“Nobody has been driven away. We have given employment. Joy Aguilar is illegally occupying land we have bought properly,” he said.
Villareal said Caabay should investigate the background of Aguilar as he had sold land before on Sangat Island that included an indigenous peoples’ (IP) cemetery.
He claimed it is what Aguilar apparently does, “illegally occupy someone else’s then sells his so-called occupancy rights”.
Aguilar’s neighbors on Lamud, he further claimed, are “in fear of him, especially when drunk” as he threatens them.
“The fencing was approved by the local government unit (LGU) when Joy could not prove his occupancy rights and refused to vacate,” Villareal said.
Villareal also said Caabay is free to go around Lamud and “count the trees that can be classified as timber and determine for himself if it is forestland”.
Caabay, on the other hand, said it was the local Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) that classified Lamud as timberland and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) that said the Tagbanua residents have an existing application for ancestral domain title.
“When you speak of timberland, this is not about the timber. Timberland means forest land — a categorizing of DENR to distinguish it from alienable and disposable lands (A&D) against forestland, timberland or forest protection area. Meaning, it’s a land that belongs to the state and therefore, any selling or buying or owning or titling of individuals is not allowed,” he said.
Caabay said “only the IP has the privilege to occupy since they are the natural protectors of the forest, and by tradition and culture, are always the first settlers in the area.
On Villareal’s denial that Almavida is not driving anyone away, Caabay said there were already families that transferred to the center of the sitio because they have been asked or has been misled to believe that their land has been sold by someone and owned by someone who is moneyed.
He said the Tagbanua residents thought there was nothing they can do but leave and accept the money offered.
“It was only tatay Joy Aguilar who stood ground and has the guts to fight for his family and grandchildren and for his Tagbanua community. He may have had a negative past, but towards the last leg of his life, he wants to leave a heroic legacy to his children, grandchildren and community by fighting for their rights and future,” Caabay said.
Aguilar, he added, is now the chairman of the Tagbanua community in Lamud and member of the board of the Federation of the Tagbanuas in Culion or the Pagketel Ita.
“He suffered a stroke but continues to travel, attend meetings, and activities in relation to his fight for the rights of his community,” he said.
“The security guards that fenced the areas threatened to shoot them if they interfere with the fencing. The guards also carry firearms going around the island and the community, causing fear in people,” Caabay added.
Caabay said if the LGU sanctioned the fencing of the island, then it has committed a grave error of allowing it, knowing the area is forestland.
“There must have been big money involved. Same thing with national officials they are connected with. Whoever they are, forestland is forestland, the law is the law. Everyone involved no matter what ranking will be answerable to law and justice and does not acquire any right by virtue of their position to oppress the poor and grab their lands. We will fight to the end to protect the rights of the Tagbanuas,” he said.