In this photos, residents of Sitio Maria Hangin in Bugsuk, Balabac, are seen wading into the water to prevent DAR and SMC personnel from entering their area on June 28. They are also seen blocking individuals believed to be part of the security team accompanying the group.

Indigenous community settlers of Bugsuk Island in Balabac claimed they were fired upon by unidentified armed men on Saturday, following an incident the previous day when they turned back a team from the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), whom they claimed were going to evict them from the island.

A resident of the island sent a video clip to Palawan News showing them confronting an alleged group of armed men who were firing their guns.

“Wala yan sa baba lang yan [sila nagpapaputok!] I-video yan, video! Ikutan niyo, ikutan! Naga pangharass kayo porket may baril kayo! Patayan tayo, patayan! Sige subukan mo! Wala kaming kasalanan! Naka video kayo! Trespassing kayo, trespassing!” the residents yelled.

The source narrated that they continued to approach the group even as they were being fired upon, which eased the tension and led to a conversation.

The armed men allegedly fired six shots, but according to Jomly Callon of SAMBILOG, this was separate from another incident where his two nephews were nearly hit.

“Nakita ng mga bata na may dumaong na speedboat ng kumpanya. Nung nakita nila, bigla na lang silang pinaputukan, muntik nang matamaan yung dalawang pamangkin ko. (…) Yung mga tao lalapitan na ng mga taga-roon pero panay paputok nila at nagsabi sila ay utos daw sa kanila ng kumpanya, na sila daw ay papasukin doon. Kaya wala daw dapat maglapit sa kanila dahil pag naglapit daw, babarilin daw nila,” Jomly alleged.

The issue started when a group from DAR, allegedly along with representatives of San Miguel Corporation (SMC) and uniformed personnel, went to the sitio on June 28.

Oscar Pelayo, a community leader from Sitio Mariang Hangin (also known as Marihangin), told Palawan News on Saturday that they prevented DAR representatives from disembarking on Bugsuk Island to hold local consultations, claiming they were going to be told to vacate the island in favor of San Miguel Corporation (SMC), which has plans for its development.

Pelayo claimed their settlement was going to be demolished to pave the way for the SMC project, and they would be told to leave the island. They learned this when the representatives had a dialogue with about 300 of them.

“Nabigla kami. Ang sabi namin wala namang dialogue, sabi ko wala namang schedule ng dialogue. Ayaw na namin sana makipagdialogue sa kanila kasi di naman sila sumipot doon sa pa-dialogue ng [Commission on] Human Rights,” he said.

“Wala naman silang tao na pinaalis pero ang balak nila ay ganoon kasi ang gusto nila ay nagpupumilit sila bumaba eh di na kami pumayag. Natatakot ako kasi yung mga tao naiinip na, baka magkagulo, (…) di ko na maawat,” Pelayo added.

DAR legal officer Atty. Glenn Fabi and representative Rocma Macarasam, in a radio interview on June 29, said they went to Bugsuk Island at the invitation of Balabac Mayor Shuaib Astami.

Fabi explained that their visit was mainly to inform the residents that Bugsuk Island cannot be covered under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) as the residents had wanted, as the land could not support consumable plants or produce such as rice or other grains.

Fabi also stated that they had no plans to hold demolitions when they came to the island.

“Hindi na namin sila pwedeng tawagin na reform beneficiaries kasi unang-una, exempted na sa CARP ang lugar. Residente pa rin sila doon, pero di na sila agrarian reform beneficiaries,” Macarasam said.

DAR also insisted that the presence of the police and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) was not to intimidate the community but was because they had requested security protection for their people.

The DAR regional representatives said that they came to the island to explain the company’s intention and plans to develop it as an ecotourism site. Local leaders, however, claimed that SMC has been offering them ₱100,000 per family in exchange for vacating the island.

A source from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) said that island residents, particularly members of the Molbog tribal group, have laid claim to the islands under dispute as part of their ancestral domain. The NCIP has yet to process and resolve these claims.

DAR said there were no representatives from the NCIP during their attempted visit.

“Hindi sila makukumpara, kasi ang isyu lang ng DAR is kung CARPable ang lupa, hindi kung ito ay bahagi ng ancestral land. (…) Sa dispositive portion, wala naman pong nakalagay na for demolition or eviction,” Fabi relayed.

A mediation session took place on May 31, 2023, among DAR, SMC, and the local community. According to some residents, the multinational conglomerate offered ₱100,000 to each family willing to evacuate from the property.

Oscar further mentioned that during the last mediation and dialogue session, neither DAR nor SMC attended.

The residents expressed their need for legal representation to pursue their claim on the land.

Palawan News has reached out to a person identified as a possible liaison through both phone and text message, and is currently awaiting a response from SMC regarding the allegations raised by the local community.