Palawan embraced the economic promise of palm oil when about a decade ago it opened up the south to large-scale plantations. Private landowners were encouraged to commit their land to a company, Agumil Philippines, that got the backing of local authorities, under a long-term lease agreement with a government bank.

Problems came to a head however when eventually many private landowners, who have formed cooperatives to engage Agumil, found themselves in a debt trap with the Land Bank because of poor production output and a drop in market demand.

Government interventions to resolve the problem, focusing mainly on helping the cooperatives deal with their financial troubles, have been set back by the pandemic.

Presently, large tracts of land in places like Rizal have gone idle. At the extreme receiving end of this problem are the indigenous Palaw’an tribes whose lands had been aggregated by some of these cooperatives under the business scheme. A special feature produced recently by Palawan News (watch video below) narrated the dire circumstances of an indigenous family who could no longer tend to their land to at least provide sustenance.

The tribal family had all their land leased to a local cooperative, that itself had apparently got into financial troubles and could no longer meet their commitments after paying off the family with an advanced rental from the start.

In the town of Rizal where this situation is common, no significant intervention is being done by the government to alleviate the plight of indigenous communities now living in abject poverty. Palm oil has altered their traditional cultures such that they could no longer rely on their land for food and all of their basic necessities.

By all indications, Palawan’s venture into landscale plantations has been a dismal failure. Beyond ensuring its financial viability in the highly speculative global trade of palm oil, nothing has been done to address the impacts of the policy on the environment for instance. By accounts of the tribes themselves, they had converted their forests to palm oil plantations with tacit encouragement from the government.

There is a huge policy agenda on land use that needs to be addressed in Southern Palawan, where large-scale plantations of various sorts have taken root. National and local agencies must come together to nip this problem in the bud, one that is already creating a lot of misery for the powerless.

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