RIZAL, Palawan – Indigenous peoples (IPs) in Rizal town have become divided regarding their stand in accepting Lionheart Agrotech’s controversial multi-million peso coconut plantation and processing project.
This after less than a hundred IPs from Barangays Ransang, Candawaga, and Culasian expressed their support to Lionheart, calling its project a “gift from heaven” on September 24 during a press conference initiated here by the municipal government of Rizal.
Joel Layon, a Palaw’an from barangay Ransang who is an employee of the company since 2016, said that people must not believe the critics of the company.
“Sana ay hindi na guluhin ang kompanya at sana makapagtrabaho ng maayos ang marami pang katutubo at kami ay patuloy na nananawagan na ang mga taong ‘yan sana hindi na mapaniwalaan doon sa sinasabi nila, saan man department ng gobyerno, kami ay nagpapatunay na ang katutubong ito, sa kasalukuyan nagtatrabaho lahat,” Layon said.
Layon said only one percent in their community are opposing the project, claiming 99 percent of the residents who represent the majority of the IPs have seen progress through the income they are receiving from working in the company.
He said that workers are not fooled by the company and they are getting rentals from their lands used by the company for the operation.
“Ang mga panlima ay sumasahod sa tamang sahod, hindi niloko ng kompanya ang mga katutubo, binabayaran taon-taon ang renta, sinasahuran tuwing kinsenas ang mga nagtatrabaho. Kaming mga katutubo ay nandito para magpatunay na ang kompanya sa bayan ng Rizal at sa tatlong barangay ay hulog ng langit,” he said.
Ferino Ligod, chieftain from barangay Candawaga has said that one support they gained from the company is the ease of transportation because of their motorcycles.
He stressed that there is no reason to remove the company in the town.
“Isinama ko yong mga taga-Candawaga kasi pagod na kami, maraming pinapalabas nila na umabot na kami ng Puerto, sinasabi nila na nagloloko sa mga katutubo si kompanya, sinungaling yan, ako nagpapatotoo,” he said supporting Layon’s statement.
They fabricated the issues against the company on alleged non-payment of ancestral land rental fees, Ligod added.
Roxanne Escabal, community relation, and program manager of Lionheart Agrotech said the majority of the residents in the three barangays have given their approval for the company to pursue its operation.
She said that the approval of the majority represents the social acceptability of the IPs for the company to operate within the ancestral lands that are rented by the company from the indigenous people.
“Aside from IPMRs (Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative), a certain barangay captain also stated in the record of the Sanggunian Bayan that only a few among the IP communities do not approve of the project. A majority of them have given their approval for the Lionheart to pursue in their barangays,” Escabal said.
Escabal said the three barangays are well-informed and have represented themselves in the Sangguniang Bayan telling that they have given their approval for the implementation of Lionheart Agrotech projects.
Petitioners turned supporters
Around 10 former petitioners have turned their backs on their protests and supported the operation of Lionheart Agrotech in the three barangays of Rizal.
Eldino Buning, a Tau’t bato from Ransang, said he joined the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) petition for the span of four months within 2016 to 2017.
“Noong sumama ako sa ELAC bilang ako ay isang panglima dito sa Sitio ng Ugis sa barangay Ransang. Noong bago lang pumasok ang kompanya, dati sa Sitio Malotoc pa lang. Ang sabi na ang kabundukan daw at kagubatan, mga sagradong lugar ay pinambu-bulldoze yong mga virgin forest at hindi para magtanim ng produkto na niyog, purpose pala ng kompanya ay treasure,” he narrated.
Buning said Dina Pascual and Kevin Ayo told them that the purpose of the company is for treasures hunting and digging in the areas that were initially intended for plantation.
He said that it was explained to them that the Lionheart Agrotech is not just implementing its project in the lowlands, but even on Mt. Mantalingahan which is considered as a protected area.
He said that he did not understand well the purpose of the company so he signed petitions and joined ELAC for some seminars.
“Pagdating sa Sitio Pinagkubuan, pumasok na don ang kompanya dahil marami na ron ang katutubo na gusto magparenta ng lupa, nagpapakaingin na, nagpapalinis, nagkaroon naman ng isyu. Syempre yong mga kaingin, meron mga malalaking puno na pinampuputol. Nong pumasok ang ELAC, sumama kami, pagdating naming sa area, nagalit yong may-ari ng lupa, nagkaroon kami ng kaso ron,” he said.
He narrated that during the hearing, some of the IP leaders did not show up.
He said when he studied the system, he learned that the company could not be removed from the town as the signatories of the agreement to enter in Ransang was the barangay captain and the IPMR.
“Naintindihan ko na ang petisyon ay hindi naman pala tumalab sa kompanya dahil magandang proseso ang pagpasok nila dahil dumaan sa munisipyo, sa barangay, IPMR at nakita ko na marami na rin ang mas gusto sa kompanya,” he said.
IPs claimed they were threatened to sign the petition
Layon said that three individuals came on September 17 during the distribution of financial assistance to IPs from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in the community of Balinbalin in Ransang to sign the petition against the company.
“Tinanong ko kung ano pinapirmahan sa kanila, ang sabi ay yong company paalisin natin dito kasi kung di raw mapaalis, yong lupa raw ay sa Lionheart, yong kahoy ay sa DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) yong sabi nila na JVA na yan. Ngayon, itong mga katutubo ay natakot kasi ang sabi kapag di pipirma, kung sakaling magkakaingin kayo, dadaan kayo sa DENR, dadaan kayo sa kompanya, pag di kayo papayagan, di na makakaingin,” he said.
He named the three individuals as Haron Basal which he said is a barangay tanod and a link of ELAC in their area, Sappal Hamson and Bener Lumpon who are both IPs.
“Tinanong ko sila (yong mga pumirma) kung nainitindihan ba nila? Sabi nila hindi. Ang sabi lang nila na ang naintinidhan lang nila ay yong wala na silang lupa, mawawalan sila at hindi na makapagkaingin, doon kami pumirma. Ang advise daw sa kanila ay pwede rin sila magtrabaho sa kompanya pero ang kompanya ay papaalisin natin dito may bagong papasok,” he said.
He said he realized that the problem was that the IPs were threatened since they are vulnerable.
“Nakita namin na problema kasi hindi naman ugali ng katutubo na takutin sila nang ganoon kasi kung sa gamit, marupok, madali lang linlangin sila at ang nakikita namin sa pagpapapirma nila na tinuturuan nila ang katutubo versus katutubo na mag-away-away. Kami na nagtatrabaho sa kompanya, ayaw din namin na malinlang sila sa sinasabi na di totoong ginawa ng kompanya,” he said.
Company employs 95 percent of IPs in three barangays
Escabal said some of the IPs with the educational background were hired for the operation of departmental positions while most of the IPs, particularly those who attended the press conference, are field workers.
“Doon sa trabaho, depende, yong mga pinag-aralan na qualified for the office nasa medyo operation sila or department ng company. The rest ng workers natin sa field, yon ang mga worker na nagtatanim, nagmi-maintain at tini-train na mag-alaga ng pananim sa organikong paraan,” she said.
Ninety-five percent are designated for daily works and earning minimum wages.
Local government unit supports Lionheart
Vice mayor Norman Ong said that the local government unit of Rizal is helping facilitate Lionheart Agrotech as he observed it has good impacts on the development of the IP com.
“Actually, ang local na pamahalaan, kahit sino basta yan ay kompanya, nakikita namin na magdadala ng maganda para sa bayan ng Rizal, talagang tutulungan namin. We are mandated, ang local na pamahalaan na suportahan ang bagong kompanya na papasok kaya lang may mga proseso tayo na dapat pagdaanan. Kung ano yong mga requirement kapag na-comply nila ay susuportahan namin,” he said.
He said they will also welcome other investors in Rizal, not only Lionheart.
“Nami-misinterpret yong sinasabi na ako, o yong during my time as mayor na sumusuporta personal. Personally, yes, as local chief executive, yes again kasi nga dahil nakita natin yong naitutulong nito sa ating bayan pero hindi iisa lang o sinasabi natin na siya lang. Kung may ibang papasok, welcome yan,” Ong said.
In a phone interview with Atty. Grizelda Mayo-Anda of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC), she said that the position of Lionheart is tenuous because of the suspended certificate of precondition.
“Legally, the opinion of ELAC is, their legal position is tenuous because their certification of precondition is suspended and because of that, they just cannot proceed even if they can mobilize a thousand alleged IPs there,” she said.
“The fact remains na under the IPRA law, with the indigenous political structure, the decision making is actually done by the elders, that’s pursuant to law. Unless that is agreed then you cannot be allowed to proceed,” she added.
She also called on the government to hold any type of legal instrument that is issued because of the flaws.
“One legal issue there is a joint venture agreement. The government itself must put on hold any type of legal instrument that is issued because of the legal deficiencies,” Anda said.
“Given that, our position in ELAC is we already sent a notice to sue to require them to initiate action,” she further added.
In early 2018, the IPs claimed that Lionheart started operation without the Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) procedures from the NCIP.
On the NCIP’s en banc resolution (CEB Resolution No. 07-124.2018 Series of 2018) dated September 28, 2018, Lionheart’s operation was suspended until it complies with the FPIC guidelines.
Two months later, Lionheart, the Rizal municipal government, and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) entered into a joint venture agreement (JVA) that entitled the coconut plantation its right to operate again.
The IPs countered its legitimacy claiming that the JVA pushed through without proper public consultation as the resolution states that Lionheart should “submit the Environmental and Socio-Cultural Impact Statement pursuant to the FPIC guideline”.
Anda also said that ELAC will continue to work with the government, but will not hesitate to initiate the needed legal action in order to protect the forest and the IPs, “IP rights are very important, equally important is biodiversity. In this equation, they are not heard.”
“The trees are not heard, the pangolins are not heard, the wildlife is not heard. Yun yung ini-stress namin sa DENR but it seems to have fallen on their ears, with all due respect. Kung concerned sila sa biodiversity, they would have assessed,” she said.
Anda said that under the admin order, the DENR and Lionheart Agrotech is supposed to assess and study what is the appropriate area for the joint venture agreement but they were not able to do so.
“You’re talking about 10,000 hectares that will be put at risk and it bothers us, in ELAC, why they can just say that. Ang [ano] pa nga namin dyan, cost-benefit analysis. Let’s compute the non-forest species there, the biodiversity and the amount of money that they have invested.”
On the issue that the IPs are being told what to do, Anda said that the IPs are “very vulnerable” until and unless certain measures are achieved.
“As long as their CADT is not in place and their ancestral domain sustainable protection plan, which is a very important legal instrument that is actually supposed to enable them to access natural resources and effectively manage their domain. The government must help them, until and unless that is actually achieved, then you will always have very vulnerable indigenous people without an understanding of the future,” she said.