Banner image of a comb-crested jacana by Jean and Fred via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

  • At 288,000 hectares (712,000 acres), Liguasan Marsh in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao is the country’s largest and most intact wetland, a haven for birds and a source of livelihood for the 100,000 families who live there.
  • The marsh was a hotspot during the decades of conflict between the Philippine government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF); it also has known oil and gas reserves.
  • With a peace deal forged and the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 2019, the new regional government is seeking investors to develop the marsh’s oil and gas reserves.
  • Some fear this extractive activity will damage the marsh’s ecosystem and exacerbate land conflict in an area where land tenure is already complex and contested.

COTABATO CITY, Philippines — Martin Pineda describes Liguasan Marsh on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao as a no-man’s land that “strongly reeks with gas.”

Pineda is a member of Birders without Borders, and was part of a team of bird experts invited by the Philippine military to join a 2019 tour of the marsh. The team maneuvered their way deep into the marsh on motorboats, closely guarded by some 100 soldiers in full battle gear. At other points along the periphery of the wetland, the security presence was even more pronounced, with police officers deployed to form another layer of security against possible attacks from shooters.

“We were nervous even with the heavy security detail from the military,” Pineda said.

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The 288,000-hectare (712,000-acre) Liguasan Marsh has been a hotspot in a deadly, decades-long conflict between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a 40,000-strong armed group fighting for the right of self-determination in the southern Philippines.

It remains the country’s largest intact wetland, relatively undisturbed largely due to the war waged by the MILF since the late 1970s, and is home to diverse fauna and flora as well as thousands of ethnic Moro, or Bangsamoro, families whose livelihoods depend largely on fishing and farming in the marsh.

A portion of the vast Liguasan Marsh beckons along the highway in Maguindanao province in the Bangsamoro region in the southern Philippines. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

In 2014, a conflict between the Philippine security forces and the MILF rebels formally ended with the signing of a final peace deal after 17 years of negotiations. A key component of the peace accord is the creation of a region for the country’s Bangsamoro, a religious minority whose ancestors practiced Islam prior to the arrival of European colonizers in the Philippines. This target was realized two years ago with the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or simply the Bangsamoro region, home to most of the country’s 4.4 million Muslims.

The new territory includes a large portion of Liguasan Marsh. And with the peace deal generally holding, and strong commitment shown by both parties, eyes are turning to the huge deposits of oil and gas that lie under the wetland.

The fledging Bangsamoro government has been inviting investors to do business in the area in a bid to spur its economy and lift the residents from poverty. At least one interested party, a local investor, is now aggressively pursuing development plans, raising concerns about how the desire to fund the fledgling government by developing a fossil fuel industry might be balanced against the need to protect the marsh and its inhabitants.

Natural wealth

Almost 44,000 hectares (109,000 acres) of the marsh have been declared as a game refuge and bird sanctuary since 1941.

The marsh, a basin of three rivers, has been classified by nonprofit conservation group BirdLife International as an “important bird and biodiversity area” (IBA). It supports resident or nonbreeding populations of many waterbird species, including herons, egrets, rails, shorebirds, and ducks. It’s the only place in the Philippines where the Mindanao endemic subspecies of the little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis cotabato) and the comb-crested jacana (Irediparra gallinacea) can be found. It’s also one of the last strongholds for the endangered Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis).

A comb-crested jacana photographed at Liguasan Marsh. The marsh is the only place in the Philippines where both the Mindanao endemic subspecies of the little grebe and the comb-crested jacana can be found. Image courtesy of Martin Pineda.
A Philippine crocodile. The marsh is also one of the last strongholds for this endangered reptile. Image by Sibylle Stofer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

At least 100,000 Bangsamoro families depend on the marsh for their livelihoods: fishing during the wet season, and farming rice and corn in the dry period. They are known as ethnic Maguindanaoan, which means “people of the flooded plains.”

In addition to the potential physical and economic dislocation that could be caused by opening up the marsh to oil and gas extraction, if the process is not managed properly it could become a flashpoint for families living on and laying claim to land in the marsh.

For decades, Maguindanaoan families, some related to each other by affinity, have been known to engage in rido, or clan war, mostly due to disputes over rights to plots of land within the marsh. Some of these disputes have even caused infighting among MILF commanders and their followers.

Anthropologist and lawyer Augusto Gatmaytan noted the area’s complex land ownership structure in a 2015/16 paper. “Landownership across the Ligawasan can thus be imagined as an intricate mosaic of individual and family claims; some of which are titled, and others are not,” he wrote.

Fish caught at Liguasan Marsh are dried under the sun and sold along the highway in Maguindanao province in the Bangsamoro region in the southern Philippines. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.
A boy sells fresh fish caught at Liguasan Marsh. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

The presence of gas in the marsh, which can be smelled in the air, was officially confirmed in the 1990s. State-owned Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) and its Malaysian counterpart, Petronas, conducted a joint exploration confirming the presence of natural gas and oil deposits in five sites.

According to a report released by the investor now seeking to develop the gas fields, data from the Philippine Department of Energy indicate that three of the wells identified by the PNOC-Petronas joint exploration venture have combined estimated recoverable resources of 202 million barrels of oil ($16.2 billion at current prices). Some 821 million cubic feet of natural gas reserves have been identified and potential resources are estimated to amount to another 6 billion cubic feet, a bounty local politicians have speculated could be worth as much as $1 trillion. (With gas prices currently at around $10 per 1,000 cubic feet, the marsh’s proven reserves are likely to be worth around $8 million.)

The PNOC-Petronas joint venture did not pursue the project due to the conflict then ongoing between the military and the MILF rebels — and, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks, alleged extortion by local political warlords.

Despite the overall success of the 2014 peace deal, tensions in the region remain high. Although the MILF largely holds sway over Liguasan Marsh, the security situation is complicated by the presence of private armed groups affiliated with terrorist organizations such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the Islamic State. In many cases, members of these armed groups have kinship ties with MILF members.

In 2015, following an operation in which Filipino troops killed Malaysian JI leader Zulkifli bin Hir, 44 elite police commandos were killed in clashes with MILF forces and private armed groups. Mongabay’s planned visit deeper into the wetland in late September this year was curtailed due to a resurgence of rido, or clan war, in the marsh.

However, experts like Abhoud Syed Lingga, head of the Institute of Bangsamoro Studies, now express confidence that the peace deal means oil and gas exploration can move forward. “It’s not difficult to deal anymore with the MILF, which continues to hold sway within the Liguasan Marsh, because the group is no longer waging a war with the government,” said Lingga, who once served as a member of the MILF peace panel. “They are not anymore underground but are now a major part of the governance structure in the area.”

This year, the Bangsamoro government registered an investor in the project: ES Maulana Global Ventures Company, Inc. (ES Maulana Global), owned by a local Muslim investor, is eyeing Cotabato Basin Block 10, a concession offered by the Philippine government that covers 384,000 hectares (949,000 acres), including most of Liguasan Marsh.

In its registration paper, ES Malauna proposes an initial investment of nearly 1 billion pesos ($20 million) with the help of foreign partners. The same firm also acquired the Sulu Sea Basin Block 6, a 1.3-million-hectare (3.2-million-acre) offshore concession also within the Bangsamoro region.

This year, the Bangsamoro government registered ES Maulana Global as an investor in the project, which is eyeing a concession offered by the Philippine government that covers 384,000 hectares (949,000 acres), including most of Liguasan Marsh Image by rex songcayauon via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Securing approval to proceed with the Liguasan project involves a number of steps. It needs approval from the Intergovernmental Energy Board, composed of representatives from the Bangsamoro and national governments. Once cleared, the board would then endorse the project to the Office of the President (OP) for the issuance of a petroleum service contract. In addition, the company needs to obtain other regulatory approvals, such as an environmental clearance certificate, before it can actually commence with extraction.

Esmael Maulana, CEO of ES Maulana, worked in the oil and gas sector in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades before returning in 2016 to pursue the development of natural gas and oil deposits in the Bangsamoro region. He said the project will significantly sustain peace and improve the lives of thousands of people in the region through the jobs it will generate.

“This can be a game-changer for the Bangsamoro people with the huge capital that will be infused and the massive employment that will be generated from the construction stage until the commercial phase of the project,” Maulana told Mongabay at his home-based office. This, he said, will help sustain and shore up peace in the Bangsamoro region.

The MILF, whose top leaders have also been installed to senior positions in the Bangsamoro government, has also welcomed ES Maulana’s bid to develop the oil and gas deposits in Liguasan Marsh.

“It will be big thing for the Bangsamoro people if ES Maulana company can proceed with the project,” said Abdulraof Macacua, chief of staff of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the armed wing of the MILF.

Macacua, who has been appointed the Bangsamoro minister for environment, natural resources, and energy, said in a press conference that Maulana is “close to the MILF leadership.”

“We know him. He is a fellow Bangsamoro from here,” he said.

Macacua, who is also the executive secretary of the BARMM government, said a technical working group has been formed to discuss the bid. In support for opening up the marsh to investors, a bill has also been filed in the Bangsamoro parliament creating the Liguasan Marsh Management Commission, a body that will provide overall direction for the management, development, and conservation of the natural and cultural resources within the marsh.

Ali Sangki, a member of parliament and the bill’s principal author, says the commission will work to promote the energy, ecotourism, and aquaculture potentials of the marsh to investors, including foreign ones. Sangki also proposed the creation of an economic zone within the marsh to benefit former MILF rebels and Indigenous communities within the wetland. The Bangsamoro parliament has yet to approve the bill, which was filed in March.

Members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front show their firepower inside their stronghold in Maguindanao province, Philippines, in this file photo. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

Overlapping land claims

Extractive projects in the Philippines and elsewhere in the region have demonstrated that gains for investors don’t always translate into broader social benefits. Moreover, the rido or clan wars, usually rooted in land conflicts, pose an additional hazard in Liguasan Marsh. Several prominent clans in Maguindanao province have already staked a claim to large portions of the marsh being eyed for oil and gas extraction.

For the MILF, the marsh is their “legacy from [their] forebears.” Before the Spanish colonization that began in 1565, Muslim settlements already dotted the wetland, whose vast and complex river channels facilitated trade and commerce. When the MILF waged its war for self-determination in the 1970s, Liguasan Marsh hosted its military camps. The MILF has been widely seen as a champion of the Bangsamoro people’s rights by many of the people living in this region.

Maulana said the overlapping land claims can be addressed through dialog, and the military can provide security for the venture in case threats emerge. Ahod Ebrahim, interim chief minister of the Bangsamoro government and also chair of the MILF, has backed the exploration, development, and use of the natural resources in the marsh.

“Rest assured that we will do what is best for Liguasan Marsh and its people. As for all of us, this is more than just a rich source of natural resources. Many of our mujahideen became martyrs defending this part of our territory,” he said in a statement.

However, Baharodin Abulo, chief of the Bangsamoro region’s Biodiversity Management Services, said investments in Liguasan Marsh with potential environmental impacts, such as the extractive industry, need to get clearance first from them before they will be allowed to proceed.

“If the natural oil and gas extraction activities will fall within the declared game refuge and bird sanctuary, definitely it will not be given clearance to operate,” he told Mongabay.

Baharodin Abulo, chief of the Bangsamoro region’s Biodiversity Management Services, said that extractive projects will not be given clearance to operate if the natural oil and gas extraction activities fall within the declared game refuge and bird sanctuary. Image by Bong S. Sarmiento.

According to Abulo, there have been efforts to declare the whole Liguasan Marsh as a protected area through a “protected area suitability assessment,” which, he said, needs a review since it was conducted 20 years ago.

Maulana said the necessary facilities can be constructed outside the declared game refuge and bird sanctuary. And if the reserves sit under the declared game refuge and bird sanctuary, then existing horizontal drilling technology can be used to extract the oil and gas without disturbing the surface of the land, he said.

Pineda, of Birders without Borders, said there needs to be a balance between the economic and social contributions of the project and its impact on the environment. “If they can manage the project properly, the biodiversity of Liguasan Marsh can actually be preserved,” he said, pointing to the Mount Apo geothermal power plant, also in Mindanao, as an example.

That project was initially hugely controversial but ultimately won widespread support after an extensive consultation period and a massive reforestation commitment. In Liguasan Marsh, Pineda said, an oil and gas project will entail great risk and huge investments, but can also be a change-maker in the region. “If the locals will have more money in their pockets, there will be no reason to rebel,” he said.

Decades of bloody conflict in the Bangsamoro region kept Liguasan Marsh intact but also trapped its inhabitants in poverty and instability. As peace prevails and attention turns to the fossil fuel reserves under the swamp, the fledgling Bangsamoro government faces a major challenge: tapping the marsh’s resources for economic gain without destroying an ecosystem and culture that survived generations of war.

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