Standing in the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) Law, the Palaw’an indigenous people (IP) community in Rizal applied for their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title in 2014. More than half a decade passed and it started to divide the IPs and tear the community apart.

In 2016, the government allowed agribusiness company Lionheart Agrotech to establish and develop a mono-crop plantation of hybrid coconuts. This project known as “Massive Plantation of Coconut and other Agricultural Crops” will be hosted in a 10,000-hectare prime land.

It is important to point out that such locations are also bordering some valuable territories and areas conserved by indigenous peoples and local communities, such as the Signapan Valley being managed by the Tau’t Batu, a sub-group of the Palaw’an.

Hence, the targeted 10,000 hectares of plantations might have posed significant pressure on the neighboring upland ICCAs.

The Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) and the National Commission on Indigenous People (NCIP) stated that the required free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) was not obtained by the company before setting up its plantations.

According to NCIP findings, the MOA previously entered between the two companies and the local communities was based on an improper application of FPIC guidelines. Hence, this was the reason why the company’s Certificate of Precondition (CP) was suspended.

As a result, the two companies filed a motion for reconsideration as of June 1, 2017, requesting NCIP to lift the order of suspension and allow Lionheart to resolve the issue by paying the required bond to be decided by the affected tribes, pursuant to Section 23 of the 2012 FPIC guidelines.

The final response from the NCIP Region IV Office – contained in the CEB Resolution no. 07-124.2018, Series of 2018 – having been transmitted to NCIP Palawan Provincial Office on 1 October, does confirm that the company should, indeed, pay the bond as required by the law. But this, by itself, will not allow them to resume their operations given the opposition of the indigenous communities in the affected barangays of Ransang, Candawaga, and Culasian.

In a nutshell, all this means that the company is now suspended until they comply with all NCIP requirements.

Two months later, Lionheart Agrotech and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) entered into a joint venture agreement (JVA).

Now, there is a division between the alleged IPs and non-IPs employed by the company that has been promised a myriad of benefits by the company versus the IPs who want to protect their land from destruction, to keep the biodiversity and their environment intact, and to continue their culture and tradition.

The very culture and tradition of our indigenous people are at stake, equally in peril is the biodiversity in the area. When we talk about 10,000 hectares of old-growth forests, sacred spaces, hunting and burial grounds, which is also home to rich flora and fauna, prevention is better than remedial interventions when dealing with our environment based on the “precautionary principle.”

Ancestral domain is the only way the IPs can protect their rights in their land. It will decide whether they live freely and whether they maintain their own traditions and culture. These people believe that if there is a forest, there is food, there is medicine, and there is everything else.

The promise of alleviating poverty by development companies may sound so sweet to the ear. But the surprise center of this hard candy is more often the horrors of displacement, destruction of the environment, and the vanishing of their culture and tradition.