A group of indigenous peoples (IP) leaders from the southern town of Rizal have raised anew their opposition to a foreign-initiated agribusiness venture in the area that has utilizing lands leased from Palaw’an indigenous communities.
In a press conference held at a restaurant in Barangay Tiniguiban on Monday, the IP leaders raised several criticisms against the company Lionheart Farms, including an allegation that it has cleared forest trees inside ancestral lands by debarking them before eventually cutting them off to give way to coconut saplings.
The company which has been operating in the municipality for about four years produces a variety of products derived from coconut, including processed coconut flower nectar, syrup, and sugar.
The IP leaders showed reporters pictures of portions of indigenous lands, reportedly taken in an area in Barangay Ransang, where trees had been debarked and cut down and young coconut trees had been planted around them.
“Makikita sa mga litratong iyan, may mga tanim na niyog sa tabi ng mga binalatang mga puno. Hindi ba Lionheart lang naman ang makakagawa niyan? Kasi nga pagtatanim ng niyog ang kanilang negosyo?” Dina Pascual, president of an all-women’s IP group based in Rizal, said.
Sarilan Puntas, the mandatory IP representative of Barangay Ransang, said the cutting of trees in their area violate their ancestral domain as they regard those trees as “sacred.”
“Hindi gagalawin ang mga puno na ‘yan kasi ‘yan ay sagrado,” Puntas said.
The group also accused the company of “co-opting” other tribal members into supporting its project and claimed that some of the supposed IP leaders seen in a video advertisement produced by the company were not genuine IP leaders.
“’Yong mga pinakita nila doon sa video na mga panglima (tribal leader), hindi totoong mga panlgima iyon. Mga nagpapanggap lang ang mga ‘yon na IP. Wala na sila sa bloodline,” said Puntas.
Puntas was referring to a video material produced by the company describing and promoting its project while addressing criticisms against it by non-government organizations and some community leaders.
Lionheart issues reply
Sought for its reply, the company denied the accusations of the tribal leaders in a statement sent to Palawan News.
“There is absolutely no reason why Lionheart would do such an act, it makes no sense,” the company stated in its reply.
It accused the groups opposing their project of “framing” them.
“To the contrary, this group has continuously been trying to frame us. The photos are not reflective of the truth. Lionheart has been maliciously dragged to court previously regarding cutting of trees and judicially, we have come out victorious,” it added.
The company also denied the allegations they have manipulated IP leaders to support their project.
“Allegations such as this are not new to Lionheart. How can we manipulate an entire community to support us? Lionheart’s vision is to alleviate the tribal community from poverty and assist them to be enriched by their cultures. Two FPICs have been conducted and achieved successfully within the three areas (Ransang, Candawaga, and Culasian). The voices of the majority have been heard and have been reflected,” it stated.
Not against development
The leaders clarified that they are not calling for Lionheart to leave their leased land. They said they want instead to revisit the contracts they signed with the company to ensure that the ancestral lands would still be legally theirs after the company’s lease expires.
“Hindi naming gusto na paalisin ang Lionheart. Hindi rin kami tutol sa development. Sino ba naman ang ayaw sa development, ‘yong makakapagpatayo ka ng magandang bahay, mapapaaral ang mga anak mo. Ang hinihiling naming, ayusin ang mga kontratang napirmahan namin, dahil pinapirma ito at napahintulutan ang mga operasyon nila na hindi pa nagpupulong nang tama ang mga IPs,” Pascual said.