Renewed land grabbing in oil palm plantations

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Awarding individual land titles in oil palm plantations in Agusan del Sur has been on the swing these past months. This is in line with the World Bank’s Support to Parcelization of Lands for Individual Titling or SPLIT program touted as an implementation of a “genuine land reform.” In reality, this is a way to hasten the sale of parcelized lands which were once under collective titles and run by cooperatives. This is also a way for old and new palm oil companies to regain control of large tracks of land.

The SPLIT program covers 51,000 hectares in Agusan del Sur, once owned by NDC-Guthrie Plantations, Inc., a Malaysian company which operated and was favored by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. After land was “distributed” in 1995, the beneficiaries continued to toil for the plantation, which was then placed under cooperatives organized to serve as “partners” of the Filipinas Palm Oil Plantation Inc. (FPPI) and Agusan Plantation Inc. (API)— plantations which took over the palm oil industry from the NDC-Guthrie. The said companies are the two biggest palm oil companies in the country. They control the trade and processing of oil palm in the entire Caraga region (Agusan del Norte and Agusan del Sur, Surigao del Norte and Surigao del Sur).

For a long time, beneficiaries of the fake land reform received a measly ₱3,000 dividend every three months. This is why many welcomed the individual titling of their 3-hectare land parcels.

However, the awarding of individual titles is in tandem with the planned expansion of oil palm plantations in the region. In 2020, the Duterte regime approved the petition of Eastern Petroleum Group of Companies, an American company, to operate 50,000 hectares in the next few years, and eventually, 200,000 hectares of oil palm plantations in Caraga. This means the company will control all existing and future oil palm lands. Presently, 25,828 hectares of land are planted with oil palm in the region.

Fake land reform

The SPLIT program is actually a continuation of the fake land reform program which has further plunged peasants into poverty and subjected them to intense militarization. In 2015 and 2017, the Department of Agriculture awarded 1,300 hectares of “excess land” under the FPPI and API to 334 farmer beneficiaries.

Since the land was part of the plantation, it was already planted with oil palm.

To force the farmers to sell their land, the company refused to buy their harvests, or if ever, at the lowest price of ₱2 per kilo. Because of this, fruit bunches are left to rot. The company also collected a 20% amortization on the peasant’s income. They make it appear that the funds are to be used to improve peasant conditions.

Maneuvers to drive away the peasants from their land went hand in hand with the sabotage of their livelihood. In tandem with the 75th IB and criminal paramilitary groups, illegal arrests, detentions, intimidation and repression run rampant. Peasants are maliciously tagged as New People’s Army members and are forced to “surrender”. These are topped with extrajudicial killings. The latest victim, Junjun Notarte, 42, was shot and killed by state agents last May 18 in Barangay Manat, Trento, Agusan del Sur. Notarte was awarded land by the DAR and has been actively fighting API’s renewed landgrabbing.

As a result of the relentless harassment, palm oil companies steadily reconcentrate distributed lands. The API, for instance, has taken over 709 hectares of the 900 hectares from individual peasant owners. Out of the 204 original beneficiaries, only 78 remain remain owners. Farmers in the FPPI, on the other hand, have been fighting off the company’s attempts to drive them away from their farms.

Renewed land grabbing in oil palm plantations