Big plantations create big problems in Mindanao

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

“In the name of development, the nexus of state and TNCs (transnational corporations) has dispossessed people of their lands, resources and rights, captivating the whole island and enslaving people in TNC-led plantations and mines. The original masters of the land have become slaves in their own lands, made to work till death and earning a pittance. The loot is taken out by the TNCs in the form of profits whereas local communities get nothing as they witness their wealth… being plundered beyond repair and bringing them to extreme poverty.”

The above passage is from a solidarity message by the Asia Monitor Resource Center to the National Conference on Mindanao Plantations held at UP Diliman recently. It sums up the alarming consequences, discussed at the conference, of the unbridled expansion of agricultural plantations.

Launched at the conference, the Network Resisting Expansion of Agricultural Plantations in Mindanao, (REAP Mindanao Network) vows to “synthesize efforts and struggles” against the expansion of the plantations and to generate public awareness on the critical issues related to them.

Here’s a rundown of the situation:

• Agricultural plantations, mostly owned by TNCs and primarily geared to export markets, occupy almost 500,000 hectares, or 12% of Mindanao’s agricultural land. They produce rubber, Cavendish bananas, pineapple, palm oil, cacao, and sugarcane. More than half (51.2%) of the plantations are in Northern Mindanao, covering 127,105.7 hectares, and in Socsksargen (South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, Sarangani, and Gen. Santos City), 126,170.5 hectares.

• Over 10 years, the plantations expanded by 79%. Rubber plantations, which occupy 43.3% of the lands, increased nearly threefold: from 81,667 hectares in 2005 to 214,313.6 hectares in 2014. Palm oil plantations almost doubled in the same period: from 23,478 to 42,731 hectares.

• Two banana plantations plan to expand further: American-controlled Dole Philippines, by 12,000 hectares; and Unifrutti (South American), by 2,600 hectares; the sugarcane plantations are to add 256,360 hectares, while cacao producers target 150,000 hectares more by 2020.

• Two state agencies have drawn up “roadmaps” to expand agri-plantations. The DENR’s National Greening Commodity Roadmap plans 116,000 additional hectares for rubber, 87,903 hectares for coffee, and 60,000 hectares for cacao by 2016. The Philippine Palm Oil Development Council Inc. targets 300,000 hectares more for palm oil plantations by 2023.

What are the consequences of these developments?

Land dispossession, labor exploitation, violence including killings, environmental degradation, and health problems characterize the history and development of agricultural plantations in Mindanao. A REAP briefing paper points out the following:

Del Monte, Dole, and Sumifro plantations encroach on peasant communities and ancestral lands of the lumad (indigenous peoples) in Bukidnon, CompostelaValley, Davao provinces, Sarangani, and South Cotabato. Around 1 million hectares of grasslands in North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat, and in the Caraga and Northern Mindanao regions are gradually being transformed into palm oil plantations.

The failure of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) has impelled agrarian reform beneficiaries to either lease their lands to TNCs or enter into “outgrower” contracts (grow TNC crops on their lands) under disadvantageous terms. Examples: 1) outgrowers are tied down to long-term contracts to supply Cavendish bananas to Dole at a fixed price of US$2.50 per 13-kilogram box; 2) in Caraga, lands are leased to palm oil plantations for 25 years at only P166 per hectare each month.

Most plantations hire only one regular worker per hectare of land. In rubber plantations, it’s only one regular worker per 3 hectares. The TNCs have minimized the number of their regular workers by hiring contractual or seasonal workers via manpower cooperatives. For instance, in Polomolok, South Cotabato, Dole maintains only 4,000 regular workers (1/5) out of a 20,000 workforce. Dole and Sumifro have been accused of union busting and other trade-union rights violations.

Due to their unfair contracts with the TNCs, outgrowers can’t afford to pay decent wages to their workers, often paying only half of the standard daily wage in the area, which ranges from P235 to P307.

Hiring minors is a prevalent practice among palm oil plantations in Caraga, banana plantations in Davao del Norte, and sugarcane estates in Bukidnon.

Given these conditions, the state hasn’t been of help. Instead, through the AFP and other security forces, it has practically acted as a partner of the TNCs and big Filipino plantation owners in suppressing mass protests against unjust labor and trade practices.

The AFP and its paramilitary adjuncts have been accused of intimidating, vilifying, harassing, and killing protest leaders. Example: in October 2012, Higaonon tribal leader Gilbert Paborada was slain allegedly because he vigorously opposed the expansion into Opol, Misamis Oriental, of the Filipino-American palm oil firm, A. Brown Energy and Resources Development Inc.

Mountains are flattened and forests are denuded to give way to plantations, gravely affecting biodiversity and water sources, and causing soil erosion. Worsening the environmental degradation has been the rampant use of pesticides and other chemicals. These have polluted the land, air and water and caused respiratory, skin and other diseases among plantation workers and residents of the nearby communities.

In Surallah and other towns of South Cotabato, the people have publicly protested against aerial spraying of toxic pesticides in Sumifro plantations. They have organized BATOAN (Ban Aerial Spray of Toxic Chemicals Alliance) to effectively pursue their campaign.

Verily, vital issues related to the plantations – national patrimony, agrarian reform, human rights, social justice, environment, and sustainable development – ought to be scrutinized through public debate.

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Published in The Philippine Star
October 31, 2015

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