In 1990 the Island of Palawan was declared “Man and Biosphere Reserve” by UNESCO. Considered the ‘last ecological frontier’ of Philippines, it preserves the largest contiguous forest block in the country. However, in recent years mining projects and oil palm plantations in south Palawan are posing a threat on environment and local communities.
At national level, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources had planned the conversion of 15,000 – 20,000 ha into oil palm plantations through private initiative with the objective of reducing the dependence on imports and modernize the agricultural sector. Since 2003, the Provincial Government of Palawan is strongly promoting this agribusiness. The project is mainly operated by two companies: 1) Palawan Palm & Vegetable Oil Mills, Inc. (60% Singaporean and 40% Filipino-owned), and 2) Agumil Philippines, Inc. (75% Filipino-owned and 25% Malaysian). Their parent company is Malaysian Agusan Plantations Inc. Also, in recent years, a construction company, Cavite Ideal International Construction and Development Corporation, is entering the agribusiness becoming a land grabber itself. Until 2015, about 6,000 hectares of land have already been converted into oil palm plantations in the municipalities of Soforino Española, Brooke’s Point, Bataraza, Rizal, Quezon, Aborlan and Narra, all of them in South Palawan, with a negative impact on the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and traditional and subsistence farmers. Local organizations have denounced that plantations have caused the collapse of family based economies, disappearance of non timber forest products (NTFPs) in which local economy relied, loss of agricultural land and crop diversity, obliterated traditional swidden practices, decrease of food security, loss of forests, limitations of free movement to reach upland fields and forests, exponential increase of pests over the traditional coconut crops, loss of biodiversity, loss of medicinal plants, increment of flash flood events, depletion of plantation soils, pollution of river sources and coastal area and health hazards caused by chemicals used in plantations. Affected communities claim that administrations like the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development are not assuming their role on efficiently monitoring the project’s socio-ecological impact, and that indigenous peoples have not given the necessary free and prior informed consent over their ancestral land. In addition, farmers engaged by contracts with oil palm companies have raised complaints about the unfair conditions and the lack of transparency to seal the agreements.
Opposition to this project has been lead by local indigenous organization ALDAW (Ancestral Land/Domain Watch) since 2009. In 2014 indigenous people and traditional farmers formed the Coalition Against Land Grabbing (CALG). Other advocacy groups from Philippines and abroad have supported these local movements, including the local Bishop. Affected communities are opposing the project through several initiatives such as the submission on 2014 of a petition for a moratorium on oil palm expansion signed by more than 4,200 farmers and indigenous people, the filing of affidavits against plantations by local communities, campaigning to pressure UNESCO to preserve the island, collecting geotagging and audio-visual evidences on oil palm expansion, publicating reports, launching international on-line petitions and creating awareness campaigns among affected communities, among others.