When Typhoon Yolanda, also known as Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, hit Southeast Asia in November 2013, the Philippines was particular badly affected. The island of Sicogon was left in a dire state; the homes, livelihoods and fishing craft of 6,000 residents were devastated. Five months later members of the Federation of Sicogon Island Farmers and Fisherfolk (FESIFFA), along with the Save Agrarian Reform Alliance (SARA) network of national farmers’ organizations and non-government organizations, reported that not a single government agency had assisted residents in their efforts to reconstruct their homes and rebuild their lives. International organizations, such as ICCO Cooperation, a Netherlands based NGO, provided support for FESIFFA members’ attempts to rebuild their livelihoods.
The government’s post-typhoon no dwelling/no build zone policy exacerbated Sicogon residents’ continued lack of shelter. Prohibiting building homes within 40 meters of the coastline, where many poor, rural families built their homes in order to be near to their sources of livelihood, the policy had effectively rendered more than 1,000 families homeless. Deprived of options for rebuilding their homes and communities, more than 200 Sicogon families occupied a portion of publicly owned forest land, without support or approval from authorities. Sicogon Island Development Corporation (SIDECO), aided by allied officials in the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), threatened to file cases against FESIFFA farmers for their occupation of the forest lands.
SIDECO had long laid claim to Sicogon; the family that owns the corporation said that it purchased 809 hectares, about 70 per cent of the 1,160 hectare island, in 1972. SIDECO seized on the opportunity to begin developing the island as a tourism destination, entering into a joint venture partnership with real estate firm Ayala Land, which had already expressed an interest in expanding its tourism portfolio, to undertake a ‘Sicogon Island Redevelopment Project’. It soon became evident that the project was geared to pushing the tourism venture rather than rehabilitating residents. A SARA spokesperson said: “The residents affected by SIDECO’s plans for a tourism resort have ample legal documents to prove they are agrarian reform beneficiaries. This is a clear incident of land-grabbing facilitated by both natural disasters and government’s lack of political will.”
Failure to protect land rights
In addition to failing to help islanders rehabilitate, the government failed to protect their land rights. FESIFFA president Paul Ramos said that land-grabbers had exploited post-disaster chaos and confusion, preventing people from returning to lands they had resided upon for decades. After Typhoon Yolanda struck SIDECO’s private security guards forcibly prevented families from rebuilding or even repairing their houses. FESIFFA stated that SIDECO had prohibited the island’s residents from reconstruction of their homes. The National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA), the social service arm of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, attempted to provide temporary shelter to Yolanda victims, providing affected communities with shelter materials. Executive secretary Fr. Edu Gariguez said that SIDECO officials blocked their efforts at assistance, harassing NASSA staff and threatening to demolish the houses. Corporations were using the government’s rehabilitation programme for their own benefit.
Instead of rehabilitating residents in their places of origin SIDECO offered residents two options: a payment of PhP 150,000 (USD 3,378) per family to vacate the island or a relocation site in Barangay Jolog, on the neighbouring island of Panay. FESIFFA reported that, by April 2014, most of the families who had taken up either of these options were attempting to return to Sicogon, due to relocation homes being of substandard quality and lack of availability of resettlement sites.
A compromise agreement
A 2016 report by FIAN to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights CESCR) explains that, according to Commission on Human Rights investigator Leo Salpana, SIDECO’s offer, of either payment to leave the island or relocation in Barangay Jolog, was “not appropriate” because there was no free, prior and informed consent from affected people, whose problems were compounded by threats by the company and DENR officials to file cases against FESIFFA members for occupying forest lands. SIDECO’s offer was followed by a compromise agreement with FESIFFA, brokered by the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC), under which the joint venture would build resettlement sites and provide livelihood and training projects that would bring residents opportunities in tourism schemes. In exchange, 784 families belonging to FESIFFA dropped claims to 334 hectares of land laid claim to by SIDECO, land that they had been seeking to acquire under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
Conversion of this 334 hectare area from agricultural to commercial or tourism use, without provisions for issues such as compensation for victims of human rights abuses perpetrated by armed SIDECO security guards and signed by the president of FESIFFA under pressure and in the absence of a special power of attorney from the organization’s members, was approved by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) on 3rd March 2016. Change of land use paved the way for the SIDECO / Ayala Land joint venture to fully implement its tourism project.
A June 2017 article by Focus on the Global South on the situation of farmers and fisherfolk after Typhoon Yolanda reported that land reforms specified in the compromise agreement that would have benefited farmers had not yet been implemented. Months after their camp out in the forest area threats aimed at forcing them to leave Sicogon – orders to vacate, prohibition on rebuilding and legal cases against forest occupation – continued. But the story was not one of defeat. Many farmers and fishers remained on the island and persisted in their efforts to rebuild their livelihoods. The compromise agreement had caused divisions in FESIFFA but the organization resumed its land rights advocacy work. In April 2017 leaders organized a camp-out and protest in front of the DENR offices in Manila.
Violations of obligations under the Right to Food and Nutrition
Some Sicogon residents suffered hunger in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda. The FIAN report documents the failure of the Philippine government to fulfil its human rights obligations, under international law, to mitigate and alleviate hunger, even in times of natural or other disasters. Government failure to provide immediate and sustained aid to Yolanda victims, and to protect them from displacement, violated its obligations under the Right to Food and Nutrition (RTFN). In addition, Guideline 16 of the FAO Voluntary Guidelines supporting the right to adequate food, which states that governments should provide food assistance to people in in need in the case of natural disasters, was flouted. FIAN also identified threatening residents who sought refuge in forest land with legal action and conversion of 334 hectares of land from agricultural to commercial/tourism use as clear breaches of obligations under the RTFN to protect legitimate tenure rights of affected persons during post-disaster reconstruction.
In an interview with Al Jazeera in August 2018 village chief Wenefred Gonzales spoke of post-Yolanda hunger in Sicogon. He said SIDECO and Ayala abused their positions as reconstruction partners, giving residents meagre food rations to force them to vacate: “They tried to starve us into taking one of their options. Their goal was to make the people lose hope from the hunger, so that we will have no choice but to leave the island.” Hotels and an airport were under construction on Sicogon and some residents still battling against eviction from the island. Gonzales disagreed with the companies’ claims of creating job opportunities: “What happened on Sicogon is disaster capitalism…They took advantage of the situation after the tragedy and left people with nothing.” In an early report of worsening land disputes in Sicogon, villagers claimed that they were hungry and being threatened, and that release of relief goods was "conditional". One villager said that families would not receive a pack of relief goods containing rice, sardines and noodles unless they signed a paper saying they would leave the island.
A storm survivor who had worked as a security guard for SIDECO and Ayala spoke of personal experience of the two firms preventing residents from rebuilding their homes. He said that the companies instructed boat owners and village chiefs that construction materials were banned on the island and that he was ordered to stop supplies from reaching residents. He claimed to have witnessed guards intimidating and harassing storm survivors who refused to sign agreements to hand over their land, destroying houses, ordering people to leave and even firing a gun next to a pregnant woman. A researcher at IBON, a local NGO monitoring rebuilding in disaster zones, said the government helped companies take advantage of areas affected by the disaster: ”Tyhoon Haiyan was actually the beginning of a very, very bad reconstruction programme…Here comes a corporation that is interested not in your rehabilitation, but in a lot of things your trauma can offer.”
FESIFFA, Rural Poor Institute of Land and Human Rights Services, Inc. (RIGHTS) and Focus on the Global South established the Behind the Beauty: Sicogon Exposed campaign to push the Philippine Government to take action to resolve agrarian reform and human rights issues on the island, with hundreds of local farmers and forest dwellers displaced to make way for beach resorts and other tourism infrastructure. In August 2018, when the first plane landed at the newly constructed Sicogon Airport, Sicogon Exposed pointed out that the facility sites on 22 hectares of public land, with government agencies such as DENR remaining ‘blind and mute’ to these developments that leave people with ‘less and less land to set foot on’. In March 2019 simultaneous with actions around the country, FESIFFA held actions at Sicogon Airport, the beach and in front of tourism resorts, protesting corporate greed in establishing resorts for the wealthiest 1% while evicting thousands of poor families from the land and fishing grounds they depend upon for their livelihoods. The campaign launched a petition: Stop Ayala’s monster tourism on Sicogon Island!
Cease-and-Desist Order stalls development
FESIFFA filed a petition for revocation of the land conversion order on 4th August 2017. The petition stated that SIDECO and Ayala had failed to comply with the terms of the compromise agreement, including providing relocation site, housing and livelihoods. One year and seven months later DAR took action, ordering Ayala Land Inc. and private landowners of high-end resorts on Sicogon Island to stop development activities in a disputed parcel of land. A seven-page Cease-and-Desist Order (CDO) dated 6th March 2019 ordered Ayala, SIDECO and persons acting on their behalf to refrain from continuing with construction activities until a petition for revocation of conversion was resolved or acted upon. The CDO covered 333.4 hectares of land, nearly a third of the island. Besides construction of structures the CDO prohibited ground preparation: preparatory works such as testing, measuring, surveying and earth-moving. The two resorts operating on the island were not covered by the CDO but were temporarily closed. Several residents held protest actions at the offices of DAR and DENR.