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MANILA, Philippines – A private sector environment protection group is facing government investigation for allegedly carrying out acts that harmed the environment and displaced a community of indigenous people in Palawan.
The National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) will look into accusations that Bantay Kalikasan, led by its executive director Regina Paz “Gina” Lopez, had illegally taken over an area in Brooke’s Point, Palawan and displaced the indigenous people living there so it could build an ecotourism park.
But Bantay Kalikasan, the environmental arm of the ABS-CBN Foundation, defended the project and belied claims that authorities and stakeholders did not give the organization the green light to proceed with the construction of the park. Bantay Kalikasan suspects that pro-mining entities have a hand in the “malicious statements” against the organization.
According to the NCIP, it also received complaints that the organization allegedly cut down some 50 trees in the area, which was identified as the indigenous people’s ancestral domain and thus considered a sacred ground.
The commission will do field investigations and will talk to the affected community to determine if Bantay Kalikasan and the local officials failed to consult the stakeholders on the project.
The local indigenous community in Barangay Aribungos, Brooke’s Point filed a complaint over a year ago on what they called the illegal takeover of their ancestral land.
NCIP executive director Basilio Wandag said that based on initial findings, neither the local governor nor Bantay Kalikasan made consultations with the affected community, which is a violation of Republic Act 8371 or the Indigenous People’s Rights Act.
According to Basilio, no development can commence in ancestral domains without the tribal community’s free, prior, and informed consent.
“Ang community can say no or yes. Pag sinabi nilang no, mag–iisyu kami ng certification na ayaw ng community, na hindi pwedeng matuloy ang activity sa area [The community can say no or yes. If they say no, we will issue a certification saying that the community doesn’t like the project and the activity can’t proceed in the area],” Wandag said.
“Kung sabihin ng komunidad na ayaw namin, they will have to remove all the things na nilagay doon [If the community says it doesn’t favor the project, they will have to remove all the things they put in the area]” added Wandag.
In a statement, Bantay Kalikasan said the project was carried out in full consultation with the Brooke’s Point Municipal Government, “the indigenous people and dwellers near Sabsaban Falls in caring for and in the protection of the environment.”
“Bantay Kalikasan did not cut trees in Brooke’s Point, the organization offers the community ecotourism as an alternative livelihood to promote indigenous culture, cuisine and the natural beauty of the area,” the statement further said.
Bantay Kalikasan said the “malicious statements” made against them “is believed to be promoted by groups with mining interests in Brooke’s Point, who are exploiting a handful of local to protect business interests.”
But even as Bantay Kalikasan’s statement denied any cutting of trees, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)’ office in Palawan confirmedd that gmelina trees were cut down in the area.
“Itong mga gmelina trees na ito [are] within the reforestation project, dapat ang mag–issue ng permit ang secretary of the DENR. Wala silang permit ng secretary,” DENR Palawan provincial environment and natural resources officer (PENRO) Juan de la Cruz said.
[These gmelina trees are within the reforestation project, the permit should have been issued by the DENR secretary. They don’t have a permit from the secretary.]
According to Dela Cruz, his office has reprimanded DENR community environment and natural resources officer Emelina Cojamco for the tree cutting.
Dela Cruz said Cojamco would face an administrative case. “The cutting should have been forwarded for the approval of the Secretary, hindi nga ho idinaan sa akin [this was not coursed through me],” the PENRO said.
No nod from community
Also, tribal leaders countered Bantay Kalikasan’s claim that it got the nod of the affected community. “Wala kaming kaalam-alam na pinutol po nila ang kahoy, tapos sinabi, pinagawa na ang cottage na ‘yan [We had no idea that they had the trees cut down and they said they had the cottage built],” said tribal leader Renila Dulay.
Another tribal leader, Jun Jupin, complained of injustice. He said his cousin was arrested and imprisoned for three years for cutting down a paper tree but Bantay Kalikasan was able to get off the hook for doing the same thing.
“Sila pagkalalaki ng puno ng paper trees ilan na ang naputol, tapos walang nakakasuhan, walang nakukulong [They cut down some big paper trees but nobody from their side was being sued or imprisoned]” said Jupin.
For community’s benefit
For his part, Brooke’s Point Mayor Narciso Leoncio said the ecotourism park would benefit the local community. He, however, admitted that “meron nga konting naging violation [there were some violations].”
Panglima Tribe leader Fabio Lagan remains unconvinced: “Wala silang respeto, wala silang konsultasyon sa mga katutubo po…. Kaming katutubo karapatan po naming mamamahala sa lupa ng ninuno namin.”
[They don’t have any respect, they did not consult the indigenous people…We have the right to manage the land left to us by our forefathers.]