Agrarian reform beneficiaries, water district cry foul over occupation of oil palm lands by Manobo ancestral domain claimants

A “No Trespassing” sign at an oil palm plantation in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur covered by the CADT application. Photo taken January 27, 2023 by CHRIS V. PANGANIBAN/MindaNews

SAN FRANCISCO, Agusan del Sur (MindaNews / 27 January) – Agrarian reform beneficiaries and officials at the local water utility have protested the move by members of a Manobo clan to occupy an area in San Francisco and Rosario towns in Agusan del Sur planted to oil palm that they are claiming as their ancestral domain.

The claimants, who call themselves the Oyay Mansaloay Antod Ogow Bando Ugong (OMAUBAO) Tribal Clan Organization, started moving into the contested area in the last week of December last year. But it was only on January 24 that San Francisco Mayor Grace Carmel Paredes-Bravo received a letter dated January 23 from Bardo Bando, the municipal tribal chieftain, informing her of the claimants’ decision.

Bando cited the certificate of recognition of their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) application issued by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples on Dec. 14, 2022 as the basis of their move.

Citing a portion of the NCIP certification, Bando said that based on Section 52 of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) the recognition “effectively terminates any legal basis for the jurisdiction that may be previously claimed over the ancestral domain” on the part of the Department of Agrarian Reform and other government agencies claiming jurisdiction over the said ancestral domain.

In their general assembly on January 22, the Lapinigan, Ormaca, Maligaya, Mate, Cabantao Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association (LAOMMACA) decided to terminate their compromise agreement with OMAUBAO after they found out that even non-members of the Lumad group were harvesting palm oil.

LAOMMCA chair Menio Orcullo said that after they decided to invalidate the agreement they filed a complaint of qualified theft before the barangay council of Mate.

He said he initially agreed to allow some OMAUBAO members to harvest the oil palm fruits but that the latter violated the agreement by bringing in unauthorized harvesters.

At least 250 LAOMMCA members who were awarded by DAR with individual land titles covering 600 hectares some of which were planted to oil palm are in danger of losing their lands to the CADT application.

Apprehensive over the CADT application, the San Francisco Water District (SFWD) board passed a resolution reiterating their previous stand to exclude the 1,658 hectares of Mt. Magdiwata Watershed Forest Reserve Area from the claim.

Elmer Luzon, SFWD general manager, said the board would file an administrative complaint against the NCIP commissioners for using the words “terminate all previous jurisdictions,”  which he said is an abuse of discretion.

Mt. Magdiwata, the only source of potable water in San Francisco, Agusan del Sur. MindaNews photo by CHRIS V. PANGANIBAN

The SFWD resolution cited section 56 of IPRA, which recognizes property rights within ancestral domains that are already existing before the passage of the law.

The watershed, which is the only source of potable water for the 20 villages of this town, was declared as forest reserve by President Fidel Ramos through Presidential Proclamation 282 dated October 25, 1993.

SFWD has been in the forefront of protecting and rehabilitating the watershed over the last three decades. Its forest cover has since increased from 41 percent to 95 percent.

The forest used to be denuded, with about 900 hectares denuded by large-scale logging in the 1960s up to 1970s and the unabated tree-cutting activities in the 1980s to supply sawmills that proliferated in the town.

According to SFWD studies, only 695 ha of natural forest (41 percent) was left in the Mt. Magdiwata watershed in December 1997. Around 1,200 ha had been considered inadequate forest, open area grasslands, and small portions of man-made forest, oil palm and abaca farms.

In 2019, Bando  a.k.a. “Datu Hag-um,” who is also Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative in the town council here, assured they will not damage Mt. Magdiwata.

The conflict over the 7,680-hectare land has prompted Bravo to mediate in a series of meetings since last month, but no resolution has been reached.

Bravo, a lawyer, said overlapping claims on lands being claimed as ancestral domains and covered with titles as agrarian reform areas at the same time should be resolved by following the process set by the joint administrative committee composed of different government line agencies tasked to resolve the conflict. 

She said in an interview that there is an urgent need to exclude titled properties and forest reserve areas from CADTs since IPRA itself recognizes property rights.

She explained that based on the law, legitimate titles to privately owned lands issued before IPRA was enacted in 1997 and bought by another owner afterwards are still “tucked in” in legal parlance.

“We can’t say automatic takeover due to the NCIP certification. We should follow the proper process that should be obeyed by conflicting claims,” she said.

She said that even NCIP Caraga Regional Director Ordonio Rocero Jr. and his legal counsel acknowledged during their meeting in Butuan City on January 17 that IPRA recognizes existing property rights within ancestral domains.

Lawyer Marceliano Monato, NCIP provincial legal officer, stood pat that they should not be stopped from processing the CADT application unless ordered by a court.

Monato said that once the CADT is registered with the Land Registration Authority, there is a one-year grace period for those who will contest and want to cancel portions of the CADT area.

For his part, Ferdausi Cerna, former NCIP Caraga regional director, said a CADT will always prevail over any presidential proclamation since this claim of ownership is deemed to have existed “since time immemorial.”

But he added that along with the rights as CADT holders is the obligation to protect the environment.

Already, OMAUBAO had established boom gates and put up tarpaulins warning against “trespassing” in many oil palm areas.

Bravo said she has received reports that alleged armed men were roaming the area.

The mayor said the joint administrative committee should come up with a solution to prevent armed violence. (Chris V. Panganiban/MindaNews)