Advocacy group lashes out against palm oil expansion on Philippine island

Shaira Panela, correspondent, Global Forest Reporting Network -
Date of publication: 
23 December, 2014

This is the first part in a two-part series examining the planned expansion of palm oil production on the island of Palawan.

In June, the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Ramon Paje announced the country intends to convert eight million hectares of land to oil palm cultivation in Palawan, Philippines. The announcement has proved controversial. In the first week of November, an anti-oil palm expansion group sent a copy of their petition to the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of the Indigenous People for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights hoping to elevate their concerns over land-grabbing issues faced by tribes in Palawan, Philippines.

Marivic Bero, secretary-general of the Coalition Against Land Grabbing (CALG) said in a statement during the Yangon Workshop on Human Rights and Agribusiness in Myanmar, that “our hope is that, through the Special Rapporteur, the complains [sic] of our Palawan farmers and IP [indigenous people] brothers will be brought directly to the higher levels of our national government, as well as to selected agribusiness corporations.”

CALG gathered at least 4,000 signatures from tribes-people and farmers affected by the plantations, calling for a moratorium on oil palm expansion.

According to a Survival International report released in October, there are plans to convert up to 20,000 hectares of land in an area that includes forests and indigenous communities to oil palm plantations.

Palm oil is primarily used as a cooking oil, in food products, and for cosmetics and detergents. It is also being increasingly used for biofuel production.

The current UN Special Rapporteur is Victoria Tauli Corpuz, a well-known indigenous people’s rights advocate from the Philippines. In an earlier report, she said, “[These issues exist because] many governments just opted to give away our natural resources to big corporations…even if it means the rights of people who have been saving these resources and using them sustainably are violated, so I think that’s the challenge we face now.”

Palawan, often called “the Philippines’ last frontier,” is a narrow island located West of the Philippine archipelago. It hosts two World Heritage Sites and a wide array of endemic wildlife. But it lost more than 6 percent of its forest cover between 2001 and 2012, according to Global Forest Watch.

Data from Global Forest Watch shows Palawan lost 64,000 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2012 – representing more than 6 percent of its forests. Mining and illegal logging are major drivers, but conversion of forest to oil palm plantations is also a contributor, one that looks likely to grow as the Philippines aims to become a bigger player in the global palm oil industry. However, despite its rate of tree loss and the fact that only one large, continuous tract of intact forest still exists on the island, Palawan is flush with endemic wildlife found nowhere else in the world and is home to about a quarter of all Philippine animal species. Map courtesy of Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

The Philippines is not yet a major producer of palm oil, dwarfed by its neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia which have more than 15 million hectares between them and account for more than 85 percent of global production. But the country has ambitions to become a significant player. According to the Philippine Coconut Authority’s (PCA) 2014-2023 roadmap for oil palm, the Philippine government is seeking to develop at least 56,641 hectares of land for oil palm plantations, with another one million hectares earmarked for plantation expansion by 2023. The PCA stated that in the next 10 years, demand for palm oil is set to increase 5 percent per year.

Palm oil cultivation is a big driver of deforestation, contributing to the loss of some 3.5 million hectares of forest in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea in 20 years alone.

In response to Paje’s announcement of the plan to develop eight million hectares of land for oil palm plantations, Daniel Webber of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) said in a business forum that social and environmental impact studies are needed to ensure community wellbeing and mitigate environmental damage.

The Sweden-based Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) released a working paper earlier this year, showing the extent and implication of the growing palm oil industry in Palawan. According to the paper palm oil concessions occupy up to 99 percent of the total amount of agricultural land in southern part of the province.

A conservative estimate from the Department of Agriculture states the amount of land cultivated for oil palm in Palawan province grew from 3,500 hectares in 2009 to 5,840 hectares in 2013. However, research presented August 2014 to the Malaysian Palm Oil Council by Dr. Pablito Pamplona, an agricultural researcher affiliated with the Provincial Oil Palm Development Council, indicates 6,240 hectares of oil palm had been established as of April 2013. Meanwhile, reports from the Provincial Planning and Development Office and the Provincial Agriculturist Office references licenses for oil palm development projects in Palawan cover a total of 15,469 hectares, representing 2 percent of the total land area of the province, according to the SEI paper. Furthermore, the PCA and Palawan Palm Oil Industry Development Council (PPOIDC) have identified 208,000 hectares as suitable for oil palm cultivation.

However, a representative from one of the two companies overseeing palm oil expansion in Palawan maintains not all land covered by licenses will be developed, and that the presence of the palm oil industry will be beneficial to local communities. This is discussed in more detail in the second part of the series.


Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA Tree Cover Loss and Gain Area.” University of Maryland, Google, USGS, and NASA. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on Dec. 21, 2014.


Palawan palm oil presence likely to grow, industry rep denies harmful impact

Shaira Panela, correspondent – Global Forest Reporting Network –

23 December 2014

Plans to convert eight million hectares of land for palm oil production on Palawan island in the Philippines have been met with opposition from environmental and social advocacy groups, with a petition to cease development sent to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights by an anti-palm oil expansion group. But an industry representative denies claims that all eight million hectares will be cultivated to the detriment of wildlife and human communities, maintaining palm oil expansion will be beneficial to the people of Palawan.

The current oil palm expansion project is overseen by Palawan Palm & Vegetable Oil Mills, Inc. (PPVOMI), and Agumil Philippines, Inc. (AGPI). Both companies have only partial Philippine ownership, with PPVOMI 60 percent Singapore-owned and AGPI 25 percent Malaysia-owned, according to the SEI paper.

C.K. Chang, who represents PPVOMI and AGPI, said even though it may be possible to grow oil palm on approximately 200,000 hectares (ha) in Palawan, in reality only a fraction of that is developable.

“If you have seen the aerial data, most of the parts in that 200,000 ha are protected areas, some parts are hills which require terracing and building of roads which is costly to develop,” Chang told He added that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) permit they received only allows them to develop up to 15,000 hectares.

A working paper released by the Sweden-based Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) earlier this year, showing the extent and implication of the growing palm oil industry in Palawan. According to the paper, six towns have seen the expansion of oil palm plantations. These include Aborlan, Bataraza, Brooke’s Point, Rizal, Quezon, and Sofronio Española. The paper states palm oil concessions occupy up to 99 percent of the total amount of agricultural land in southern Palawan.

Government staff in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan’s capital, disclosed that foreign investors coming from Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, China and Japan are looking into acquiring agricultural lands in the province, according to the SEI paper.

“Altogether, the Provincial Agriculturist Office receives 15–20 requests per year from agricultural investors hoping for government support. Beyond the existing palm oil project, informal estimates suggest that between 10,000 and 20,000 ha of new land may have already been acquired for oil palm plantations, including for the establishment of new mill(s),” states the paper.

Palawan is deemed an ideal location for growing oil palm for a number of reasons: it is relatively accessible, land is affordable, and the population is peaceful—especially compared with conflict-laden Mindanao, where much of the country’s oil palm cultivation occurs. In addition, the town of Brooke’s Point where the Palawan oil palm mill is located has an international port that facilitates easy shipping and trade.

The brunt of the current palm oil expansion plans will affect the southern portion of Palawan, which lost more than 600,000 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2012 despite most of the island’s designated as a protected area, according to Global Forest Watch. Click to enlarge.

Meanwhile, the provincial government recorded at least 14 smallholder palm oil growing cooperatives and two other oil palm cultivation operations in 2013, all of which are bound by contracts to deliver fresh bunches of oil palm fruit to PPVOMI. The SEI paper also showed that many members of the cooperatives are migrant settlers while the laborers on the plantation are indigenous people who complain of unfair labor practices.

But the biggest problem faced by indigenous people in Palawan is land encroachment as the plantations expand.

A tribal farmer in Brooke’s Point was quoted in the SEI paper as saying, “The company is still expanding… burial grounds [are] cultivated with oil palm… herbal plants and trees normally used by native doctors are cut… bamboos, trees, vines for daily life and wild fruits and materials for houses are cut or bulldozed.”

According to the paper, some members in cooperatives were disqualified from entering the out-grower scheme for failing to provide land titles to the plots they volunteered to be cultivated for oil palm.

These complaints have been the basis for a petition for a moratorium by various indigenous people’s rights groups and advocates, including CALG.

For their part, AGPI staff recognized they need to review its means of land acquisition. In the SEI paper, an AGPI staff member admitted the company made mistakes, taking advantage of loopholes and selling land as “informal realty,” adding that “in some cases people were rightful owners, for instance indigenous peoples, but couldn’t sell since the land was ancestral domains…[in other cases] they were not the rightful owners.”

But a representative of the Palawan provincial government pointed his finger to the National Council on Indigenous People (NCIP), asserting that it was the one responsible in securing the ancestral domains of the tribes.

Meanwhile, Chang told that PPVOMI and AGPI do not encroach into tribal lands because they cannot develop without clearance from NCIP, DENR, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Agricultural Reform (DAR), and local government units. He maintained that the companies’ presence is benefiting the populace of Palawan.

“We are actually helping southern Palawan to solve its poverty problem. We are helping farmers… We help develop even the Muslim areas in Bataraza… We do not encroach their lands,” he said.

The Palawan peacock pheasant is endemic to Palawan, and is listed by the IUCN as Vulnerable. Photo by Dante Alighieri.

CALG said in a statement that even the NCIP—the government agency tasked to protect the rights of the tribesmen—is slow in protecting them from the encroachment of oil palm plantations in their area.

The SEI paper noted, “the provincial government appears to have placed itself in a somewhat difficult position by promoting the oil palm industry without clear terms of reference or regulatory environment. This has made it more challenging to define the responsibilities of Agumil, further complicated when provincial offices of national government agencies ceased involvement and the project became a solely private undertaking. While it has the mandate to oversee the implementation of the national policy on oil palm, the PCA in Puerto Princesa lacks guidelines for implementation that would clarify its regulatory role.”

Furthermore, the SEI study recommends the land grabbing issue should be taken up by the NCIP, DENR and DAR together to adequately address the concerns of Palawan residents and ensure their wellbeing, as well as that of the environment.

“The palm oil sector, like other large-scale agro-industries, is often promoted with a promise of economic benefits to cash-strapped local governments and landowners looking to improve limited livelihood opportunities,” states the paper. “Meanwhile, any large-scale land conversion and centralization of productive control carries social and environmental risks.

“Questions arise as to the net benefits of the changes in land use, the creation of winners and losers in local communities, and whether institutions are equipped to manage the agro-industry and safeguard the interests of local communities, other stakeholders, and citizens in general.”


Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA Tree Cover Loss and Gain Area.” University of Maryland, Google, USGS, and NASA. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on Dec. 23, 2014.