Concerned human rights groups meet at the 5th Regional Meeting on Human Rights and Agribusiness in South East Asia
The raging forest fires in Indonesia and numerous extrajudicial killings related to agribusiness land grabs throughout South East Asia have made headlines all over the world. These shocking violations of peoples’ fundamental human rights have compelled concerned human rights groups to come together at the 5th Regional Meeting on Human Rights and Agribusiness in South East Asia during the 5th and the 6th of November 2015 in Puerto Princesa, on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
Among the 93 participants were representatives from the National Human Rights Commissions from Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines as well as concerned civil society organizations and community members affected by agribusiness land grabs. This was the 5th meeting in a series of meetings (in Indonesia in 2011, Cambodia in 2012, Thailand in 2013 and Myanmar in 2014) bringing together a network of concerned actors who are working together to make change happen on the ground in line with their respective mandates. Faced with the continued violations of human rights by transnational and national agribusinesses, developing stronger legal frameworks and strengthening ways in which companies can be held accountable has become more important than ever.
Land grabs and forest destruction in Palawan, the last ecological frontier of the Philippines (for more information see CALG FPP press release)
Community members from the municipalities of Bataraza and Española reminded meeting participants of the urgent need to halt and remedy the gross human rights violations committed by agribusinesses on the island of Palawan. They had travelled to Puerto Princesa to give testimony of how their rights had been violated by several palm oil companies that continue to expand their palm oil plantations on community lands without their Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC).
A fact-finding mission preceding the regional meeting, led by the Palawan NGO Coalition Against Land Grabbing (CALG) and the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines (CHRP), had revealed a pattern of land grabs and forest destruction by palm oil companies, partly owned by Malaysian and Singaporean investors. Documents examined by the investigators indicated the complicity of government officials in defrauding indigenous peoples of their lands. The Philippine Government’s National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) announced it would issue an injunction to halt the operations of the company concerned since it has been operating contrary to the provisions of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act which requires that lands can only be taken with the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of indigenous peoples and with the involvement of the NCIP.
John Mart Salunday, a board member of CALG and President of NATRIPAL, the federation of indigenous peoples in Palawan, explained the disastrous impacts palm oil expansion has had:
'It is like people in the impacted oil palm communities are dying little by little because they no longer have the plants needed to cure themselves. Before they only walked half an hour to get the raw material for building their houses, for their artifacts and medicinal plants. Now they have to walk half a day to the other side of the mountain before they can find the plants they need.'
Call for a palm oil moratorium in Palawan and a South East Asian Regional Human Rights Court (see Palawan Statement)
Compelled by the evidenced severity of human rights violations related to palm oil expansion in Palawan, the meeting endorsed a recent petition by the affected community members calling for a moratorium on palm oil expansion in Palawan.
Furthermore, the meeting revealed that not only in the Philippines but throughout the region, growing concern about land grabbing and land investment is not being matched with mandatory controls and enforceable standards. Large-scale land allocations for timber plantations and agribusiness continue to be given priority over communities’ rights, livelihoods and local food security, further exacerbating the growing inequality in the region. Communities frustrated by the lack of government actions to uphold their rights have increasingly taken their cases to the international level. Meeting participants re-iterated the call of the South East Asia National Human Rights Institutions Forum (SEANF) for the establishment of a regional human rights court at the ASEAN or Asian level.