Human rights and agribusiness in South East Asia – Workshop report of the 5th Regional Meeting in the Philippines

Human rights and agribusiness in South East Asia – Workshop report of the 5th Regional Meeting in the Philippines

Human rights violations linked to agribusinesses in South East Asia compelled concerned human rights groups to come together at the 5th Regional Meeting on Human Rights and Agribusiness in South East Asia on 5 and 6 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 Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand as well as concerned civil society organisations and community members affected by agribusiness land grabs. This was the fifth 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.

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), revealed a pattern of land grabs and forest destruction by palm oil companies, partly owned by Malaysian and Singaporean investors. 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 palm oil companies that continue to expand their palm oil plantations on community lands without their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). 

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 oil palm expansion in Palawan. For more information on on-going land grabs and forest destruction in Palawan, see CALG FPP press release and recent reports documenting forest clearings in Sarong, Aborlan West-Coast, and Puerto Princesa West-Coast.

The meeting furthermore 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. At the end of the meeting the Palawan Statement was adopted through acclamation by the workshop participants.

Updates since the meeting:

  • Since the meeting, the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines (CHRP) has been coordinating with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) to further investigate the land grabs in Palawan. CHRP's regional director has made a further report on the case with recommendations to curb and remedy violations. To discourage further abuses, a new regional satellite office is being set up in Taytay in Palawan. 
  • Also as a result of the meeting, CHRP has started a gap analysis of laws in the Philippines that regulate agribusiness, to assess their consistency with the Republic of the Philippines’ obligations under human rights law, especially related to the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities to control their lands.
  • SUHAKAM and JOAS have confirmed their interest in hosting the 6th Regional Meeting on Human Rights and Agribusiness in South East Asia, which is set to take place in November 2016 in Sabah, Malaysia.