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A cloud over Bukidnon [forest]

  • Asia Pacific Report

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THE MOOD in the chapel on the outskirts of Malaybalay, capital of Bukidnon province was somber. Six datu (chiefs) and several delegates of the indigenous tribal Lumad people of the region were airing their concerns about a controversial New Zealand-backed $5.7 million forestry aid project for the Philippines. Ironically, less than 100 metres away, in a derelict building nestling amid a plantation of benguet pines on land earmarked for the project, were living about 80 “squatters” who in a sense symbolised the problem at the root of the scheme. Squatters would be the term used by some New Zealand officials and their technical advisers. But it was hardly appropriate, and reflected the insensitivity to many of the social and economic problems in the province. The homeless people belonged to the Bukidnon Free Farmers and Agricultural Labourers’ Organisation, or Buffalo, as it was generally known. Their story was one of injustice, victimisation and harassment, only too common in the Philippines.
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A cloud over Bukidnon forest, 1989
If a major project isn’t based on sound development principles of
partnership with the local community then it is likely to be a disaster—
just another chapter in the ird World rip-off story.
Development aid advocate Rupert Watson
T  in the chapel on the outskirts of Malaybalay, capital of Bukidnon
province in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao was sombre. Six
datu (chiefs) and several delegates of the indigenous tribal Lumad people of
the region were airing their concerns about a controversial New Zealand-
backed .-million forestry aid project for the Philippines. Ironically, less
than  metres away, in a derelict building nestling amid a plantation of
Benguet pines on land earmarked for the project, were living about 
so-called “squatters” who in a sense symbolised the problem at the root
of the scheme. Squatters would be the term used by some New Zealand
officials and their technical advisers. But it was hardly appropriate for the
indigenous people, and reflected the insensitivity of officials to many of the
social and economic problems in the province.
e homeless people belonged to the Bukidnon Free Farmers and
Agricultural Labourers’ Organisation, or Buffalo, as it was generally known.
eir story was one of injustice, victimisation and harassment, only too
common in the Philippines.
Since , about  peasants had occupied a -hectare tract
of idle farmland and a -hectare forest reserve belonging to Central
Mindanao University but which they had traditionally tilled. Evicted by the
university in March , two farmer leaders were shot by members of the
private “paratrooper” security agency employed on the campus.
Buffalo was formed to campaign for the free distribution of the
university’s idle lands to the traditional tillers. When the farmers were
finally forced off the land by Filipino troops and their homes bulldozed in
October , they set up a protest camp outside the offices of provincial
governor Ernesto Tabios.
A cloud over Bukidnon Forest, 1989
Embarrassed by the protest and the deaths of malnourished and ill
children, the governor gave the Buffalo people temporary quarters in the
building in Malaybalay forest included in the Bukidnon New Zealand-
backed forestry aid project. e scheme was endorsed by an exchange of
notes between the Philippine and New Zealand governments in February
 a week before I wrote a concluding op-ed article in a four-part series
about the aid project for e Dominion.
e issue of ancestral land, titles and right to live was crucial to the Lumads’
case. Lumads are among indigenous people known as “Tribal Filipinos”, of
which there are some . million out of a total Philippines population of
 million living in remote areas of Luzon, Mindanao and some islands of
the Visayas. According to the TABAK tribal advocacy organisation, they
comprise a diverse collection of more than  ethnolinguistic groups, each
with a distinct language and culture. Historically, they were least influenced
by three centuries of Spanish rule and Christianity and they were able to
preserve their indigenous culture, communal lifestyle and tribal customs.
But this changed from the start of American rule in the Philippines from
 until the Japanese invasion in the Second World War. Tunay na Alyansa
ng Bayan sa Katutbo (TABAK) noted in a report about “development
aggression”, indigenous rights and ancestral domain:
Ever since the start of American colonial rule, the forces of market
economy and central government have slowly, but steadily, caught up
with them. Lowlanders, backed by state legislation, seized communal
lands and eroded local self-sufficiency in the process … Since they
occupy areas rich with natural resources, Tribal Filipinos are besieged
by a growing number of foreign and local corporations engaged in
mining, logging, plantations and other export industries.
e Bukidnon project evolved out of a visit to the Philippines in May
 by New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange, who was the first head
of government to arrive in the country after “people power” had ousted
the Marcos regime. Having heard disquieting stories about the aid project,
I travelled to Bukidnon to see for myself. Also in the group were Maire
Leadbeater of the Philippine Solidarity Network; Janine McGruddy of Peace
Movement Aotearoa; and concerned local people, including representatives
of the indigenous tribal Lumad people. Leadbeater recalled later:
e truth about the forestry project and its probable impact on the lives
of local people ensured that this “exposure” was also disturbing … Sadly,
Indigenous struggles
this is an area that needs forestry development, and the New Zealand
concept of tree-farming, although not well understood, has appeal.
e area allocated for initial development, Malaybalay Forest, already
has scattered pines and evidence of much man-made damage. But the
“RPNZ” project, as it is known locally, has fatal flaws.
Among the flaws was the militarisation of the area and alleged human
rights violations. e Lumads continued to protest over the “inadequate and
rushed” project and petitioned the Philippines government, condemning
what they described as a lack of adequate consultation. Seeing the violations
at first hand, I wrote a series of articles that led to a Television New Zealand
current affairs report, further media coverage, questions in Parliament and
finally a review of the project that recommended changes.
New Zealand Listener,  April 
A , indigenous Higaonon tribespeople are scattered among the
mountain ranges bordering Agusan Norte, Agusan Sur and Bukidnon, three of the
most militarised provinces of the Philippines. Historians say the Higaonon once
lived in the fertile lowlands on the southern island of Mindanao but were driven
into the mountains by settlers. Intrusions by transnational and Philippine logging
corporations in the late s forced them into higher and more remote areas.
Stubborn resistance has become part of the tradition of the Higaonon, one of
three tribes of Lumads (the generic term for all non-Moslem indigenous peoples
on Mindanao) living in a rugged and strategic region developed for a controversial
New Zealand forestry aid project. is tradition has produced several rebel
chieftains like Datu Mangkalasi, who resisted loggers invading ancestral lands
until he was assassinated in .
Another is Hucad Mandahinog, alias “Kumander Jabbar”, a New People’s Army
guerrilla commander operating in north-central Mindanao, who has an ,-
peso (NZ) price on his head.
Now some of the Lumads, split by offers of instant wealth by Philippine
government officials or by being co-opted by the Presidential Assistance for National
Minorities (PANAMIN) agency, are being steadily drawn into a counter-insurgency
role not unlike that of the Montagnards of the Central Highlands in Vietnam, which
the United States Special Forces trained and deployed against the Viet Cong.
A low-key, often vicious, Green Beret style type of warfare is being waged
by the Armed Forces against the gritty Higaonon,” says Romi Gatuslao, a leading
A cloud over Bukidnon Forest, 1989
Mindanao journalist who has been reporting on the -year-old insurgency.
At times, the military could combine this with conventional means like multi-
pronged infantry attacks, shelling, or—worseair strikes on barrios (villages)
which the tribals swore terrified them at first.
It is in this context that New Zealand’s biggest aid scheme in the Philippines, the
Bukidnon Industrial Tree Plantation Project, finally got under way in December
 after adverse reports about opposition from some Lumads. Philippine
Foreign Affairs Secretary Raul Manglapuz and the New Zealand Ambassador,
Alison Stokes, ended three years of delicate negotiations when they exchanged
notes in Manila during February . Project manager William Ellis, a Rotorua-
based forestry consultant, set up headquarters in the Bukidnon provincial capital
of Malaybalay and began preparations for a hardwood species nursery.
Expected eventually to cost  to  million, the project will initially cost
New Zealand  million a year for five years while the Philippines will put up .
million for the five-year period. e Philippine government share will be funded
by the Asian Development Bank.
e reafforestation scheme [is planned to] develop a ,-hectare area in the
strategic north-eastern hill country of Bukidnon, near Mt Tago. e three-stage
plan, developed over  years, will eventually involve three parcels of land. After
initial development of the -hectare Malaybalay Forest, which already has
an existing but scattered and fire-depleted pine plantation of  hectares, the
“Squatters” on their ancestral tribal land in . Conrado Dumindin (second from right
rear) and other Lumads in Bukidnon Forest, Mindanao, Philippines. D R
Indigenous struggles
project will be extended to the Kibalabag ( hectares) and Siloo forests (
hectares). Kibalabag is reportedly the subject of ancestral Higaonon land claims
and other areas are claimed by the three main Lumad tribes in the province
Higaonon, Bukidnon and Manobo.
Already the project, the result of a visit to Manila by Prime Minister David
Lange in March , just weeks after the so-called snap revolution ousted
President Ferdinand Marcos from power, has become a severe test of the New
Zealand government’s aid strategy. Labour’s policy when it was elected in 
pledged that “aid will be directed specifically to carefully monitored projects that
will enhance development among poor and rural dwellers in recipient countries”.
In spite of the insistence by New Zealand aid officials that the project has a
degree of local involvement and representation which is a “significant advance” in
the style of management of aid projects, many local Lumad leaders have identified
several flaws. Among their fears is that the project might inevitably be drawn
into the military’s “low-intensity conflict”, a concern shared by a Māori consultant
engaged by the Foreign Affairs Ministry to investigate the project’s implications
for the indigenous peoples. Yet this concern has apparently been ignored by New
Zealand officials.
Manuka Henare, executive director of the Catholic Commission for Justice,
Peace and Development, warned in his report to the government after the visit
A Bukidnon mother living on the land intended for forestry in  feared for her future.
D R
A cloud over Bukidnon Forest, 1989
to Mindanao last May: “e New Zealand government should not be seen to be
party to the militarisation of the Bukidnon forestry project. Whenever possible ,
assurances should be sought from the Philippine government that it will not be
part of the project’s development.
Yet the New Zealand government’s own “appraisal” report on the project,
drawn up in July  by Rotorua consultants Murray North and the Ministry
of Forestry, dismissed the political and military implications for the project in
less than one-third of a page. And in terms described by Filipino critics as “rather
n a ï v e ”.
e  Revised Forestry Code drawn up under the Marcos dictatorship and
not repealed by President Corazon Aquinos government, specifically calls for the
deployment of military units in areas where tree plantations are to be established.
e apparent rationale for this militarisation is to counter the growing insurgency
in rural areas.
Since late , large areas of Mindanao have been affected by military counter-
insurgency strategy, also reminiscent of Vietnam, known as “hamletting”. Under
this strategy, peasant or Lumad families are forced to move from their farms or
homes into fortified hamlets in an attempt by the military to isolate and engage
the insurgents.
“Evidence suggests that sections of the military continue to insist on their
involvement in many of the forestry schemes, ostensibly to maintain greater
security,” says Henare. “In many cases there has been active growing resistance by
the people to such forestry schemes.
According to church-backed Task Force Detainees Agencys statistics on
Mindanao from January until mid-November , there were  political
arrests;  “salvagings” (murderssee “Human rights abuses in the Pacific,
1992” on page 135);  killed and  wounded in  massacres;  torture victims;
and  forced evacuations. Not included in these figures have been a series
of unsolved killings by the military and right-wing vigilantes in the Bukidnon
barangay (village) of Kapalaran, about  kilometres south of Malaybalay, and a
forced exodus of at least  families in the region.
Another portion of the New Zealand government’s  report which has
upset Lumad leaders, declared: “[e Lumads] are willing to forgo their claims to
the land in exchange for tangible benefits. e datus are a pragmatic lot and would
consider the offer if they are consulted.
Although New Zealand officials dismiss this statement as unimportant
and misleading, it has nevertheless caused great anxiety and concern about
the project among the tribespeople. According to organiser Yul Caringas of
Kahulpungan sa Lumadnong Kalingkawasan (KLK, Organisation of Tribal
People’s Liberation), the Lumad people have not been treated seriously
Indigenous struggles
because they are looked upon as being nomadic: “We’re labelled as uncivilised
or squatters because we hop from one place to another; we’re regarded as
economically unstable.
Caringas says the New Zealand projec t violates the Lumad concept of Bunkatol
ha bulawan, an expression difficult to translate into English, but which is often
described as a “jar of virtues”.
At first we were happy it was a reafforestation project,” he says. “But when
we investigated it further we realised the project wasn’t going to benefit our
communitiesit was an economic business venture. It will turn our farmer
brothers into hired labourers on their own land.” An estimated  Lumads out
of a total population in the forest area of , people could be affected.
Although KLK reportedly raised no specific objections at a recent meeting
of the project management committee in Malaybalay, its officials have expressed
their concerns to Henare, to myself during a recent visit, and to a deputation of the
International Peace Brigade, including Philippine Solidarity Network Aotearoa
campaigner Maire Leadbeater and Peace Movement Aotearoa campaigns co-
ordinator Janine McGruddy.
Dismissed by some New Zealand officials as “political activists”, KLK have
nevertheless been identified by Henare as the legitimate voice of the Lumads. He
believes that the project can be genuinely successful only if it has the support and
co-operation of the KLK. Some of the Lumad concerns appear to be influenced by
the exploitation their people have experienced at the hands of transnational and
Philippine logging corporations.
“Critical studies of the industrial tree plantation programmes instituted by
the Philippine government since the s show evidence of major problems
despite the fine intentions,” says Henare. “e studies indicate that the farmers of
Mindanao affected by these programmes are confused about them, especially the
security of their occupancy and use of the land.
“Two aspects of these tree-planting programmes are particularly worrisome
to small settler farmers: the involvement of large corporations in the planting and
marketing of these commercial tree species; and the intensification of militarisation
in the area targeted for these tree programmes.
In December , the bishops of the Philippine Episcopal Commission on
Tribal Filipinos (ECTF) protested to President Aquino and the government over
the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ (DENR) “immoral and
unjust” contract reafforestation programme. “We laud the effort to be noble in
intent for it seeks to prevent a bleak and catastrophic future for the Filipinos,
the ECTF said. “Yet we are greatly concerned because we believe … that the pro-
gramme could ultimately dispossess tribal Filipinos and upland people of their
A cloud over Bukidnon Forest, 1989
“It is a programme that will probably lead to bloodshed. It is a programme
that opens possibilities for graft and corruption. Even from an ecological [stand-
point], we believe that the programme will not work.
Lumad leaders find it difficult to see the New Zealand project in isolation
from their own government’s reafforestation programme, especially when it is the
DENR which is the agency working with the New Zealand government. However,
counsellor Warren Searell at the New Zealand Embassy in Manila believes the
“differences and misunderstandings” will be ironed out now that the project is
under way.
Aid officials stress the strong association between New Zealand and the
Philippines in forestry, particularly through the ASEAN regional model estab-
lished in Tarlac province in . Lessons learned on that project and applied to
Bukidnon are regarded as a logical next step for New Zealand development aid.
Forestry consultant Warren Ellis, who has wide experience in developing
countries, including Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands,
believes the project is vital for the future of the Philippines: “Indiscriminate and
excessive exploitation over the last few decades has eliminated, or significantly
degraded, most of the countrys virgin forests. e Bukidnon project could make a
vital contribution to the future of this country.
Ellis cites last year’s Asian Development Bank forestry sector report, which
indicates that not more than seven million hectares of the forest in the Philippines
could be adequately stocked. Of this area, virgin production forests amount to
only . million hectares. Satellite scans suggest the situation is even worse and
forest destruction continues at an alarming rate, possibly in excess of ,
hectares a year.
Although the New Zealand government regards it as primarily the responsibility
of the Philippine authorities to ensure the local community is informed and
consulted about the project, the embassy in Manila took the initiative in  by
funding information programmes. Last July, Ambassador Alison Stokes answered
open questions on a radio broadcast in Malaybalay.
Yet although several datus circulated a draft petition in January demanding
more time to consider the project, the Philippine and New Zealand governments
pushed through the agreement. Among Lumad leaders that I met who were
critical of the project was barrio captain Conrado Dumindin, who says: “None of
the tribal people actually affected have been consulted.
Ellis insists the project will benefit the local people, including the Lumads. “It is
recognised that the project’s success hinges on people’s acceptance,” he says. “is
means we need to convince the people of their benefits.”
Plans as part of this scenario include cash cropping of the land as it is being
developed, “stewardship” for families currently living in the project area, devel-
Indigenous struggles
opment of related agriculture, a worker share in the return from growing trees and
“selected social programmes”.
An estimated . million a year from the sale of coffee would go to the local
people, as well as the provision of , tonnes of firewood a year and “cash
returns or family food” produced from the  hectares cleared each year.
Permanent employment would be provided for an estimated  people, with
further work for  people in associated operations.
e Council for International Development (CID), an umbrella group on non-
governmental aid organisations, is investigating the issues raised by the Bukidnon
“ere is debate in the NGO community about whether support can modify
the overall impact of a big aid project,” says Rupert Watson, a spokesperson for
CID. “Possible projects of this type could be in health, education and small-scale
business. However, there is a very strong view that such moves would be mere
window dressing.
“If a major project isn’t based on sound development principles of partnership
with the local community then it is likely to be a disasterjust another chapter in
the ird World rip-off story.
I J , Bukidnon Vice-Governor Jose Ma. R. Zubiri Jr branded
the reforestation efforts of the privatised Bukidnon Forests Incorporated
previously the New Zealand-backed Bukidnon Industrial Tree Plantation
Project (BIPP)as a failure. He called for the incorporation to stop
operating before its -year industrial forest management agreement is
due to end in .
Instead, said Zubiri, the ,-hectare project area should be given
to the indigenous Lumad people who had applied for a Certificate of
Ancestral Domain over it. General manager Reynaldo Abordo of the
partially state-owned incorporation admitted that only  hectares had
been reforested, but denied the project was a failure. e project never
gained the consent of the Lumads in the area when the project began in
 with New Zealand funding. New Zealand officials claimed only 
percent of the land involved indigenous ancestral domain. According to a
damning Mindanao Interfaith People’s Conference research report on the
project in  which recommended closure:
Access to some traditional worship areas for the Lumads has been
severely affected by the BIPP/BFI project. Most of the traditional
landmarksstones, trees, rivershave either been removed, pulled
A cloud over Bukidnon Forest, 1989
out/transported or destroyed because the BIPP/BFI has no use for them
in the project.
Numerous laws supposedly protect and recognise indigenous
peoples’ ancestral claims in the Philippines, but these have been so
defined as to make many feel that the laws themselves are treacherous …
[I]t is of great concern that the New Zealand government’s approach to
the matter in relation to this project has been to minimise and gloss over
something which is clearly a complex, widely felt issue of fundamental
importance for the Lumad people of Bukidnon.
New Zealand’s involvement, eventually costing taxpayers almost 
million, ended in  when the project was terminated as a foreign-
assisted project of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
e area was heavily militarised because of this project.
 David Robie (, February ). Row over Bukidnon forestry project. e
Dominion, p. . e final part of a four-part series on the Philippines under
 Ibid.
TABAK (). Struggle against Development Aggression: Tribal Filipinos &
Ancestral Domain. Quezon City, Philippines: Tunay na Alyyansa ng Bayan Alay
sa Katutubo.
Ibid., p.xvii.
Maire Leadbeater (, March). Tribal people object to New Zealand forestry
aid project. Peacelink, #69, pp.–.
David Robie (, April ). Cloud over Bukidnon Forest. New Zealand
Listener, pp.–, .
Philippines: Zubiri says Bukidnon reforestation effort a failure (, January
). Minda News. Retrieved on  September , from www.forestcarbonasia.
Bukidnon—Report slams New Zealand’s biggest aid project in the Philippines
(, October). Kasama, 11(). Solidarity Philippines Australia Network.
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