By CHRIS V. PANGANIBAN
SAN FRANCISCO, Agusan del Sur— A sudden take over of palm oil lands here and in neighboring Rosario town by a Manobo tribal clan based on 7,680 hectares of ancestral domain claim has drawn protest from agrarian reform beneficiaries and the local water utility officials.
The looming conflict has prompted Mayor Grace Carmel Paredes-Bravo to mediate in a series of meetings since the last month, but a resolution on the claims remains to be seen.
Bravo, a lawyer, said overlapping of claims on ancestral lands and agrarian reform-issued land titles should be resolved by following the process with the joint administrative committee composed of different government line agencies tasked to resolve the conflict.
A letter from municipal tribal chieftain Bardo Bando to Bravo informing the mayor that the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) of Manobo Indigenous Peoples of San Francisco or more called Oyay Mansaloay Antod Ogow Bando Ugong (OMAUBAO) Tribal Clan Organization was issued with a Certificate of Recognition in an en banc resolution by seven commissioners of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) triggered the conflict.
According to Bando, the NCIP certification effectively terminates any legal basis for a jurisdiction that may be previously claimed by other government agencies, including the Department of Agrarian Reform, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Department of Interior and Local Government, Department of Justice and the National Development Corporation.
Concerned over the CADT application, the San Francisco Water District (SFWD) board passed a resolution reiterating their previous stands to exclude the 1,658 hectares of Mt. Magdiwata WatershedForest Reserve Area in any CADT application.
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 is an abuse of discretion.
The SFWD resolution cited section 56 of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, saying the property rights within existing ancestral domains shall be recognized and respected.
The watershed which is the only source of potable water for the 20 villages of this town has been declared as forest reserve by former 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 from what used to be an endangered 41percent forest cover to 95 percent lush and green forest.
The forest used to be denuded, with about 900 hectares that had turned into an open area grassland after large-scale logging in the 1960s up to 1970s and the unabated tree-cutting activities in the 1980s to supply lumber-milling plants that proliferated around town.
According to SFWD studies, only 695 hectares of natural forest (41 percent) was left in the Mt. Magdiwata watershed in December 1997 since around 1,200 ha had been considered inadequate forest, open area grasslands, and small portions of manmade forest, palm oil and abaca farms.
In 2019, Bando a.k.a. “Datu Hag-um” who is also Indigenous Peoples Mandatory Representative of the town council here, however assured that they will not damage Mt. Magdiwata which is the source of water of local residents.
Lawyer Marceliano Monato, provincial legal officer of National Commission for Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), stood pat that they should not be stopped the processing of the CADT since they are just following guidelines unless there will be a court order.
Monato said once the CADT will be registered with the Land Registration Authority , there is a one year grace period for those who will contest and wanted to cancel the portion of the CADT area.
For his part, Ferdausi Cerna, former NCIP Caraga Regional Director, said CADT will always prevail over any presidential proclamation since this claim of ownership has been honored since time immemorial.
“The tribe has their rights and they have also an obligation to protect the environment that should not cut trees and engage in mining activities inside the CADT area,” Cerna said.
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 the OMAUBAO after they found out that even non members of the lumad group were harvesting palm oil.
Menio Orcullo, chairman of LAOMMCA, said after they decided to invalidate the agreement, a complaint of qualified theft was filed at the village council of Mate.
He said he initially agreed to allow some OMAUBAO members to harvest the palm oil fruits. Still, the compromise deal defeated its purpose when they violated it with several truckloads of unauthorized harvesters.
At least 250 LAOMMCA members who were awarded by DAR with individual land titles covering 600 hectares some of its areas have palm oil plantation are in jeopardy since it is also covered by the CADT application.
Already, OMAUBAO had established boom gates and tarpaulins in many palm oil areas with a warning sign of “no trespassing” since these are already their property.
Mayor Bravo received reports that alleged armed group are roaming around the areas.
Bravo said in an interview that there is an urgent need to exclude titled properties and forest reserve areas from CADT since IPRA itself in its Implementing Rules and Regulations recognized property rights.
She explained based on the law, legitimate land titles privately owned
before IPRA law was enacted in 1997 and bought by another owner thereafter 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,” Bravo said.
She said even NCIP Caraga Regional Director Ordonio Rocero, Jr. and his legal counsel has acknowledged there is indeed property rights in IPRA law during their meeting in Butuan City on January 17.
The mayor said the Joint Administrative Committee should come up with a solution to prevent violence through armed struggle in the future.