CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY – A farmers’ group leader accused three environment officers of brokering a deal that would allow a multinational company to utilize a huge tract of land currently occupied by residents under the government’s community-based forestry management agreement (CBFMA) in Bukidnon.
In a statement, Leonardo Montemayor, Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) national board chairperson and former agriculture secretary, accused Vergilino Alima, Bukidnon provincial environment and natural resources officer, together with Virgilio Batocail and Felicisimo Escuadro Jr, both Bukidnon-based community environment and natural resources officers (Cenros), as the alleged “ringleaders” in the supposed transaction.
Montemayor said the environment officials are “reportedly pressuring or inducing holders of [CBFMAs] to illegally sublease their landholdings to a giant agri-business company involved in pineapple plantations in Bukidnon.”
He said Alima and his colleagues tried to negotiate so the Merangeran Free Farmers Association Inc. (MERFASI), an FFF affiliate and Securities and Exchange Commissioned-registered organization, will lease out the CBFMA land to said corporation.
Montemayor has also accused Alima and Batocail of encouraging “a breakaway faction to register a separate organization with a similar name and the same officials address as MERFASI’s, while also claiming CBFMA No. 55150.”
He said the “rogue group” even approved a resolution to “lease illegally” the CBFMA area in favor of an agri-corporation.
He added that two of that company’s officials have been “urging MERFASI-FFF members to sublease their landholdings for up to 12 years in exchange for land rentals, a Christmas bonus, medical and other benefits.”
Since early this year, Montemayor said, Alima and Batocail have been repeatedly ordering a joint election of rival parties supposedly to resolve the organizational dispute, and threatening non-attendees with loss of their CBFMA landholdings and privileges.
But Alima has denied the accusation that he and his colleagues have orchestrated the supposed deal that would give an agri-business entity permit to establish a pineapple plantation in Barangay Merangeran, Quezon town, where the CBFMA was granted to the people there.
“It’s not true. I have never done that,” was Alima’s reply to the allegation during a telephone interview.
The 25-year CBFMA, covering 164.57 hectares of public forest land in Merangeran, was awarded to MERFASI on June 23, 2009.
Alima explained that the CBFMA beneficiaries can actually forge an agreement with other entities interested in the land as long as they comply with government regulations.
“The people’s organization are allowed, based on agreement, to enter or negotiate to develop their area, provided it is consistent with the policies and guidelines of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources,” he said.
In fact, Alima said, there are a handful of companies willing to put up their business in the CBFMA area in Merangeran, but withdrew because of the infighting among MERFASI members.
“There are several investors who want to come in, but a discord in the people’s organization has prevented them from investing,” he said.
The conflict in MERFASI, Alima said, stemmed from some members forming their own group, although he added it is the Penro’s goal to “unite” the factions since the government cannot issue two “tenure instruments,” which, in this case, is the CBFMA, in one area.
To resolve the issue, Alima said the Cenro of Don Carlos, Bukidnon, will conduct an assessment starting this week, to determine the legitimate MERFASI members as there have been reports that some persons identified themselves as members but they have not occupied or developed an area under the CBFMA.
“Those who have not actually cultivated, we will disregard. It won’t matter which group he belongs to, as long as he is an actual occupant or cultivator,” he added.
Subleasing not part of deal
In a phone interview, Victoriano Cuizon Jr., MERFASI president, said the government recognizes their group as they possess the legal documents to prove their authenticity.
He also confirmed that his group made a deal with the multinational corporation, although he added that the negotiation has yet to be finalized due to the ongoing tension between the two factions.
Cuizon explained that the agreement was on pineapple growing and subleasing the CBFMA area was not part of the deal.
He said they are negotiating with the said corporation, so they could earn to pay the taxes they owe the provincial government of Bukidnon, amounting to almost a million pesos.
“We don’t want to be penalized, that’s why we decided to enter into an agreement with Del Monte Philippines Inc. (DMPI) so we could raise enough money to pay the taxes,” Cuizon said, adding that the taxes are not for the land, but for the crops like corn and sugarcane planted on the CBFMA land.
Cuizon also clarified that Alima has nothing to do with the MERFASI negotiation with DMPI.
“The Penro and Cenro are not involved with our agreement with Del Monte. It was our decision,” he added.