KASAMA Vol. 11 No. 4 / October–November–December 1997 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Extracts from the executive summary of the Mindanao Interfaith Peoples Conference report on the BFI/BIPP project reprinted from KAPATIRAN 12 September 1997

Controversy is not new to the New Zealand government–funded Bukidnon Forests Incorporated/Bukidnon Industrial Plantation Project (BFI/BIPP) in the southern island of Mindanao, Philippines.

A 14,000 hectare site in the northeast of Bukidnon province was initially selected for the forestry development, with a planned 21,000 hectares in total to be reforested, out of the 39,000 hectares covered by the Integrated Forest Management Agreement. It had an existing pine forest said to be of poor quality and the steep hills in the area were denuded and suffering from serious erosion. It was proposed to develop 3 parcels of land over an 18 year period. The trees selected for growing are not native to the area, but were chosen for their fast growing quality… since the project is of a commercial nature and the ultimate aim was to produce 420,000 tonnes of wood a year.

The project's objectives were to develop and operate a commercially sustainable plantation forestry operation which would contribute to local development and the national economy, and provide a model for replication elsewhere in the Philippines.

At the outset, New Zealand agreed to fund 56% of the capital cost of the project and the technical expertise, $1 million annually for 5 years. The Philippines finances its share of the cost from an Asian Development Bank loan. As of June 1996 $8,467,198 of NZODA [New Zealand Overseas Development Assistance] had been spent on the BFI, and a further $1,110,000 was forecast as expenditure in the 96/97 year.

The project is sited mostly on steep, mountainous terrain where the Lumads had been pushed by successive waves of colonisation – Spanish, American, and Filipino. The MIPC [Mindanao Interfaith Peoples Conference] study raises some alarming questions about the impact of the BIPP/BFI project on (Indigenous) ancestral land claims in the affected area. One estimate puts the number of ancestral claims in the BIPP area at 199.

Access to some traditional worship areas for the Lumads has been severely affected by the BIPP/BFI project. Most of the traditional landmarks – stones, trees, rivers have either been removed, pulled out/transported or destroyed because the BIPP–BFI has no use for them in the project. Some traditional worship areas are still accessible to the Lumads on approval of BIPP–BFI Management. The worship area of Barangay Kalasungay was being closely guarded by the BIPP, for fear that Lumads would set the forest on fire during their ritual. The MIPC report states that Lumad people are concerned that if the trees mature, and planting–harvesting operations begin to be profitable, then management policies will become stricter and include further restrictions and deprivations of their right to worship. Private ownership of the plantation is likely to further restrict access and close off any avenues for redress through government involvement.

New Zealand officials claim that only 10% of the project area has been identified as ancestral domain. This figure is the subject of much dispute. 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… Indigenous peoples' concepts of and arguments used to define ancestral territories were not recognised by the government and even less respected by BIPP/BFI.

Given the Philippine government's poor track record on issues of ancestral domain and Indigenous rights, and the importance of this issue, especially in Mindanao, it 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.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, will happen to the Social Forestry scheme. This was supposed to benefit families in affected areas by providing a way for them to earn income, as a sustainable development strategy in the uplands, given that the industrial plantation trees would take years before harvest, and local labour would have to wait for some years before getting employment with BFI, given moves to privatise the project.

Commercial plantation forestry will not help solve Mindanao's serious environmental problems. Claims that the project would help the Philippines environmental crisis are ludicrous. (Between 1969 and 1993, the proportion of Philippines that is forested decreased from 35%–20%.)

The MIPC study also cites two cases of serious water source pollution by BFI… in 1992 and 1994. In the first instance it was caused by sidecutting a ridge above the dam and water reservoir and applying fertiliser on it; in the second case by roading spillover and the application of herbicide in a natural water source.

Instead of generating jobs and incomes for locals, BFI caused destruction to farm lands of quite a number of Lumad residents in the BFI designated area, thus excluding them from their day–to–day activities on which they base their livelihood. At present, BIPP management adopts a policy of no payment for standing crops damaged by road construction. The MIPC report details a mass eviction of legitimate residents… engaged in farming and the forced eviction of Higaonon… from their ancestral domain.

For the last ten years, Filipino people have seen how government owned–and–controlled corporations in the Philippines have gone private. The MIPC study suggests that the BFI project seems to have no other route to follow but to be a model for a private sector investment in plantation forestry which is capable of being replicated throughout the Philippines. People's participation would then be totally out of the question, as it is at this early stage. Now, who in the long run will benefit from this supposedly community based reforestation project?

The BIPP–BFI project and its proposed privatisation must also be seen in the context of President Ramos' Medium–Term Philippine Development Plan for 1993–1998, otherwise known as 'Philippines 2000'. This development programme is based on World Bank/IMF–designed structural adjustment and free market policies, with its main aim rapid economic growth.

Resource–rich, but poverty–stricken Mindanao has long been a volatile site of struggle between investors who have set up large–scale projects, and Indigenous peoples whose inalienable rights have been further undermined by this encroachment. Philippines 2000 and the regional version, Mindanao 2000, as well as the BIMP– EAGA (Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Philippines – East Asia Growth Area) scheme aims to attract private investment in Mindanao, exacerbating both social and environmental problems on the island.

The entire development model which underpins the project remains highly questionable. Millions of dollars have been spent in NZ ODA on the Bukidnon Forestry project which is still surrounded by controversy. Serious questions should be asked about the "development for privatisation" model which underpins this project's design and the glossing over of the violation of Indigenous rights by both the Philippine Government and project management itself. The impact of the proposed privatisation on Indigenous land claims needs serious attention. It will further alienate the ancestral domain of the Higaonon and other affected Indigenous peoples.

The sell–off of forestry assets to private, foreign interests in New Zealand which have been subject to Treaty of Waitangi claims, such as the central North Island forests, has been met with outrage from many Maori. It is not surprising then that the continued lack of recognition of Indigenous land rights by the Philippine government, compounded with an apparent lack of appreciation and concern of the Indigenous rights situation in Mindanao by the NZ government and the BFI/BIPP management is a cause of grave concern, and indeed outright hostility to the project and its planned privatisation. In its years of involvement with the project, the New Zealand government also seems to have a misplaced faith in the Philippine government to honour ancestral land claims and institute genuine land reforms. While the BFI/BIPP model may seem consistent with the neoliberal programmes of both Philippine and New Zealand governments, it is severely flawed as an example of sound development.

Aziz Choudry

From: Murray Horton, Secretary, Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa,

PO Box 2450 Christchurch, New Zealand

New Zealand's biggest development aid project in the Philippines is the 39,000 hectare Bukidnon forestry plantation on the southernmost island of Mindanao. As of 1997, nearly $10 million of New Zealand taxpayers' money has been spent on it. Conceived by PM David Lange in the afterglow of the 1986 People Power which brought Cory Aquino to office, it has been controversial since its beginning in 1989. Indeed, at the end of the 1980s, it was a major media story in New Zealand. The story may have gone quiet but it hasn't gone away.

Three Christchurch–based groups – Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa (PSNA), CORSO and Christian World Service – mounted a joint research project following a request for help from the Philippines. The research was done in Bukidnon by the Mindanao Interfaith Peoples Conference (MIPC), a church group. This New Zealand/Filipino joint research report has now been published. It is a damning document.

The field researchers concluded that the plantation had been of no benefit to the Bukidnon community and should be closed. It has played a major role in displacing Indigenous Lumad peoples from their land, with attendant human rights abuses. There has been no genuine community consultation; it is a top down project. Facilities and programmes promised by New Zealand have not been delivered. The field researchers could no find no trace of at least one health facility that supposedly existed. There have been major instances of exploitation and abuse of plantation workers throughout. There have been environmental problems. The report uncovers serious allegations of financial malpractices by the plantation manager.

Having spent a decade and millions of dollars to set it up, New Zealand is now conducting a secret study on whether to privatise the Bukidnon plantation project (a final report is expected by the end of 1997). This only adds insult to injury.

PSNA, CORSO and Christian World Service demand a genuine independent evaluation of both the project and its proposed privatisation. If New Zealand is going to wash its hands of this whole mess, we demand that the disengagement process be handled a whole lot better than what has been the previous practice.

We call upon the New Zealand Government to answer and substantively address the numerous questions raised by this report on the Bukidnon forestry project.