Haiyan-displaced families ‘forced’ to occupy forests

Pia Ranada

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More than 200 families in Iloilo are allegedly being prevented from returning to their homes by a development corporation with plans to turn the lands into a resort

OCCUPYING FORESTS. A portion of the 282-hectare forest land in Barangay Buaya (Sicogon Island) has been declared as a "peoples' resettlement site" by more than 200 families affected by Typhoon Yolanda. Photo courtesy of Progreso Panay

MANILA, Philippines – More than 200 families displaced by Super Typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) from the island of Sicogon, Iloilo are now living in public forest land after allegedly not being allowed to return to their homes by a developer.

According to the Federation of Sicogon Island Farmers and Fisherfolk Association (FESIFFA), the Sicogon Development Corporation (SIDECO) has been harassing the refugees, preventing them from returning to their land and rebuilding their houses.

“It has been already 5 months and one day after Yolanda struck, but the government has completely failed to protect the land rights of Sicogon’s residents from land-grabbers like SIDECO,” said Raul Ramos, FESIFFA president.

“Up to today, we are still being forcibly prevented by SIDECO’s private security guards from rebuilding houses that we, our families and other agrarian reform beneficiaries have been living in for decades.”

With nowhere else to go, Ramos says the families were “forced” to establish a “peoples’ resettlement site” in a portion of a 282-hectare public forest in the nearby village of Buaya.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) maintains that the presence of the families in the forest is illegal.

“Just because it’s classified as a public land, it doesn’t mean they can occupy it. They cannot just occupy the area without any authority or if they did not ask permission,” DENR 6 Environmental Officer Salvador Manglinong Jr told local media.

Two options

FESIFFA claims that SIDECO prohibited the displaced locals to reconstruct or repair their homes.

Instead, the corporation gave them two options: voluntarily vacate their land in exchange for P150,000, or move to a relocation site in Barangay Jolog, Estancia – a town in the main island of Panay, 45 minutes by boat from Sicogon Island.

But some of the families who chose either of the options are now attempting to return to their original homes, said FESIFFA.

They claim the housing units in the relocation site are substandard and that there is a lack of available resettlement areas in the province.

Land dispute

SIDECO and FESIFFA both claim the lands on the island. The corporation claims 809 hectares of the 1,160-hectare island, while FESIFFA maintains that portions of the land ought to be distributed under the government’s agrarian reform program.

According to land rights advocacy group Save Agrarian Reform Alliance (SARA), SIDECO has entered into a Joint Venture Agreement with Ayala Land Inc to develop the entire Sicogon Island into a tourism destination.

Ayala Land Inc director Antonino Aquino stated in an April 9 event, the company is “looking around for properties in Sicogon. We’re interested in expanding our tourism portfolio.”

The company’s head for hotels and resorts Junie Jalandoni told Rappler via text message that they are “exploring partnerships at this point in the area.”

Though no formal announcement has been made of the venture, Ayala Land Inc has been actively engaged in rehabilitation programs and social projects in the island after Typhoon Yolanda battered the region last November.

Land rights groups accused the government of turning a blind eye on the issue.

“SARA condemns the government’s continuing neglect of the welfare of Sicogon Island’s residents, most especially its consistent failure to protect their right to land,” said Trinidad Domingo, SARA spokesperson.

The displaced islanders have all the legal documents to prove they are agrarian reform beneficiaries entitled to the land being claimed by SIDECO, she said. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.