Senate of the Philippines

DENR action could have stopped Socorro ‘cult’ child abuse – Hontiveros

Iya Gozum

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DENR action could have stopped Socorro ‘cult’ child abuse – Hontiveros

Senator Risa Hontiveros during the Senate hearing on DENR’s 2024 proposed budget on Wednesday, October 4. Photo by Voltaire F. Domingo/Senate PRIB

Voltaire F. Domingo/Senate PRIB

After suspending their agreement with Socorro Bayanihan Services Incorporated, DENR Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga said they will be looking at the other PACBRMAs in the area as well

MANILA, Philippines – If only the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) suspended its agreement with alleged cult Socorro Bayanihan Services Incorporated (SBSI), it could have prevented child abuse, said Senate Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros.

Hontiveros on Wednesday, October 4, during the Senate hearing on the DENR’s 2024 proposed budget, was referring to the Protected Area Community-Based Resource Management Agreement (PACBRMA) the DENR granted SBSI back in 2004.

A PACBRMA is an agreement between the DENR and organized tenured migrant communities or interested indigenous peoples.

Through this agreement, SBSI held 353 hectares of protected area in Surigao del Norte. The group is currently under investigation for allegations of sexual violence, rape, child abuse, forced marriages, and military training.

“Siguro po kung umaksyon sa tamang paraan at degree ng mas timely ‘yung regional office, baka nga ho hindi grumabe nang grumabe ‘yung sitwasyon po doon,” said Hontiveros.

(If the regional office of the DENR acted in the right way and in a timely manner, maybe the situation there didn’t get worse.)

The DENR released its suspension order on Friday, September 29. The agency started its investigation in 2019.

Asked why it took four years to suspend SBSI’s agreement, DENR Caraga regional director Nonito Tamayo cited “humanitarian reasons” along with the pandemic and the onslaught of Typhoon Odette.

“I must admit that for humanitarian reason(s) I considered not recommending the cancellation,” said Tamayo in a mix of Filipino in English. “But then again we wrote them two letters twice in 2021 and 2022 reminding them of their obligations.”

To which Hontiveros replied, “Pero sabi ‘nyo nga for humanitarian reasons hindi inaksyunan ng office ‘nyo. Pero nagkaroon talaga in fact ng humanitarian problems doon, lalo na sa mga bata.”

(You said you didn’t act on it because of humanitarian reasons. But that’s exactly why there were humanitarian problems, especially against the kids.)

Eyeing other PACBRMAs

The agency is now eyeing to investigate the other PACBRMAs granted in the same area, said Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga.

Aside from SBSI, two other groups were given PACBRMAs.

According to Loyzaga, Samahan ng mga Nagkakapit-bisig ng Socorro was given a PACBRMA covering 370 hectares while Bucas Grande Farmers’ Association secured an agreement covering 389 hectares.

“We are going to be looking at these other PACBRMAs as well because we would like to actually attribute what we are seeing via satellite imagery in terms of the increase in the number of roof structures,” said Loyzaga.

The environment secretary said they have to ground truth the satellite images and determine the presence of settlements in protected areas.

Loyzaga also said that they are coordinating with the Department of Justice, Department of Social Welfare and Development, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government for an “integrated approach” in the investigation.

Vulnerable women and children will not be kicked out from their homes despite the investigation.

“As of the suspension, there will be no movement at this time,” Loyzaga said. “The investigation is ongoing.”

Must Read

A brief history of Socorro Bayanihan Services Incorporated

A brief history of Socorro Bayanihan Services Incorporated

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.