Landgrabbing and plunder by multinational plantations

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The culpability of foreign mining and logging companies and commercial plantations has several times been brought to the fore in the face of the widespread damage wrought by successive calamities. Mindanao presents a most striking case, where such companies have been engaged for decades in massive landgrabbing, plunder of natural resources and repression in connivance with the reactionary state. Most affected by the operations of these companies are the millions of peasant, Lumad and worker masses who have been subjected to exploitation, oppression and repression.

These foreign companies have wrought havoc on the island in waves. Before the onslaught of mines and large-scale plantations, Mindanao’s lush forests were first denuded of high-quality logs. Since the time of the US colonialists, logging became systematic under the forest law of 1904. After almost all the forests were stripped bare, the foreign companies shifted to mining and establishing vast plantations. Not content with the forest clearings, lands planted to rice and corn were later subjected to massive crop conversion and planted to export crops.

Center of multinational agribusiness corporations. Mindanao has served as the country’s agribusiness center since the 1920s. In the early 1980s, the island was the source of up to 40% of the country’s land area planted to high value export crops. At present, multinational corporations like DOLE-Stanfilco, Del Monte, Sumitomo Fruits Corp. (SUMIFRU) and UNIFRUTTI are in Mindanao to produce export crops like banana, pineapple and papaya. There are other corporate plantations as well for rubber, oil palm and agrofuels.

Foreign corporations developed interest in Mindanao early because of its fertile soil and favorable climate. Before the accumulated effect of the plunder of the island’s natural resources took its toll and made it extremely vulnerable to climate change in the past few years, Mindanao was safe from calamities compared to other parts of the country. Aside from this, Mindanao’s backwardness presented extremely favorable conditions for the exploitation of ancestral lands and the cheap labor of the Lumad and other impoverished people.

The servility to foreign interests of the series of puppet regimes in the Philippines, including the current Aquino regime has made it easy for foreign corporations to circumvent the controversial issues of national sovereignty and the deleterious effects of their operations on the environment and the people. The Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program dovetails with the aggressive expansion of investments in agribusiness plantations in the country.

At present, plantations of export crops cover 300,000 hectares nationwide. The number excludes plantations for agrofuel which number up to 664,000 hectares and rubber plantations that are being targeted to expand to 300,000 hectares by 2016.

Forms of legal landgrabbing. Reactionary laws prohibit foreigners from owning land in the Philippines. But foreigners have been able to disregard these laws and seize vast tracts of land on the island through various schemes, among them joint-venture, “leasehold” and contract growing.

Under joint-venture arrangements, foreign corporations and their “partner” cooperatives agree to form a third party company. The cooperative’s counterpart investment is land, while the other party takes charge of technology, finances and management operations. The land is assigned a calculated value and farmers who become members of the cooperative thereby lose their right to the land. They serve as farm workers in the plantations, receiving measly wages.

“Leasing” peasants’ lands. The law allows foreign companies to lease land for not more than 25 years, with the contract renewable for another 25 years for not more than 1,000 hectares of land. Within the leasehold period, the farmers surrender all their rights to the land. They are obliged to toil as farm workers in order to survive.

Under contract growing, which likewise dovetails with the policy of outsourcing, the companies avail of the services of local landlords and big comprador bourgeoisie to plant the needed crops, such as banana, pineapple, sugarcane, oil palm and cacao. Under this scheme, capitalists are able to expand their operations without having to worry about risks. They are able to use public monies deposited at the Land Bank to capitalize this scheme. And the companies are able to avoid added labor costs to boot.

This is done by conniving with landlords to put up “grower’s cooperatives” to mobilize thousands of other landholdings owned by middle and rich peasants to service and meet the plantations’ need for expansion.

With the existence of lands in Mindanao comprising Agrarian Reform Communities (ARC) administered by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), no less than the DAR takes the lead in having the ARCs enter into such arrangements.

These were the methods used by Del Monte Corporation in producing pineapple in the 1920s, DOLE in the 1970s and other banana, oil palm and agrofuel plantations. Military force was likewise used to displace communities before the latter entered contracts with multinational corporations and to suppress any form of protest.

The development of large-scale agribusiness plantations has exacted a huge social and environmental cost and has meant the destruction of Lumad communities, environmental degradation and conflicts of interest.

It has pushed the concentration of land in the hands of foreign companies and their local landlord co-conspirators, and led to loss of land for thousands of poor and even rich peasants who have become farm workers and virtual slaves to the wage system in the plantations, deeply indebted and bereft of job security.

(This article is the first of a series on the situation and effects of large-scale foreign mining, logging and commercial plantation operations in Mindanao).