DENR moved too slow to suspend land deal with Socorro ‘cult’ — senators

Cristina Chi - Philstar.com
DENR moved too slow to suspend land deal with Socorro �cult� � senators
Senator. Risa Hontiveros files a resolution seeking to investigate the sexual violence, child abuse and forced marriage perpetuated by an alleged cult.
Senator. Risa Hontiveros

MANILA, Philippines — Senators leading a probe into an alleged “cult” in Socorro town, Surigao Del Norte lamented the delay in which the Department of Environment and Natural Resources revoked its land agreement with the group despite discovering the area had checkpoints and military training as early as 2019.

During the Senate’s budget deliberations on the DENR, Sen. Risa Hontiveros asked why the agency did not suspend its agreement with Socorro Bayanihan Services, Inc. (SBSI) four years ago despite initial findings that SBSI violated the terms and conditions of the Protected Area Community-Based Resource Management Agreement (PACBRMA).

A PACBRMA is a protected area agreement between the DENR and tenured migrant groups to develop and conserve a portion of a protected area for 25 years. This legal instrument allowed the Socorro group — which currently faces accusations of child abuse and rape — to have had control over 353 hectares of land in Socorro since 2004.

DENR has now temporarily revoked this agreement with SBSI, with DENR Chief Toni Yulo-Loyzaga confirming that the suspension order was served to the group in person Tuesday night.

"Why did it take four years? I mean a long time to suspend the PACBRMA of SBSI?" Hontiveros said.

DENR CARAGA’s regional director, Nonito Tamayo, said that they postponed the cancellation of the agreement for "humanitarian reasons" after the onslaught of the pandemic, an earthquake and typhoon Odette.

“While we've been doing our monitoring in the areas, I must admit that for humanitarian reasons, we considered not recommending its cancellation. But then we wrote the letters twice in 2020 and 2021 reminding them of their obligations,” Tamayo told senators.

DENR’s investigation into the area in 2019 revealed issues with the Community-Based Resources Management Plan (CBRMP) submitted by SBSI for 2019-2023. 

DENR Undersecretary Joselin Fragada said a probe led by then-DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu with Department of Interior and Local Government Secretary Ed Ano found evidence of the following:

  • restrictions in the entry of "non-members" into the area
  • the establishment of checkpoints and military training
  • the mass resignation of teachers, uniformed personnel and elected barangay officials
  • the establishment of structures within the area.

SBSI had repeatedly ignored the DENR’s orders to revise its CBRMP in 2021 and 2022, Fragada said.

Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa said that the DENR could have tapped the assistance of other agencies when it found the violations in 2019.

"If the DENR approached the Philippine National Police or the army, the situation might not have gotten worse,” Dela Rosa said in Filipino. Kung lumapit ka sana sa PNP o sa Army, baka hindi na lumala ang sitwasyon," Dela Rosa said. 

Hontiveros pointed out that the earthquake that took place in Socorro in February 2019 was the event used by SBSI’s leadership to threat people into joining the group and leaving their homes behind.  

“It may be difficult to revisit the past, but had we acted more urgently, the situation there might not have escalated so severely. It's not just related to PACBRMA, but as you mentioned, for humanitarian reasons, it wasn't addressed by your office,” Hontiveros said. 

“And there were indeed humanitarian problems there, especially with the children,” the senator added.

Yulo-Loyzaga said that the DENR will be working with other agencies like the Department of Social Welfare and Development for an "integrated approach" to facilitate the relocation of some 3,000 Socorro residents staying in Sitio Kapihan, the headquarters of SBSI.

But there will be “no movement” while the investigation is being conducted, Yulo-Loyzaga said.

A government-led task force against SBSI said that the municipal government of Socorro will need help in resettling around 3,000 members of SBSI.

After selling their houses upon joining the alleged “cult” in 2019, at least 1,000 families still reside in Sitio Kapihan and have no properties to their name, according to Edelito Sangco of Task Force Kapihan.

RELATED: 'They lost everything:' Financial, housing assistance sought for Socorro 'cult' victims  

Last week, a joint Senate committee probing the activities of SBSI found that children as young as 12 were married off to adults, repeatedly raped, kept from school, forced to train as soldiers and physically punished in a remote location by adults following orders from SBSI’s self-styled messianic leader Jey Rence Quilario.

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