Climate and Environment

DENR cancels deal with Surigao 'cult' over land violations

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DENR cancels deal with Surigao 'cult' over land violations
The premises of Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc in Surigao del Norte
Sen. Risa Hontiveros/Released

MANILA, Philippines — The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has terminated its agreement with the controversial Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) due to violations of the terms governing a land grant in Surigao del Norte.

Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga announced on Monday that the agency has canceled its Protected Area Community-Based Resource Management Agreement (PACBRMA) entered into with SBSI, the alleged cult involved in human trafficking, child abuse and other rights violations.

"Today, we are actually trying to put an end to the abuses that have gone on for several years in this area," Loyzaga said in a briefing.

"As per the Senate investigation, we have heard allegations of criminal activities of psychosocial and physical abuse, and allegations also of indoctrination and other types of activities, which run counter, obviously, to the social and, eventually, to the ecological environmental purposes of the PACBRMA," she added.

The protected area management agreement was canceled due to several violations. These included:

  • Establishment of settlement in the PACBRMA area
  • Establishment of checkpoints regulating the entry of non-members
  • Failure to submit required reports on their resource management plan
  • Construction of unauthorized structures like access roads, basketball and volleyball courts, wave pool, recording studio, radio station, and gymnasium

A PACBRMA is a 25-year agreement between the DENR and organized tenured migrant communities or interested indigenous to help manage protected areas. Tenured migrants are individuals or families who have resided in a protected area for at least five years before it was designated as such.

The deal with SBSI was signed in June 2004, and covered a 353-hectare land in the Siargao Island Protected Landscape and Seascape.

The DENR's monitoring team confirmed the establishment of residential structures that were prohibited in SBSI's Community-based Resource Management Plan (CRMP) as early as August 2019, and repeatedly warned the organization to obtain permits for these structures.

In September 2023, the department suspended its agreement with SBSI.

The environment chief also said the agency is currently reviewing 131 PACBRMAs in around 36 protected areas in the country.

Resettlement of displaced communities

The cancelation order directs SBSI members, whether tenured migrants or not, "to vacate the PACBRMA area, to self-demolish their houses and to harvest their crops within a reasonable period of time."

The DENR is meeting with different government agencies to discuss the relocation of the tenured migrants and other occupants in the area.

"Our approach is to be as humane and as peaceful in terms of this process. That's why it took a little longer because we wanted to be sure that there were options available especially for the peaceful resettlement and reintegration," Loyzaga said.

The PACBRMA covered only 404 tenured migrant households. But the population of the community has "ballooned" to over 1,400 families, according to Nonito Tamayo, the regional executive director of DENR Caraga.

The population increased after Jay Rence Quilario, the organization's leader known as "Senior Agila" persuaded community members to join him on a mountain called "Kapihan" after an earthquake in 2019.

In November 2023, the National Bureau of Investigation arrested Quilario and other members of SBSI for alleged violation of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2003 and other human rights abuses.

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