In the 1990s, NDC-Guthrie was purchased by Filipinas Palm Oil Plantations Inc. (FPPI), a consortium of Filipino, Malaysian and Indian investors. While Colonel Lademora and the Lost Command have faded away like old soldiers, the stain left by the legacy of the corporation—that of alleged displacement, labor strife and conflict—has remained in Agusan del Sur, and spread to palm oil plantations in other parts of Mindanao.

The administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010) dubbed the oil palm the “Tree of Peace,” touting that its propagation and subsequent value as a food and cosmetic commodity and source of biofuel could go a long way towards elevating the national economy and living standards of the poor and thereby stemming armed conflict in the Philippine archipelago.

But Hong Kong-based NGO Asia Monitor Resource Center (AMRC) has a different take.

“Thirty years of the palm oil industry only proved broken promises of development, livelihood, and food security,” AMRC wrote in a statement for the National Palm Oil Conference of 2015. “The people’s access to food and ownership and control of land has been undermined by massive crop and land use conversion from staple food production to oil palm.”

Palm oil is produced by pressing the fruit of oil palm trees (Elaeis guineensis). Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Despite the growth of the so-called “Sunshine Industry,” reported conflicts—land battles, labor unrest, armed insurgencies—go on.  And it is in areas of mono-crop plantations, including palm oil, that these conflicts are often the most intense.

‘Using arms to prevent the struggle of the people’

Historically, the establishment and growth of large plantations, both multinational and domestic, has thrived on the heavy presence of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to stabilize regions influenced by the communist NPA or Muslim separatist groups. Corporations are also offered the service of militias specifically designed to protect their interests, called SCAA (Special Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit Active Auxiliary). SCAA are armed and trained by the AFP, and paid by the company they serve, said Tito Tanduyan, Secretary-General in the Caraga Region for the Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU), a progressive umbrella group for labor unions. Other organizations allege businessmen have reportedly hired vigilante groups or formed their own private armies.

In the beginning of 2015, the 4th Infantry Division announced it was beefing up its forces in Agusan del Sur and the rest of the Caraga Region in order to strengthen what it calls its ongoing “Community Organizing for Peace and Development.” But human rights groups like Karapatan and the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines-Northern Mindanao Sub-Region have reported that the AFP’s counterinsurgency operations have continued to negatively impact the peasant and Lumad communities, with the military conducting house-to-house searches and accusing villagers of affiliation with the NPA. Reports of disappearances and extra-judicial killings have not ceased.

“You can notice military inside business investments,” said Tanduyan in a February 2017 interview. Tanduyan said he prefers that FPPI employs the SCAA along with its legal for-hire security firm rather than a private army, but that “sometimes the company is using arms to prevent the struggle of the people.”

Alejandro Albores Jr. is the president of the KMU-affiliated NAFLU (National Federation of Labor Unions) local chapter that represents the mill workers at Agumil, the sister company of Agusan Plantations Inc. (API). In an interview, Albores concurred that any time there is an urgent problem in the area, “the company automatically requests help from the military, escorted by the SCAA.” The continued militarization may be welcome to the business sector, but others, like Albores, view it as “development aggression.”

This security is used to protect the corporations from the leftist New People’s Army (NPA). The group acknowledges using violence as a mean to its ends in its 48-year battle “against landgrabbers, corrupt military officials, despotic landlords and other exploiters of the rural folk,” said NPA spokesperson Dencio Madrigal in a statement in 2010. For instance, in 2010 they waged an assault against a Chinese-owned palm oil plantation in Columbio, Sultan Kudarat; in 2013 they reportedly executed another company’s chief of security.

In October 2015 the insurgents reportedly admitted to abducting and killing the mayor of Loreto and his son for crimes committed by their paramilitary force and for their alleged complicity in selling off land to API.

Growing the palm oil ‘garden’

In Maligaya, the village that was occupied by Guthrie and the Lost Command over 35 years ago, the officers of NAFLU-KMU at the FPPI plantation and mill gather in a house below a poster reading, “Union Organizing is a Right, Not a Crime,” when a Mongabay reporter visited the area in February 2017.

But sources indicate the Philippine government has not always followed this mantra.  According to a national study published in 1989 by the Library of Congress, strikes were banned during the martial law period. In an opinion piece published in 1989, labor expert and Purdue University Northwest professor Kim Scipes wrote that then-President Marcos created the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines (TUCP) to control the labor movement.

Before they certified the NAFLU-KMU in the election cycle of 2006/2007 to be their voice in collective bargaining agreements, the workers of FPPI were represented by the TUCP and a string of pro-company unions, according to the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR). President of NAFLU-KMU’s local union at the FPPI mill, Elmer Jamero, said that initially their organization was met with a substantial amount of harassment from the company and military. He said that this only eased off after a series of strikes from 2010-2012 over issues like illegal firings, poor safety standards and temporary contracts shut down FPPI’s operation for several months.

But the employees of FPPI and API are still facing what Tito Tanduyan calls “the very sad experience of the workers”—long hours, low wages and the danger of hazardous chemicals, poisonous snakes and flood conditions. FPPI is the largest palm oil plantation in the Philippines, but according to Tanduyan, only gives 3 percent of its earnings back to the workers, paying its harvesters about $US 5.50 per day. Child labor is also an issue, with a 2012 CTUHR study revealing that 24 percent of palm oil plantation workers in Agusan del Sur were between five and 17 years of age, with most having no choice but to work.

“How can we send our children to school?” Jamero said.  “The wages are not enough to provide for a family.”

Making room for oil palm plantations has resulted in the razing of tropical forests around the world. This is particularly true for Malaysia and Indonesia (pictured), which produce most of the global palm oil supply. Photo of deforestation for palm oil by Rhett A. Butler

Several kilometers down the road from the NAFLU-KMU office, camouflage-clad men patrol with M-14s from the FPPI SCAA Patrol Base, located at the company’s palm oil mill.

In his office, mill manager Antonio Sison Jr. says that in the past the company has had “issues of intimidation, but that the issues have been blown up.”  He laments that the palm oil industry in the Philippines “remains stagnant,” that they are “only a garden” compared to Malaysia and Indonesia.  He says they want to expand, and that there is still a lot of suitable, vacant land in the region, but that it is “hard to expand more because of land reform.”

The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program enacted by President Cory Aquino in 1988, ostensibly to give land back to farmers, eventually broke up the palm oil plantation purchased by FPPI into several large blocks. However, Koronado Apuzen, executive director of The Foundation for Agrarian Reform Cooperatives in Mindanao (FARMCOOP), said minimal financial and technical support gave the beneficiaries few options to survive. He added that most farmers were left with only casual employment or none at all, compelling them to form cooperatives and lease their land back to FPPI for abysmally low rates. Most of the remaining beneficiaries are still leasing their land to FPPI.

According to the National Economic and Development Authority, Agusan del Sur remains one of the ten poorest provinces in the Philippines, with a high incidence of chronic hunger. The National Highway running south from the old Guthrie empire passes established palm oil plantations and on to land that is ripe for future investment and expansion.  The roadside is marked by signs of January’s devastating floods and landslides, fall-out from years of deforestation, and with placards supporting the intermittent peace talks and ceasefire between the government and NPA left to fade in the sun and rain.



  •  AFRIM (Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao).  “NDC-Guthrie Plantations in the Philippines.”  Davao City, Philippines, Alternate Resource Center: March-June, 1985
  • Cabilo, Z.M. “Oil Palm Expansion in Mindanao: A Peace Solution?” Mindanao Focus Number 1, 2003
  • Menguita-Ferenil, Mary Luz.  “Contradictions of Palm Oil Promotion in the Philippines,” in The Palm Oil Controversy in Southeast Asia: A Transnational Perspective edited by Oliver Pye, 2013
  • Philippine Partnership for Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas. “Losing       Ground.”  Manila, Philippines, 1988
  • Scipes, Kim.  “AFL-CIO Meddles in the Philippines.”  The Progressive, Madison, WI. November 1989
  • University of the Philippines.  Human Rights and Ancestral Land; A Source Book.  Manila, Philippines, 1983.
  • Interviews were conducted by the author independently in 1989, and for Mongabay in 2017.
  • Banner image of an oil palm fruit cross-section by Rhett A. Butler

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis
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