AN INDEPENDENT team created to probe the Integrated Forest Management Agreement (IFMA) issued to Southwood Timber Corporation (STC) has already started doing its investigation.

The independent team, composed of six foresters who are members of the Philippine Society of Foresters, arrived in Gingoog City on March 10 for a four-day visit.

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“We are here to check the complaint submitted to Sec. Lito Atienza of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) last January and to validate the violations of the IFMA holder,” said Dr. Segundo Foronda, director of Asia Pacific Resource Recovery Reuse and Development Corporation, a member of the team.

The team visited the Anakan Parish in Gingoog City and conducted initial interviews with Fr. Roger Almonia.

“Our visit is just preliminary to the whole investigation on the IFMA violations of STC. We will be here again by April,” added Dr. Isidro Esteban of Manila Seedling Bank Foundation Inc., who is also a member of the team.

On January 13, residents of Gingoog City and the nearby town of Claveria gathered 25,000 signatures and submitted to the DENR a complaint calling for the immediate cancellation of STC’s IFMA, which covered two villages – Barangay Eureka in Gingoog City and Barangay Minalwang in Claveria, Misamis Oriental.

Minalwang is the remaining area of Misamis Oriental still covered with “intact” forest, the home of the Higaonon indigenous peoples (IPs).

The IFMA permit issued by DENR to STC in May 2008 is allegedly without the consent of the IP community, according to the key leaders of Minalwang Higaonon Tribal Council (Mihitrico).

The tribal council was granted the Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) by the National Commission on the Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) on October 9, 2008, which covers 18,028.63 hectares in Barangay Minalwang. The CADT was recently awarded to the community by NCIP in the area last November 19, 2009 with assigned number of R10-CLA-1008-084 after almost eight years of processing from a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Claim or CADC 114.

As provided by Department Administrative Order 1 series of 2006, Mihitrico must be the community that would give the Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) to STC while the NCIP would issue a Certification Precondition (CP) confirming that the project proponent has complied with the 2006 FPIC guidelines.

However, the NCIP issued a certification that there was no consent given by Mihitrico as the legitimate CADT, which shows that the logging permit issued to STC is invalid.

The permit covers 11,476 hectares, of which more than 8,000 hectares are within the ancestral domain of Mihitrico.

While STC got the endorsement of the City Government of Gingoog for its project in Barangay Eureka, the City Council withdrew the said endorsement in a special session held on December 28, 2009 after it heard the complaints of the company’s violations.

“While we think that logging is a development project, this doesn’t correlates that this is also the development that the IP community wants. This would push the IP community to be more ‘marginalized’ as the community is prevented, even in their ‘pangayam’ or hunting activities and ‘Kanduli’ or community ritual because their land is already leased to corporations for 25 years,” lamented Ruel Mantantuwan, a Higaonon residing inside the IFMA area.