The Department of Agriculture (DA) has thrown its support to listed AgriNurture Inc. (ANI) to develop “idle” lands of indigenous peoples (IPs) in order to boost the production of corn and provide a new grain variety by mixing it with rice.

Including the marketing and distribution of ANI’s rice-corn mix, the entire program to develop IP lands would have a budget of P200 million, Agriculture Secretary William Dar said.

The P200 million would be sourced from the P8.5 billion so far approved for DA’s “Plant, Plant, Plant” program. The latter aims to elevate production in all subsectors of the industry to address food gaps brought about by the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The rice-corn blend is expected to provide a healthier option for Filipinos and as the country seeks to secure its rice supplies amid the move of exporting countries to limit shipments due to the impact of the pandemic.

While the proposal was warmly welcomed by national agencies, the Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services, Inc. expressed opposition, saying that converting forests to farms would be detrimental to the environment in the long run.

“We are greatly concerned with the DA’s plan to ‘transform’ these IP lands as this will do nothing but add fuel to the widespread encroachment on the already fragile ecosystems in our forests, and further dislocate further IP communities,” the group said.

“We thus appeal to the department to change its mindset of promoting and expan­ding high-value crop farms by intruding into forested ancestral domains that buffer us from the worsening effects of climate change and the threat of another pandemic,” it added.

Despite such criticisms, the DA said it would not only provide financial support to the company but would also mobilize its regional field offices and collaborate with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples for the detailed planning and implementation of ANI’s proposal.

Dar said IP communities needed to be part of this “so they will be food secure and reduce their dependence on the commercial market.”

But for progressive group Sandugo, the DA must instead focus on developing existing farmlands than convert lush IP lands.

It said the government’s food sufficiency program must be anchored on “genuine land reform.”

Under the country’s laws and jurisprudence, IPs have the right to decide for themselves how they would like their ancestral domains to be used and developed.

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