Villar to DENR: Evict ‘cult’ from Surigao forest
Sen. Cynthia Villar on Wednesday prodded the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to immediately evict nearly 3,500 members of a suspected cult who were illegally occupying a protected forest area in Socorro town, Surigao del Norte province.
Presiding over a budget hearing, Villar said the DENR should be “decisive” in acting on the issues raised against Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI), whose leaders were accused of forcing young girls to marry older men as well as training child soldiers.
She made the remark after Environment Undersecretary Joselin Marcus Fragada disclosed that except for one, all SBSI members occupying the area were not among the “tenured” beneficiaries or original settlers under the DENR’s 25-year land deal with the group.
Fragada was referring to the Protected Area Community-Based Resource Management Agreement, which the SBSI used to turn a 353-hectare protected land in Sitio Kapihan into its own enclave.
Fielding questions from Villar, the environment official said they were looking at the possibility of relocating the residents of Sitio Kapihan, among them 1,017 children.
“Technically, the people there are not tenured. Even their [leader] is not a tenured migrant,” Fragada said, referring to SBSI president Jey Rence Quilario, also known as “Senior Agila.”
Asked if the SBSI members would be forced to leave, Fragada told Villar: “It’s an option … We leave it to the inter-agency body to make the proper decision [on] what approach should be taken.”
Upon hearing this, the senator said: “[Just an] option? It must be done.”
“You don’t give them a choice. They have to [leave] because they’re not supposed to live in a legislated protected area,” Villar stressed.
She said the DENR should coordinate with the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development in looking for a relocation site for the SBSI members.
“Your approach should not be like that. You seem to be very afraid [of making a decision.] You don’t have decisiveness,” Villar told Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga and the other DENR officials.
“They have no choice [but to leave],” she reiterated. “They are illegally [occupying the area.] If you give them a choice, they will not follow.”
Meanwhile, Social Welfare Secretary Rex Gatchalian said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), following an initial profiling by social workers, recorded 21 cases of child marriage in the SBSI community.
He also said the government would work on returning its basic services to the community such as health, education and social welfare, citing the lack of intervention among SBSI members.
“Our social workers entered the community numerous times and if you talk to them, they will say to us that they are contented with their situation and they see there’s nothing wrong with the situation they are in,” Gatchalian told reporters in a press conference at the DSWD’s main office in Quezon City on Wednesday.
He said he would meet with Surigao del Norte Gov. Robert Barbers and Socorro Mayor Riza Rafonselle Timcang to discuss coordination on the national government’s assistance.