DENR suspends land lease deal with Socorro group

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 29) — The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) suspended on Friday a 2004 deal awarded to the Socorro Bayanihan Services Inc. (SBSI) in Surigao del Norte which grants certain rights and privileges to the group over state-owned land. 

Secretary Maria Antonia Yulo-Loyzaga suspended the Protected Area Community-Based Resource Management Agreement (PACBRMA) with the SBSI pending further investigation into the latter’s “gross violation” of the terms and conditions of the deal, the DENR said.

It explained that the PACBRMA is a legal instrument between the department and tenured migrant groups to develop and conserve a portion of a protected area for a 25-year period.

The deal involving the Socorro group covers 353 hectares of land in the northeast portion of Barangay Sering, overlooking the northeast portion of Bucas Grande Island.

The DENR said it began investigating SBSI’s alleged violations of the agreement in 2019, including restriction of entry in the area, establishment of checkpoints and military-like training, and establishment of structures within the PACBRMA area.

“In 2021 and 2022, the DENR called the attention of SBSI on the recurring violations. In both instances, there was no response from them,” the department wrote in a statement.

The agency said it will coordinate with other government agencies to ensure the smooth and peaceful enforcement of the suspension order and the possible resettlement of the occupants.

Earlier, Surigao del Norte Governor Lyndon Barbers told CNN Philippines that authorities would first need a search warrant before entering the land occupied by the SBSI.

He said if there are indeed violations, the government could ask the DENR to cancel the lease agreement before it expires in 2029.

On Thursday, the Senate began its hearing to investigate allegations of criminal activities by the SBSI – which is believed to be a religious “cult" – including child abuse and links to the illegal drug trade. Lawmakers also ordered the detention of the president and three ranking members of the group.

READ: Socorro ‘cult’ victims tell stories of ‘authorized’ rape, 6-year-old soldiers, laws to ‘enter heaven’ 

The Socorro group has denied the allegations.