DENR suspends Socorro ‘cult’ use of protected area in Surigao del Norte

Rappler, Phippines/September 30, 2023

By John Sitchon

Cebu, Philippines – The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on Friday, September 29, suspended its agreement with the Socorro Bayanihan Services Incorporated (SBSI) that allowed the group the use of over 300 hectares of protected area in Surigao del Norte.

Environment Secretary Antonia Yulo Loyzaga issued a letter of suspension to SBSI on Friday pending a DENR investigation into the “gross violations of the terms and conditions of the Protected Area Community-Based Resource Management Agreement (PACBRMA),” the government agency said in a statement.

The suspension was imposed a day after a Senate panel held SBSI leaders in contempt for denying any involvement in alleged child abuse and other abusive cult practices during a joint Senate hearing investigating alleged crimes committed by the group.

The PACBRMA, signed on June 15, 2004, allowed SBSI “to develop and a conserve” 353 hectares of land located on the northeast side of Barangay Sering.

Under a PACBRMA, the DENR and tenured migrant groups “develop and conserve a portion of a Protected Area for a 25-year-period.” SBSI was recognized by the DENR because it was incorporated and registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission as a people’s organization since December 1980.

This area is also the site of the former Kapihan View Park, a tourist spot previously managed by SBSI.

In 2013, both DENR and SBSI developed their community-based resource management plan for the area. In 2019, the DENR began investigating the activities of SBSI which were believed to be in gross violation of the PACBRMA.

The activities included restricting entry into the area, building unauthorized structures, coercing teachers and government employees to resign from their jobs, putting up checkpoints, and conducting “military-like” training.

The same activities and allegations of child abuse were brought to light by Senate Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros in a privilege speech on September 18.

In 2019, SBSI updated its CBRMP but DENR rejected the document due to “non-compliance to the agreement” and has not been in contact with SBSI since then, even after the agency has called out the alleged cult for its violations in 2021 and 2022.

The DENR said that it would work with all concerned government agencies, including the provincial government of Surigao del Norte, in the enforcement of the suspension and possible resettlement of SBSI members who are still occupying the area.

Based on testimonies from key witnesses during the Senate hearing, there are more than 3,000 members of the alleged cult residing in Sitio Kapihan, Barangay Sering, Socorro, Surigao de Norte.

As of this writing, SBSI president Jay Rence Quilario and several other SBSI leaders remain detained at the Senate.

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