MANILA, Philippines — A day after twice meeting with the Sumilao farmers, President Macapagal-Arroyo took what her officials described as “the first step toward the return” of the land they are claiming.
The President, through Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, authorized the issuance of an order revoking the land-use conversion of the disputed 144-hectare property in Sumilao, Bukidnon.
What was reclassified as agro-industrial land—and now being developed by San Miguel Foods Inc. (SMFI)—has been reverted to agricultural land covered by the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), according to Ms Arroyo’s spokesperson, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye.
But Marlon Manuel, the farmers’ chief lawyer, said the order had no clear directive on what the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) should do next.
“It will be the start of another long battle to return the land to the farmers,” Manuel said.
Along with Cabinet Secretary Ricardo Saludo, Bunye delivered the news and a copy of the executive order to the farmers, who had stayed overnight at the College of the Holy Spirit just outside Malacañang to await Ms Arroyo’s decision.
“I believe this revocation order is a significant first step and gives teeth to the intention of the President to really help the farmers,” Bunye told reporters after the dialogue with the farmers that lasted nearly two hours.
Grateful but wary
But Bunye and Saludo were peppered with questions by the farmers, some of whom said they would not return to Bukidnon until the property was actually transferred to them.
“We want assurance from the government that the land will truly be ours. Although we’re grateful, we’re also wary of the decision because in the past, many decisions favorable to us were reversed,” Napoleon Merida Jr., chair of the San Vicente Landless Farmers’ Association, told reporters.
His uncle, Samuel Merida, said that when he and the other farmers left Sumilao in October to march all the way to Manila, “we vowed that when we return, it would be to land that is rightfully ours.”
“It would be a great Christmas gift for us and our families if our case is acted on quickly by the government. We could begin planting immediately for the livelihood of our families and the colleagues we left behind,” Samuel Merida told the Inquirer.
Lawyer Manuel said the farmers were adamant that the construction of the SMFI hog farm on the disputed property be stopped at once.
“They’re a bit sad because many points in the order were not clear. They have reservations,” said Manuel, a member of the Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal.
Weight for the petition
Manuel said the farmers were also dissatisfied because SMFI could still contest the order all the way to the Supreme Court, thus prolonging the dispute.
At the dialogue, Bunye reminded the farmers that they went to the Palace on Monday to seek the revocation of the conversion order, and that Ms Arroyo granted their request after considering the DAR findings and recommendations.
He said the construction of a hog farm on the property was the main reason the land-use conversion order was revoked.
Asked at one point by Napoleon Merida whether the revocation order meant that SMFI operations on the property would be stopped, Bunye said the order would be “the legal basis for the DAR to give in to the other things that you are asking for.”
“In other words,” he said, “it is your lawyer who will submit the petition to the DAR, and this order would give weight to your petition.”
The farmers asked Bunye whether a cease-and-desist order to SMFI from the DAR was forthcoming, and why it was not included in Ms Arroyo’s executive order. They told him that they went to Malacañang to also seek a cease-and-desist order.
Bunye said he had no ready answer. But he added that he and the farmers’ lawyer both understood that the issuance of a cease-and-desist order “could be the second step.”
Asked whether Ms Arroyo would give Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman a deadline to act on the requested order, Bunye said her “message” should be very clear to Pangandaman, who was present at her two meetings with the farmers—that the case was “a top priority of the President.”
The farmers also told Bunye of their fear that the process would take time, as shown, they said, by their past experience with Pangandaman.
No tears of joy
Bunye said he could only speak for Ms Arroyo: “The action of the President speaks louder. The fact that the President met with the farmers, with the clergy … She really spent time [on the case] and followed it up until this morning with Executive Secretary Ermita … So the President’s interest is there.”
Ermita signed the order at 12:10 p.m. “by authority of the President.”
Josel Gonzales, the farmers’ media coordinator, said their reaction was “subdued” when they first heard news of the cancellation of the land-use conversion order via text message at past noon.
“They welcomed the decision and are thankful because this is a big step for them to realize their goals, but there was no jumping, hugs and tears of joy. They said they’ve been traumatized because they still remember victories in the past that were later taken away,” he said.
Gonzales was referring to the certificates of land ownership award distributed to the farmers in 1994, which were revoked two years later when Malacañang, through then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres, approved the conversion of the property into an agro-industrial park.
In a statement, the Sumilao farmers described Ms Arroyo’s executive order as “a big milestone in our quest to reclaim our land.”
But the farmers said they remained “disturbed.”
“While we rejoice at this victory, we are aware that this revocation is but a partial redress of the grave injustice that was committed against us that led to the dispossession of our land 10 years ago. This redress is already long overdue,” they said.
The farmers reiterated that they would not return to Bukidnon despite Ms Arroyo’s order:
“We will make our presence felt at the [DAR] and we will not leave until we are finally installed in our land. We reiterate our solemn vow that the first ground that we will step on in Bukidnon will be the land that we will call our own. We shall continue to walk until the day when we will walk freely on the land that we own.”
The farmers expressed “heartfelt gratitude” to the civil society organizations, parishes, religious groups, schools and the Catholic Church that “took our cause as their own.”
‘That’s the procedure’
In Malacañang, Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol told reporters that the land would eventually be handed to the “old tenants,” the Sumilao farmers, and SMFI would be paid accordingly.
“That’s the procedure. The one who will pay immediately will be Land Bank [of the Philippines],” Apostol said.
Asked if this was a Christmas gift to the farmers, Bunye said: “All the actions of the President are being done as a matter of justice.”
The farmers said they would return this morning to their encampment in front of the DAR central office in Quezon City.
Samuel Merida—the president of the Mapadayonong Panaghiusa sa mga Lumad Alang sa Damlag, which organized the farmers in Sumilao and set up a cooperative to give them livelihood assistance—said he and his colleagues “continue to believe in due process and in the CARP process.”
He added: “We want to be prioritized because it has been a long wait for us. We want the process of implementation [of the President’s order] sped up.”
Napoleon Merida said they would seek an audience with Pangandaman to ask him to immediately issue the revocation of the land-use conversion order and notice of CARP coverage.
He said the farmers were wary of Pangandaman because the latter had earlier recognized SMFI’s ownership of the property and did not halt its development projects on the disputed land.
‘Land is life’
Samuel Merida dismissed comments that the farmers might not be able to administer the land if it were returned to them.
“Comments that we will not be able to till our land are unfair and belittle the farmers’ abilities. A farmer will do all he can so that his land will be productive. Land is the farmer’s life,” he said. With a report from Michael Lim Ubac
Salamat kay Taroogs for updating others on the Sumilao farmers
The Sumilao farmers have achieved their first goal in their campaign. The struggle goes on. The road to reclaiming their land remain long and treacherous. I am very proud playing a small part in this unparalleled campaign.
This might be my last post before Christmas. I will be flying to Cagayan de Oro at lunchtime tomorrow. Merry Christmas to all my blog friends. Thank you for all the support you have lent.