Today’s Inquirer editorial succinctly and aptly summarizes and describes the situation and the questions that surround the case of the Sumilao farmers. It articulates very clearly what has happened, what is happening and raises the important questions towards the direction the case is going. I am posting this editorial article because it strikes at the very heart of the Sumilao issue.
MANILA, Philippines — The farmers from Sumilao, Bukidnon, are back, and they are calling on President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to keep her word. Will she hear them, above the cocktail chatter and the rattle of speeches in Davos, Switzerland? In large part, the answer depends on the country’s Catholic bishops, currently meeting in Manila.
The issue, as Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales has said, is justice. Do the Sumilao farmers have the legal right to the land they claim as their own? The Supreme Court, led at the time by Chief Justice Hilario Davide, had ruled otherwise, but also laid down an essential condition for the landowner to meet: development of the property, according to the landowner’s own grandiose plans, within five years. That condition was not met; in fact, it is possible to argue that the landowner had no intention to meet it, that the plans were merely a legal tactic, to exclude the disputed land from the ambit of agrarian reform. The property has since been sold to San Miguel Foods, a subsidiary of one of the country’s oldest and largest companies.
In a just world, the failure to meet the court-imposed condition should have led to the return of the 144-hectare property in San Vicente to agrarian reform coverage — and thus to the farmers who had tilled the land. That, in brief, was the expectation the President herself raised, when she met with the farmers last month. Her decision to revoke the controversial 1996 conversion order and put the land back under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program offered the farmers real hope, for the first time in a decade.
But the issue is also about development. Or, rather, the moral foundations of development. Do we pursue progress even when it is built or based on a crime?
San Miguel Foods Inc. has apparently offered the farmers an alternative plan, that will protect its investment in San Vicente while at the same time allowing them to own their own land, but in another, adjacent property. We say apparently, because aside from unofficial statements, the most specific form of the offer, according to Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, was decidedly vague. “The offer was not clear,” he said. “It was not even a formal offer, since we talked about it only over the phone. We cannot negotiate without any details.”
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that there is such an offer, and that the offer, considering San Miguel’s impressive track record and traditional commitment to the communities in which it operates, is materially advantageous to the farmers. Let us even assume that it is much more advantageous than any farmer-led development of the Sumilao property we can contemplate. Is that sufficient reason to look the other way, when the law on agrarian reform has been violated?
To ask that question is to realize that the Sumilao case is ultimately about something even more basic than land. It is about our dignity as men and women who are free to choose, a dignity rooted, the bishops may well say now and as “Gaudium et Spes” reminded us then, in the very image of God. If the farmers choose what a materialistic world may consider the lesser portion, what of it? Is their choice necessarily invalid because it nets them less money? Development cannot be sustainable if it is founded on the original sin of injustice.
Unofficial statements suggest that San Miguel will consider a pullout of its investments in Sumilao grossly uneconomical. All the more reason then for it to stop construction of new infrastructure.
As a necessary next step to her revocation order, the President is morally obligated to issue a cease-and-desist order to San Miguel Foods — if, that is, she holds herself morally responsible not only for what she does but also for what she says. On this matter, the bishops, speaking as one, can give her the benefit of their experience: They know what it means to work through the written and spoken word.
Already, much of the goodwill the President’s revocation order generated has dissipated, especially after the farmers learned that Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye failed to keep his dramatic promise to hand-deliver the order to San Miguel Foods. In a case where the system itself is at issue, the country’s poor only have the sincerity of their officials to rely on. Perhaps the bishops can issue a firm pastoral reminder about our duty not only to keep the faith, but to keep our word.