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MANILA, Philippines—“We want our land back, our life, freedom and justice. If Pope Francis would let us talk to him, I will ask for his help. Help us press the government to more humane and just actions,” said Noli Bernabe, a 50-year old farmer from Taytay, Palawan.
Bernabe makes his journey to Manila in the hope of seeing the Pope on January 18 at the Quirino Grandstand, where the pontiff would celebrate mass.
Days before the highly anticipated papal visit, peasants, members of the urban poor, and families of political prisoners from Southern Tagalog gathered for the “pilgrimage for land, social justice, and peace,” hopeful that the Pope will join their fight. The pilgrimage to Manila signals the start of various activities which will culminate during the Pope’s stay in the country from January 15-19.
“We are facing a huge problem of land-grabbing, land use conversion and mining in Palawan,” said Bernabe, adding that he is a victim of this.
He said that large companies use “money and politics to get agricultural lands from poor farmers and convert them to plantations and mining sites.”
“They force us to vacate our lands and when we resist, they file fabricated criminal and civil cases against us. I am a victim of this modus; I was evicted from my land and home. In Taytay, 7 other farmers were summoned by the courts for cases that were impossible to stand [in court],” Bernabe said.
Joining the pigrimage are fisherfolks from Coron, Palawan, who will be displaced because of the 40-meter no-dwelling zone policy implemented by the government after Super Typhoon Yolanda hit the country, including Coron and Busuanga.
“Pope Francis is very compassionate with the poor and victims of injustice and inequality; we are confident that he will listen to us and help us bring the fight to the government of the Philippines,” according to Orly Marcillana of the Katipunan ng mga Samahang Magbubukid sa Timog Katagalugan (KASAMA-TK).
He said that 50 families have come to Manila all the way from Palawan “hoping that the Pope will bring changes to their lives.”
On June of 2014, the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) called the attention of the government to stop the alleged 40,000-hectare state-sponsored “land grabbing” in Palawan, covering the agricultural lands of disputed Yulo King Ranch (YKR) in Coron and Busuanga.
The YKR is composed of 22,268 hectares in Coron (32% of Coron’s total land area) and 16,970.53 hectares of Busuanga (43% of Busuanga’s total land mass). It was declared as the Busuanga Pasture Reserve in 1975, through Proclamation Number 1387, and was acquired by his cronies Luis Yulo and Peter Sabido using public funds.
According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), YKR’s 12,817 hectares of land are alienable and disposable lands where 10,376 hectares are public land and the remaining 2,441 hectares are private and titled.
“We can’t just stop looking for solutions and answers. We must try everything to get the justice we are searching for. If the Pope wants to see the poorest of the poor, then he is coming in the right country, where peasants remain poor and underprivileged.” said Marcillana.
The group will be holding series of Pagsambang Bayan (mass) until the 18th of January. A kampuhan (people’s camp) was also constructed at the Liwasang Bonifacio, which camp will serve as a common area for all those who want to get near the Pope.
On the day of the Pope’s mass, the pilgrimage together with the multi-sectoral militant groups under the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) will march from Liwasang Bonifacio to the Quirino Grandstand.
“We will bring these issues to the Pope, by all means. We hope that the government will not hide us from the Pope’s eyes. If we have to shout louder, we will. Pope Francis won’t let us down, even if the government will,” Marcillana said.