The landless and the landlords of Bondoc Peninsula
MANILA, Philippines – In the Bondoc Peninsula, a land of coconut trees and lonely beaches facing the Sibuyan Sea, a battle for land is boiling.
But the winners are losing.
The 283 farmers – recipients of titles to farmland from the national government – are homeless, while the landlord family the lands have been taken from remain impregnable.
Coconut farmer Alma Ravina has held on to her Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) since December 2014, when President Benigno Aquino III declared officially that land owned by the Matias family should be distributed to farmers.
The land, dubbed Hacienda Matias, spans 1,716 hectares. It is located in San Francisco town in Quezon.
Even the judicial system was on Ravina's side. In 2010, the Court of Appeals ruled with finality that the Matias family should give up their hacienda to farmers because it is covered by the country's Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPER).
But for Ravina and 282 other farmers, their land titles remain but pieces of paper.
The Matias family still have dominion over the land. Ravina can only harvest copra if she agrees to give them two-thirds of her earnings.
Some farmers, unable to stomach the injustice, have transferred to a nearby beach, making do inside makeshift homes.
"Sabi namin mukhang hindi kaya ng gobyerno na ipatupad ang batas kaya, sa tingin namin, mas malakas pa 'yung batas ng may-ari ng lupa," said Maribel Luzara, leader of the Bondoc Peninsula farmers.
(We said, it looks like the government cannot enforce the law so we think, the landlord is more powerful.)
The landlord's gate
The battle for the Bondoc Peninsula farmlands is symptomatic of the problems faced by the country's ongoing agrarian reform program.
Like most agrarian reform beneficiaries, the Bondoc Peninsula farmers waited years – 12 to be exact – for the government to recognize their right to the land. The farmers applied for agrarian reform coverage in 2003.
But even support from the highest office has so far failed to see them tilling their own land in peace.
Government efforts to do so culminated on May 15 when an army of police men, representatives from the Departments of Agrarian Reform (DAR), National Defense, and Social Welfare and Development; National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC); and Commission on Human Rights, accompanied farmers to the farmlands.
The plan was to install 24 farmers in a part of the landholding called Lot 101. This lot is crucial because it serves as the entrance to the rest of the 639 hectares up for distribution.
The plan failed.
The Matias family, headed by landowners Michael Gil Matias and Cenen Matias Jr, had built a steel gate to guard "their" property.
A text message to Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II from DAR Secretary Virgilio De Los Reyes reads: "The former landowners using their own tenants, workers and goons have installed concrete fence and steel gate. They tied aggressive bulls near the gate to prevent Govt from cutting the locks and removing chains. Peripheries have barbed wires."
Eventually, the police were able to cut the barbed wire and escort the farmers to their designated landholdings.
But the farmers were too afraid to harvest coconuts.
"In the evening, the farmers left their areas because there was no available police assistance," continues De Los Reyes' text message.
The DAR has requested 24/7 protection from the PNP the next time they attempt to install farmers.
A May 20 letter from Police Director Ricardo Marquez directed the Quezon police to "immediately establish PNP Detachment within the hacienda," escort farmers to their awarded lands, and conduct regular patrol within the hacienda.
The DAR, in a statement issued on the same day, committed to put up an "inter-agency CARP center" in front of Lot 101. Aside from the PNP, the center will be guarded by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, it added.
Ailing land reform
The Bondoc Peninsula case is the "true test" of the Aquino government's commitment to genuine land reform, said NAPC Secretary Joel Rocamora.
"The national government really has to show it can stand up for the farmers. If the Matiases win, the other landlords will feel more empowered to resist agrarian reform," he told Rappler on June 4. (READ: Lack of support for farmers drives abusive 'aryendo' system)
Aside from the Bondoc Peninsula, large tracts of land are yet to be distributed in the Visayas, especially in the Negros region where vast sugarcane plantations are still ruled by powerful families.
Agrarian reform groups blame politicians who come from these families for delaying the passage of a bill that will allow the government to continue putting more land under the land reform program.
Congressmen from Visayas provinces, dubbed the "Visayan bloc" want amendments that many say will dilute the bill.
One such amendment is to increase the number of land that may be retained by the former landowner's family. This effectively reduces the number of land covered by CARPER and distributable to farmers, said group Task Force Mapalad.
The bloc is led by Negros Occidental Representative Alfredo Abelardo Bantug Benitez. The Bantug-Benitez family owns landholdings that could be covered by CARPER if the bill is passed.
Other congressmen in the bloc who own land in Negros Occidental and Iloilo are Jerry Treñas, Jeffrey Ferrer, Alejandro Mirasol, and Pryde Henry Teves.
Quick Facts on Hacienda Matias:
- Area: 1,716 hectares (has)
- Area for distribution: 639 has
- Area under CLOA: 283 has
- No. of farmer beneficiaries: 283
Rocamora says he's convinced Secretaries De Los Reyes and Roxas, and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima are determined to fulfill CARPER.
The problem lies in a system that still favors the landlord.
"The law provides so many occasions, instruments for landlords to block the implementation of CARPER," said Rocamora.
Those on the frontlines of installing farmers in their land – local government officials, regional employees of DAR, and the police – are scared of lawsuits from the landlords.
"There was one former chief of police who was sued so his retirement was blocked," said Rocamora.
The farmers who are supposed to benefit the most from CARPER are instead on the receiving end of a stream of injustices.
For instance, when the Bondoc Peninsula farmers filed a case against the caretaker of the Matiases for stealing their copra, it took years for a subpoena to be issued, said Luzara.
But when the Matiases filed a case of qualified theft against the farmers in February, a subpoena was issued to them the month after.
Michael Gil Matias also tried a different tactic. According to Luzara, he met with her personally to offer her "life-long livelihood" in exchange for stepping down as a farmer leader.
Luzara refused, saying, "Karapatan lang naming ang hinihingi namin (We are only asking for our rights)."
As of writing, no government agency has attempted to file a case against the Matiases for blocking CARPER implementation. The Matiases have been careful to keep away from the property, perhaps to avoid arrest.
Luzara and Ravina have lived in uncertainty for 12 years. Expelled from the land of their birth, they sell dried fish from the lonely beach that has become their temporary refuge.
Since April, 80 of their fellow farmers have gathered in front of the DAR building in Quezon City to remind the government of their undefended rights.
It's not home either, but it will have to do until all the steel gates of landlords are brought down. – Rappler.com