MANILA, Philippines – More than just a campaign stop, it was a reunion with old friends.
Farmers from the Higaonon tribe in Sumilao, Bukidnon, warmly greeted Vice President Leni Robredo on Wednesday, February 23, carrying handwritten posters and waving small pink flags. As they all marched together – reminiscent of the day they first met – a couple of women even linked arms with the presidential candidate.
Robredo and the farmers, after all, have known each other for over 14 years.
Robredo, who was a pro bono human rights lawyer before entering politics, and her late husband, then-Naga mayor Jesse Robredo, welcomed the farmers to their city in 2007 and joined the march to fight for their ancestral land.
The Robredos walked for 6 kilometers with the farmers, who went on to complete their 1,700-kilometer, 60-day march to Malacañang and eventually reclaimed their land from San Miguel Corporation. The nongovernmental organization Leni belonged to, Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal or Saligan, helped the farmers.
“Noong una pa man, kasama na namin siya. Hindi na siya iba sa amin (She’s been with us since the early days. She’s no stranger to us),” said Bajekjek Orquillas, who was 21 in 2007 and the youngest of the 55 farmers who marched to Malacañang that year.
“Nakilala namin siya bilang abogada, bilang isang kaibigan, bilang parang isang ina (We came to know her as a lawyer, as a friend, as someone who was like our mother).”
Covenant with farmers
Their friendship was evident as Robredo, clad in slippers, mentioned several farmers on a first-name basis throughout her speech.
She thanked them for providing hope and inspiration, noting that theirs is a success story that every Filipino farmer must know of.
The Office of the Vice President (OVP) noted that as of 2017, the Sumilao farmers communally owned 97 hectares of land. Each family also owns a 0.25-hectare parcel of land for crops and another 150 square meters for their homes.
The OVP’s projects in Sumilao include a P1.2-million initiative to teach farmers “how to maximize their resources and diversify their crops,” done in partnership with Pilipinas Shell Foundation.
“Mahaba na talaga ‘yung tinahak natin na landas pero kami na nananood…sa inyo, sobrang proud kami kung nasaan na kayo ngayon (We embarked on a long journey, but we who watched you grow are very proud of where you are now),” Robredo told the farmers.
“Ang akin pong promise sa inyo, na patuloy na ipapakipaglaban natin ‘yung karapatan at kabuhayan ng bawat magsasaka saka mangingisda (My promise to you is that I will continue to fight for the rights and livelihood of every farmer and fisherman).”
On Wednesday, Robredo and the Sumilao farmers signed a covenant outlining what she would do for agriculture and fisheries if elected president.
The Vice President’s pledges include prioritizing local production over imports, pushing for the enactment of the National Land Use Act, and reviewing the rice tariffication law to ensure that small farmers, not big-time traders, would benefit from the measure.
Robredo assured the farmers she would be with them “every step of the way.”
The farmers, too, have long shown support for Robredo.
In 2016, they traveled all the way from Bukidnon to Quezon City to back Robredo’s vice presidential bid.
At the time, they were welcomed by the second of Robredo’s three daughters, Tricia, who was moved to tears as the farmers handed her flowers.
Tricia told Rappler on Thursday, February 24, that the farmers have become family through the years.
“Si Mama kahit nung naging VP siya, she makes it a point to try and visit the Sumilao farmers tuwing bibisita siya ng Bukidnon. At kapag umuuwi siya sa bahay, laging may baong kuwento at updates tungkol sa kanila. Mas kaibigan at pamilya more than supporters ang turing sa kanila at sa amin, vice versa,” she said.
(Even after Mama became VP, she makes it a point to try and visit the Sumilao farmers every time she goes to Bukidnon. And whenever she returns home, she would always have stories and updates about them. We treat them more as our friends and family rather than supporters, and vice versa.)
“Mapa-eleksiyon man o hindi, ‘yung constant presence nila very comforting and very energizing. Taga-yakap at taga-gabay,” added Tricia.
(Whether election season or not, their constant presence is very comforting and very energizing. They provide us comfort and guidance.)
With Robredo now the one aiming for Malacañang, the Sumilao farmers will still be marching with her.
Orquillas said: “Naipanalo natin siya noong 2016. Ngayon pa kaya tayo magpapatalo? Kung naipanalo natin si Ma’am noon, ipapanalo natin ngayon sa 2022.” (We delivered victory for her in 2016. Will we let ourselves go down in defeat now? If we made Ma’am win before, we’ll also make her win in 2022.) – Rappler.com