MANILA, Philippines – The fight for land ownership has been long and winding, but it's far from over for Filipino farmers.
Landless farmers have long clamored to be granted the lands they have been tilling for generations. To address this, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was launched in 1988 under the administration of former president Corazon Aquino.
According to Republic Act No. 6657, CARP aims to empower farmers, who, along with fishermen, remain among the country's poorest.
The program, however, has been seen as a failed attempt at genuine land reform because the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) has been unable to effectively implement it.
A 2015 report by the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Development of the House of Representatives says that DAR had a balance of 1.6 million hectares of land to be distributed to 1.2 million farmer beneficiaries when CARP ended in 2009.
An extension program called Carper (Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms) was enacted on August 7, 2009. But when the program ended in 2014, up to 726,421 hectares of land remained undistributed. Almost a quarter of these lands are private, most of them for voluntary transfer from owners to farmers.
The implementation of CARP has faced several challenges, including opposition from landlords, raising tension among the program's beneficiaries.
Farmers' groups have staged innumerable protests before the barricaded gates of the DAR office for years.
But last July 5, just a few days after President Rodrigo Duterte officially began his term, the DAR gates were opened by a man whom the farmers regard as one of them: DAR chief Rafael Mariano, "Ka Paeng" to members of the Left.
Photo from DAR's Facebook page
Who is 'Ka Paeng'?
Mariano is no stranger to the farmers' cause. After all, he came from a family of farmworkers.
Mariano was born and raised in Nueva Ecija, the top rice-producing province in the country. His father Narciso and mother Herminigilda were both workers in a hundred-hectare farmland.
Due to poverty, Mariano was unable to finish his agriculture studies at the Wesleyan University and at the Christian College of the Philippines, both in Cabanatuan City.
His life as an activist began when he was 20 years old, when he joined a youth organization called Bisig ng Kabataan (Youth’s Forearm) that fought for the rights of farmers. He later became an officer of the Alyansa ng Magbubukid ng Gitnang Luzon (Alliance of Farmers in Central Luzon) in 1984.
Mariano entered the national scene when he served as the secretary-general of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) when it was founded in 1985, during the waning years of the Marcos regime. He then became KMP president in 1993.
Incumbent KMP Secretary-General Antonio Flores recalled the very first time he met “Ka Paeng” in 1985 when the latter was still holding the former’s current position.
“Hangang-hanga ako sa kanya (I admired him)," he told Rappler in an interview.
“Napansin ko sa kanya, magaling, mahusay siya magsalita at matalas (What I noticed in him was, he was good, articulate, and sharp),” he said of Mariano who is his junior by a few years.
Having worked for the KMP chair for 3 decades, Flores described Mariano as a compassionate leader.
This was evident during the 1987 Mendiola massacre where 13 farmers were killed after protesting for genuine agrarian reform under then president Corazon Aquino.
Flores said Mariano assisted the 13 farmer victims before they died, even though he was also a target since he was among the top officials of KMP at that time.
His leadership is also the kind that listens as he always tries to resolve divergent views inside his organization so they could come up with their plans and policy recommendations.
When KMP had an internal problem in 2001, Flores recalled that Mariano kept his mind open to opposing sentiments among members and fixed the conflict, even going down to their regional chapters to relay the problem the organization faced.
This proved that he is also a very hands-on leader. Flores said that the former KMP head does not only join movements at the national level.
"Ka Paeng actively joined the fight for land rights of farmers to lands owned by the Aranetas in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, the Clark base lands in Pampanga, [and] Hacienda Looc in Nasugbu, Batangas," progressive group Anakpawis wrote of Mariano in Filipino.
He immersed himself in their local chapters to explain what they need to fight for. His strongest and consistent call, as former Anakpawis Representative Fernando Hicap recalled, was: “Basta 'wag na 'wag kayong aalis sa mga lupa niyo.” (Whatever happens, do not leave the lands you till.)
He also talked to local government units for consultations. His immersion helped him identify the policies he needed to push when he eventually served as party-list representative for political group Anakpawis.
But aside from being the authoritative figure of the progressive groups he led, Ka Paeng was also the clown whenever they convened.
Both Flores and Hicap said Mariano often cracked jokes to break the ice when members were deep into discussions.
“Of course, we talk about deep societal ills, everything is so serious, but Ka Paeng diverts us to some jokes,” Flores said in Filipino.
He is also fond of owning the microphone – not to shout for land reform but to sing to entertain his fellow peasants – during their solidarity nights. Flores and Hicap said the new DAR chief loves to play the guitar.
Photo from KMP's Facebook page
On the other side of the fence
Mariano served as Anakpawis Representative in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Congresses, where he filed bills aligned with his advocacies such as:
But all measures failed to muster support in Congress, including the most significant measures: Coco Levy Funds bill and the GARB.
Having led the charge for farmers all these years, Mariano is deemed the perfect person to finally listen to their pleas. Now he is Cabinet secretary for agrarian reform with a huge expectation from others: demand for the passage of GARB, among others.
“Lalong may pangangailangan na talaga ng land reform law kasi wala ng existing law kasi CARP at Carper nag-expire na nung 2014,” Hicap said. (There is really a need for a [new] land reform law because there is no existing law since CARP and Carper already expired in 2014.)
The former lawmaker himself said that as DAR chief, Mariano has the power to influence the President to certify as urgent GARB and other measures that will alleviate the farmers’ plight. This would prompt Congress to act on these measures that never passed the President’s desk for signature.
Ka Paeng's promise
Since there is still no law for implementation, Mariano said DAR would investigate and check if the farmers still own and occupy the lands distributed to them as he promised:"Walang magsasakang mapapatalsik sa kanyang lupang sinasaka (No farmer will be evicted from the land that he tills).”
On top of his priorities for the inventory is Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac, owned by the clan of former president Benigno Aquino III.
Mariano's first executive order issued on his first day at work sought to protect the farmers of the Cojuangco-owned plantation from being ousted from the hacienda.
He also told farmers during his consultation with them in his first week in office that land distribution would be resolved in 30 days, which affects up to 6,000 farmer beneficiaries. (READ: WATCH: Activist DAR chief: Luisita distribution hurdles cleared in 30 days)
"Within 30 days, mayroon tayong magiging aksyon doon sa pending petition for revocation noong conversion order na in-issue ng DAR noong 1996," he promised last July 8. (Within 30 days, we will act on the pending petition for revocation of the [land] conversion order DAR issued in 1996.)
Action was evident in his first few weeks in office. Farmers are now pinning their hopes on "Ka Paeng" to be their beacon after 3 decades of still unfinished, if not failed, land reform. After all, he is the first DAR secretary to come from within their ranks. – Rappler.com