[Pastilan] Ayala the giant and the changing Northern Mindanao landscape

The Ayala group is changing the landscape of the towns of western Misamis Oriental, and the things it plans to do in the province give us a glimpse of the future of Northern Mindanao.

Between the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan is an eight-year-old airport (mistakenly referred to as “international” by many) built on a property that was part of a 183-hectare Ayala donation. The airport, equipped to facilitate domestic flights even at night, was merely an ambitious project thought of when Fidel Ramos was president, or even earlier, as part of the now-almost forgotten Cagayan de Oro-Iligan Corridor industrialization master plan, and fast-tracked and nearly completed during the Arroyo presidency. It was inaugurated when Noynoy Aquino took over, or “3 and a half” administrations later. (I say “half” in jest because Joseph Estrada was booted out of office halfway through his office term by way of EDSA 2.)

Nothing comes for free, so they say, and so it is understandable that behind the very generous Ayala donation is a profitable business and development plan – a very impressive, exciting, and legitimate one at that, I should say.

The airport is surrounded by vast tracts of land acquired or being claimed by the Ayala group. That entire area is practically an "Ayala country;" it's as far as the eyes can see.

Shortly before COVID-19 caught the world flat-footed, the group’s subsidiary, Ayala Land Inc, announced plans to invest P18 billion to turn 526 hectares in Laguindingan town and the neighboring municipality of Alubijid into a regional trade and commercial hub. The plan includes the development of an industrial park that would be managed by no less than Laguna Technopark Inc. (LTI). The announcement leaves us with the impression that it's going to be Laguna and Taguig rolled into one. Indeed, the project, christened the “Habini Bay” mixed-use estate by Ayala Land, is a welcome development; it should be enough to spur the economic growth of Misamis Oriental province, Cagayan de Oro and Iligan cities, and the rest of Northern Mindanao at an accelerated rate the region has never seen before.

Not everyone is happy though. There is a small group of farmers living near the airport that has been waiting for years to get relocated and paid by the Ayalas. Just this January, tension gripped a small farming community there as the construction of a concrete fence near the main road to the airport commenced. Needless to say, the fence construction project is blocking the way of the farmers and their families from the main road to their homes and farms, and vice versa. In a difficult situation like that, who wouldn’t raise a howl of protest?

The farmers, now complaining about alleged threats and harassment, have asked the Misamis Oriental capitol to step in. They alleged that their pleas have been falling on deaf ears for years despite a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that upheld their right to disturbance compensations.

In a July 1, 2013 resolution, the high court acknowledged with finality their right to claim compensations from Diamond Cement and Industrial Corp (DCIC), a firm that has long given up all its assets and interests to Ayala Corp, including its claims over some 44 hectares or more that stretch from barangays Moog to Tubajon near the airport in Laguindingan where the affected farmers and their families are.

The property was acquired decades ago by the Makati Development Corp, which subsequently conveyed all its assets to Diamond Cement on March 29, 1966. To make the long story short, Diamond Cement merged with Ayala, which then absorbed all of the former's assets and interests years later.

Notwithstanding this, the farmers’ right to compensation is no longer open for debate here given the SC resolution nearly a decade ago. Why they have not received any is a matter that baffles me to this day.

The farmers sought the help of Misamis Oriental Governor Yevgeny Vincente Emano in a February 11, 2021 letter sent by lawyer Beverly Selim-Musni on behalf of over 60 claimants. Musni asked Emano to immediately stop the construction, and cause the unfinished fence to be demolished.

Reads part of Musni’s letter to Emano: “My clients are never against development, but not if said developments are undertaken by corporate giants running afoul with fundamental tenets of tenurial security of jobs and lands, the sanctity of homes, basic decency, and good faith.”

Exactly which group is behind the ongoing construction is unclear, but the farmers claimed that they were told by workers erecting the fence that it “was done at the instance of” Job de Jesus, Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines’ manager for the Laguindingan Airport. It was done with the green light of the town’s mayor, Diosdado Obsioma, according to Musni.

What makes it more questionable and suspect is that no document was made available to show local government authority for the construction of the fence. Musni said even the town engineer, Arnel Madredano, showed no such document.

For years, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the Ayala group kept mum over the farmers’ claims for compensation despite the SC’s 2013 ruling, and local officials have merely given Musni’s clients the cold shoulder. Musni said the farmers have not heard from the DAR and the Ayalas since 2018.

Under the SC ruling, the farmers and their families are entitled to receive payment based on the “5x5 Doctrine” spelled out in the 1990 DAR Administrative Order No. 1, that the disturbance compensation should not be less than 5 times the average annual gross value of the harvest on each beneficiary’s actual landholdings during the last 5 years. As I write this, the claimants are getting ready to submit their adjusted claims for disturbance compensations to DAR’s adjudication board, this time, with supporting documents on individual computations from the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) and the Department of Agriculture (DA).

In the meantime, and adding insult to injury, the farmers, already very impatient after years of waiting and submitting to legal processes, are allegedly being threatened and subjected to provocations. According to Musni, some have complained about being harassed by guards.

For instance, a claimant, one Silver Ubarco, alleged that a guard identified as Roel Acusar pointed a gun at him in Barangay Moog on May 21, 2020, while another, Ruben Jamis, alleged that guard Romeo Quilab seized from him pieces of wood intended for house repair on September 18, 2019. Their harassment complaints were placed on record in the barangay.

The farmers sent separate letters to lawyer Merlita Capinpuyan of the DAR-Misamis Oriental in 2018, and Ayala Corp managing director Ricardo Jacinto last year, but there was no response. Yes, not one. DAR’s silence and apparent inaction prompted Musni to furnish the Office of the Ombudsman in Mindanao a copy of her letter to Governor Emano. She points out that the DAR official had 15 days to respond to the letter of the farmers based on the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees. Musni notes that in the case of DAR’s Capinpuyan, there has been no response since June 25, 2018, the day her office received the farmers' letter.

She said DAR’s silence became more deafening and local government inaction became more pronounced this January when the farmers complained about the fence construction “without prior notice to any one of them, nor any showing of fencing permit...” The Laguindingan town government extended no assistance to the farmers when they brought their complaints to the attention of local officials, prompting them to turn to Governor Emano for help now.

Musni concluded her letter to Emano with this: “They (farmers) are of the profound belief that you are with them on this score.” But the thing is, belief, no matter how profound, neither automatically translates to reality nor fact; it is just another word for “wishful thinking," if not guesswork.

I do hope though that Misamis Oriental’s governor, DAR, and the Ayala group would work out the kinks and just take care of these few farmers. Compared to Ayala the Giant, they are just "little guys" who would rather plant and harvest than spend time listening to lawyers argue, and reading legal documents they could not fully comprehend.

Come to think of it, the compensations they seek, a right long upheld by the highest court of the land, is merely a drop in the bucket vis-à-vis Ayala’s planned P18-billion Habini Bay investment in Misamis Oriental. Talk about corporate social responsibility. Well, this is it; this is the test.

Pastilan.

– Rappler.com

Herbie Gomez has been a journalist based in Cagayan de Oro for over 30 years. He edits the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.