Big landowners in Negros Occidental have found another way to retain and re-concentrate the land in their hands: file criminal cases against peasants and farm workers.
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — Early morning of November 15, 2009, 22 peasant families went to Lot No. 1156 of Hacienda Filomena in Escalante City, Negros Occidental to demand what was due to them. They cultivated the land because the landlord has not paid the monetary claims they have won in the case they filed before the National Labor Relations Commission. In return, however, the landlord filed several criminal cases against them.
Rebecca Bucabal, 56, one of the peasants who cultivated the five-hectare-Lot No. 1156, was aware of the possible criminal charges that might be filed against them. “But we do not have much choice,” she told Bulatlat in a mix of Tagalog and Visayan language, “We are hungry.”
Bucabal’s parents were already working in the 60-hectare Hacienda Filomena way before she was born. Bucabal later married Rufino, now 59 years old, who also works in Hacienda Filomena. Since the time of Bucabal’s parents until the present, farm workers in the hacienda endured the low salary being given to them, which was no more than P80 ($1.86) a day, depending on the type and amount of work being assigned to them.
In 1996, many farm workers were dismissed without prior notice by the Ocdenaria family, the landowners. Only 34 of them were brave enough to file a case against Ocdernarias before the National Labor Relations Commission for illegal dismissal and non-payment of their rightful salaries.
Two years later, the NLRC issued a decision favoring the farm workers. The Ocdenaria family was ordered to pay P1.5 million ($34,883) in back wages to the farm workers. But after more than a decade of waiting, “we have not received a single centavo,” Bucabal said. Worse, the 34 farm workers were still not given work at the hacienda.
Bucabal said this pushed them to occupy Lot No. 1156, “to recoup their (Ocdenarias) debt to us.” Only 22 of the 34 farm workers, who filed the NLRC case, and their families have returned to acquire and cultivate the land, calling their claim-making act as Balik Uma.
The struggle of the farm workers of Hacienda Luisita, a 6,453 real property co-owned by President Benigno S. Aquino, served as one of the inspirations of their Balik Uma. “Some of our farm workers would go there (in HLI) to work as seasonal workers,” Bucabal said, “So our Balik Uma is somehow patterned after their Bungkalan, only at a smaller scale.”
Filing of Criminal Cases
Bucabal and all her fellow farm workers are now facing criminal charges filed against them by the Ocdenarias.
She is facing six cases namely, Malicious Mischief, Usurpation of Real Right on Real Property, Grave Coercion, Other Forms of Trespass, Arson and Theft, though Bucabal admitted that the last two were the least that she expected.
A fire which burned the sugar cane planted at a parcel of land adjacent to Lot No. 1156 on March 17, 2010 around 2:00 p.m was made the basis of the arson case filed against Bucabal. On that day, she was sleeping in their camp-out, just outside Lot No. 1156 When she woke up. she related, “We called for firefighters and they managed to extinguish the fire,” she said.
However, as soon as the firefighters extinguished the fire, another end of the sugarcane plantation was, again, set on fire. “Even the firefighters were confused,” she said. She received a subpoena for the arson case in May.
The theft case, on the other hand, was filed after the farm workers attempted to sell the sugarcane they harvested on October 3, 2010. At around 4:00 p.m. that day, 10 farmworkers and their driver left Lot No. 1156 to sell the sugarcane, which Bucabal estimated at around 10 tons. Upon arriving in Escalante City, however, Ranil Pritos, a traffic enforcer, confiscated the sugarcane.
“Our driver was told that we were stealing g sugarcane from the hacienda,” Bucabal said. All 10 farmworkers and the driver were charged with theft.