By RUTH LUMIBAO
MANILA – With peasant leader Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano out as secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), progressive peasants are back at their camp outside the DAR compound in Quezon City.
The first to camp out of DAR this year are some 100 farmers who travelled all the way from Mindanao to assert their right to land being claimed by the Central Mindanao University (CMU) in Maramag, Bukidnon province.
The farmers belong to the groups Bukidnon Free Farmers and Agricultural Laborers Organization (BUFFALO), Triad Agricultural Manpower of Rural Active Workers (TAMARAW) and Landless Tillers Inhabitants of Musuan (LIMUS). They are collectively known as BUFFALO-TAMARAW-LIMUS or BTL.
“Panawagan po namin sa pamahalaang Duterte ay sana bigyang-pansin ang mga magsasaka,” (We call on the Duterte administration to give attention to the farmers) said Winnie Loable, chairperson of the BTL alliance of farmers.
The farmers arrived in Manila on October 12 for the peasant protest and land assertion campaign Lakbay Magsasaka. Members of the League of Filipino Students (LFS) and Anakbayan in University of Sto. Tomas (UST) welcomed them along España Boulevard in Manila.
Progressive peasant groups have called the CMU land conflict a proof of the failure of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), as the elder BTL farmers were farm workers who tilled the once-idle land and made it productive.
For more than three decades, BTL farmers have been in a deadlock with the CMU administration over 517 hectares of land, which were already awarded to the farmers through Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs) in 1992. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of CMU and declared the land for “educational and scientific purposes.”
The farmers were allowed to remain in the property despite the Supreme Court decision in a compromise agreement reached with the CMU administration. A five-year Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) allowed the farmers to rent the property, obligating them to pay P4,000 ($77) per hectare per year, while CMU would have to find a suitable relocation site for the farmers.
More than a decade after the expiration of that MOA, the farmers remain in the disputed property as they continue to assert their right.
The struggle continues
After the expiration of the MOA in March 2007, the CMU administration asked the farmers to leave, with threats to demolish their houses. Loable said two relocation sites were proposed: San Fernando and Tigbak, both located in Bukidnon.
Loable explained that the farmers refused to transfer to these relocation sites because it meant the loss of their livelihood. The sites were in mountainous areas not suitable for farming.
The CMU administration installed their own guards in the area, prohibited the reconstruction and repair of the farmers’ houses, barred the National Irrigation Authority (NIA) from repairing canals for irrigation, blocked cables of electricity to be placed within the area, and refused to repair roads that can help the farmers transport their produce to the market or to the city.
The BTL farmers, however, worked through bayanihan — collectively repairing the roads themselves and fixing the canals on their own for proper irrigation of their lands.
“Kahit walang proyekto na binibigay para sa amin, patuloy kaming lumalaban para lang sa aming kabataan at sa mga susunod pang henerasyon,” (Even without any government support, we continue to fight for our children and the next generation) Loable said.
Loable took note that during Duterte’s campaign for presidency, he declared to prioritize the agricultural economy by providing free irrigation for farmers and ensuring the distribution of land. Today, the farmers still have no farming equipment, are locked in dispute with wealthy landowners, and remain victims of human rights violations of state agents and private guards of landlords.
Right to land vs. right to education?
At present, more than 500 households reside in the 517-hectare property. At the same time, these families rely on the land for their food and income.
Loable said they can harvest up to 100 sacks of rice in one hectare per season.
Without intervention from the national government, CMU pits the right of education against the right of farmers to the land they till. In 1989, Loable’s father, Leonardo, was shot dead by CMU guards after he and other farmers insisted to transport the seeds to be planted in the disputed property.
At least 50 farmers have been recorded victims of human rights violations as BTL continues to assert its right to the land. These include those who were injured from shooting and mauling by CMU guards who disperse their protest at the campus gates.
Despite the reclassification of the property for educational and scientific purposes, CMU’s intention in asserting its right remains questionable.
In 1997, CMU granted a lease of 250 has. to Sto. Rosario Farms. Loable also mentioned that part of the property was leased to the Philippine Carabao Center and Lapanday Food Corporation. In fact, even Bukidnon Governor Jose Ma. Zubiri, Jr. is a lessor of a few hectares of the disputed property.
In a statement, the Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) lambasted the CMU for its disregard of the farmers’ historical and actual use of land, and instead favors multi-national companies such as Del Monte and Davao Agricultural Ventures, to which the CMU reportedly also plans to lease the disputed lands.
“Instead of considering the farmers as partners for research and local development, CMU turns its back against higher learning educational mission to serve the marginalized sectors,” said the UMA statement.