By RUTH LUMIBAO
MANILA – Progressive peasants lambasted the appointment of a “die-hard Duterte supporter,” or DDS, as secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), replacing officer-in-charge Rosalina Bistoyong.
On Dec. 1, Duterte signed the appointment papers as DAR secretary for lawyer John Rualo Castriciones, former undersecretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) and a leader of the Mayor Rodrigo Roa Duterte (MRRD), a volunteer group which campaigned for him during the 2016 elections.
After the Commission on Appointments rejected the appointment as DAR secretary of peasant leader Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano in September, peasant groups had low hopes that anyone as competent and proficient with agrarian reform and agricultural issues will ever be appointed. But the padrino system reached a new low in the President’s appointment of the new acting DAR secretary.
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) questioned Castriciones’s qualifications for the position.
“Another fan, minion was given a strategic government post. Castriciones’ appointment at DAR clearly shows how Duterte regard land reform and the cause of farmers in the country. He treats it like some sort of a joke,” KMP secretary general Antonio Flores said.
KMP cited that in his youth, Castriciones was dismissed from the Philippine Military Academy, after he was implicated in a hazing incident that killed a fellow cadet, Andres Ramos in November 1981. His law firm’s website, the Castriciones Law Office, notes that he has handled criminal, civil, maritime, transportation, corporate, real estate, construction, immigration, and labor cases, but did not specify agrarian reform disputes.
Even as a DILG official, Castriciones continued to carry out roles as MRRD leader, mobilizing people in pro-Duterte rallies.
“With a DDS at the helm of DAR, the prospect of genuine land reform and rural industrialization is now next to impossible. Farmers can only rely on their collective strength and bold actions to assert right to the land,” said Flores.
In April this year, the President sacked interior secretary Mike Sueño based on complaints of corruption reported by Castriciones, and two other DILG undersecretaries, Jesus Hinlo and Emily Padilla. A report by Philstar said Sueño was the first to ask Duterte to fire the three undersecretaries, but the President, instead, fired him. The latter three are all in the MRRD-National Executive Coordinating Council Committee.
Castriciones and the other two DILG officials were also embroiled in a corruption controversy, but were cleared by then Presidential spokesperson Ernest Abella.
KMP expressed concern that policies and reforms implemented by Mariano will soon be reversed. During Mariano’s term as DAR secretary, he exerted efforts into making sure that agricultural land will be distributed to its beneficiaries. The Commission on Appointments rejected Mariano on unfounded claims of his direct participation in the attacks of the New People’s Army (NPA) in Davao.
In the interim before Castriciones’ appointment, Undersecretary Rosalina Bistoyong acted as officer-in-charge. Even then, farmers’ grievances and demands for dialogues were ignored and set aside. Worse, Bistoyong herself initiated to practically reverse Mariano’s policies by calling for a “stakeholders’ forum” on land use conversion without inviting farmers who were already camped outside DAR.
“DAR OIC Rosalino Bistoyong recently sponsored a stakeholders’ forum that would hasten action on land use conversion applications and a consultation on Administrative Order No. 5 that prevented landowners from delaying the land distribution process. Bistoyong already started to reverse Mariano’s pro-farmer thrust and policy directives at DAR. We are expecting far worse from Castriciones who is a legit DDS,” the peasant leader said,” Flores explained.
Case in point, Flores said Bistoyong has ignored farmers who have camped outside DAR for more than a month. Dozens of agrarian reform beneficiaries of the Tagum Development Corporation (TADECO) plantation travelled from Mindanao and have been outside DAR since October, demandingthe immediate release of their writs of installation.
“OIC Bistoyong repeatedly refused to face us in dialogues while DAR undersecretaries and officials keep on playing us and leading us on. But so far, no significant action on our demands were made,” said Huel Hoyle of AOM.