An Appeal: A Sidebar Picture for the Sumilao Farmers

Last October 10, 2007, fifty-three (53) farmers began a trek, a journey on foot that will take them from Sumilao in Bukidnon to Manila. They have been walking for a month now. This afternoon they were leaving Matnog in Sorsogon and their next stop will be in Irosin. They are doing this journey ON FOOT (except for the boat ferries that will take them from one island to the next), from Sumilao to Manila they will cover an estimated 1,700 kms in around two months. They are expected to arrive here in Manila on December 5.
Why would they take the pains of leaving their families, their livelihood and walk such a great distance? If they were made to answer this question I am sure they will say – for a piece of land that we can build our lives on and those of our children and justice that has long eluded them.

Their story would have been simple had it not been for the crooks in government. In fact, the 144-hectare piece of land was already transferred to them by virtue of the government’s agrarian reform program a decade ago during the Ramos Administration. The land that would have been distributed to them was owned by the family of Norberto Quisumbing, a rich and landed family. However, they were not even told that the title of the land was already issued by the Department of Agrarian Reform in their name. They were deceived. They only knew of the fact that they already owned that land when they received a notice from the court that the title issued to them was subject to a petition for cancellation. The Quisumbings have belatedly filed a petition to convert the land from being classified as agricultural to industrial. This would mean that the land would be exempted from agrarian reform. The DAR denied the petition and then Bukidnon Gov. Fortich wrote a letter to the President appealing the decision of the DAR. Then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres granted the appeal without even the Quisumbings filing the petition and only on the strength of the Governor’s letter.

In the face of this injustice, the Mapalad farmers went on hunger strike in front of the DAR in Quezon City. The story of the injustice committed against them and their hunger strike made the headlines. Support for their cause poured in and pressure on then President Ramos mounted. It took 28 days of utter hunger of the Mapalad farmers for Ramos to finally heed their cause and decide on the issue. Some of the hunger strikers were on the brink of death for they took nothing bu water for almost a month. Ramos decided to play safe, he made a compromise – 100 hectares for the Sumilao farmers, 44 hectares will be retained and converted by the Quisumbings. The hunger strike was lifted and they returned to their homes waiting for the distribution of the land.

But their sufferings did not end there. The Quisumbings filed a petition in the Supreme Court for the nullification of the Ramos compromise. After several months of continued advocacy, the Supreme Court handed down its decision, the petition was granted and the Ramos formula was nullified. The Supreme Court in their decision decided against the Sumilao farmers on the basis of a mere technicality – the Department of Agrarian Reform did not appeal on time the decision of the Office of the President to grant the petition for land conversion. They turned a blind eye on the law that prohibits the conversion of irrigated and prime agricultural lands to industrial use. In the end, justice was not blind – it leaned in favor of the rich and became adamant about the rules against the poor farmers.
Seven long years have passed, the industrial complex that the Quisumbings and Fortich said will be constructed in the land remains nothing but a plan. No development of the land was undertaken. In fact, in 2002, in a very clear manifestation of their abandonment of the plan for which the land was converted for, they sold the land to San Miguel Foods , Inc. SMFI plans to put up a piggery in the land. Since when has hog-raising been considered an industrial undertaking?

The Mapalad farmers petitioned the DAR to cancel the conversion order because the order was clearly violated. The law says that in areas that were converted from agricultural to industrial, if no development has been undertaken within a period of 5 years, the land will be reverted back to agricultural classification. Unable to get any action from the DAR, they petitioned the Office of the President. In a decision dated Oct. 3, 2007, the Office of the President dismissed their petition “for lack of legal standing by the petitioners-appellants.”

So now, the Mapalad farmers in whose name the title of the land was once issued, were not only stripped of their claim over the land but were even stripped of any legal standing on the issue.

AND SO THEY WALK…. from Bukidnon to Manila, the farmers will walk – to claim what is rightly theirs, to reclaim what was unjustly taken from them, to demand for Justice. They are walking for a piece of land, a chance at life.

Nine years ago, I was an active part of their struggle. I ate with them, slept in the tents, shared their joys and victories, shared their hopes and dreams, wept over their defeats. I still am part of their struggle despite the years, the distance.

For all of my blog friends, please share in their struggle by posting this picture below that has been a symbol of the Mapalad farmers’ journey on your sidebar. May that picture be our expression of support, their beacon of hope. Maraming Salamat.