SEPTEMBER 17, 2015
To enter Irung, Brgy. Tabun, Mabalacat, you have to pass an outpost staffed by members of Boluntaryo, the organization of the people of the newly established sitio. Green Boluntaryo banners floated above the roof of the small hut where we were greeted with cold water and hot coffee. The volunteers, women and men, wear bright green vests and politely ask strangers trying to enter Irung who they are and where they are going.
We were expected and welcomed warmly. Some of the people’s faces were familiar. We had marched together in the streets of Manila, in front of the Department of Agricultural Reform, to demand the right to land, to food, to justice.
Such precautions may seem unusual. To understand why they are necessary, you have to understand the history of Irung and other impoverished rural communities like it. You have to know that it is under threat by yet another real estate corporation that wants to raise profit, not food. You have to grasp that these former farm hands and other landless folk (some from as far away as Leyte and Negros) have spent almost a decade struggling to reap the benefits promised by CARP, the agrarian reform law.
The leaders of Boluntaryo have heard of the plight of farmers in Bgy. Hacienda Dolores who have been unable to go back to their farms since Ayala Land and Leonio Land installed gates and assigned armed guards to block their entry. They know that these farmers have been unable to tend to their farms for five full years. Fruit trees have been burned and farm land has been bulldozed to make way for the construction of luxury houses, malls and playgrounds for the rich, and factories where workers are never promoted to regular status. They know that two farmer leaders have been killed and one, Apung Tony Tolentino is still in jail after 1 ½ years on manufactured charges. All these have made them cautious and determined.
Boluntaryo’s founder, Ka Bart Pasion, was the political officer of an HMB unit, captured by government forces in 1956, detained and released after a year. He told us, “Farmers and farm workers like us have to occupy the land. We have to hold on to it and at all costs, refuse to be driven away. Hold on to the land. It is the only way we can endure and win the long and difficult battle that lies ahead.”
Ka Bart has placed his hopes on the organization he founded — BOLUNTARYO sa Digmaan laban sa Gutom, Kahirapan at Kawalang Pag-asa—Volunteers to the War against Hunger, Poverty and the Loss of Hope. The people of Irung have taken his advice to heart. Each adult has given her or his pledge to defend their land, community, way of life and future. More than two hundred families, all members of Boluntaryo, now live in Irung’s 40 hectares. It is not an easy life. For now they live in makeshift huts but slowly the community is growing.
Irung was once part of a 500 hectare hacienda formerly owned by the Santos family. Half of the estate was placed under the management of the Santos Ventura Horcoma Foundation, Inc. SVHFI however showed no interest in rehabilitating the hectares of land buried under tons of lahar since 1991. The landlord’s former tenants and farm hands however did. They wanted land where they could be secure, where they could live, farm and build a community. When the opportunity came, they grabbed it. The opportunity surprisingly came from DAR.
On May 22, 2006, the Pampanga provincial agrarian reform officer (PARO) Arnel Dizon issued a notice of coverage (NOC) over 40 hectares of land that is now Irung. The pioneers of Boluntaryo felt encouraged by this decision and petitioned the Mabalacat municipal agrarian reform officer (MARO) to recognize them as legitimate and qualified beneficiaries of CARP. They said: We have no land. We have no jobs. Our families have nothing to eat. Tenants do not own the land that they till, yes, but farm hands like us are worse off. We have no land to till, at all.
The Mabalacat MARO recommended that they clean and clear the land, and they did, starting August 2007, and they haven’t stopped for the past eight years. The land was then covered with more than 35 feet of lahar. They needed water for their crops so the people dug 30- and 35-feet deep wells without reaching the pre-explosion level, marked by dark and soft soil.
In the beginning the place was a wasteland of lahar covered with talahib. The pioneers cut the tall grass and brush. They planted rows of cassava, stands of bananas, peanuts, corn, and even mountain rice, They found the soil to be productive even without chemical inputs. They shredded coconut husks and used them to fertilize the soil. They sold their vegetables, corn and root crops to local merchants. They nursed the land back to life, and now it is covered by a soft green blanket of trees, plants, crops and even wild flowers.
It is by no means an easy life. They cannot live by farming alone. Not when they are paid only P50 for a large can of raw peanuts, and the harvested rice is not even enough for an entire year’s household supply. Both women and men have had to take on whatever additional jobs they can find in and around Brgy. Tabun.
Some of the men are employed in infrastructure projects, but they are paid only P160 for a day’s work under the hot sun. Women do a lot of the farm work while the men spend their week-ends taking their turn. The women also take on odd jobs, no matter how physically demanding. Some gather stones from the river polluted by sand and gravel mining operations, spending days hammering the stones into tiny pieces that they sell for P5 per sack.
After Boluntaryo submitted its petition for CARP implementation, it learned that the ‘other side’ (former landowners Santos Ventura Horcoma Foundation Inc. and Hausland Development Corporation owned by Willy Tan) were working to exempt the land from CARP coverage. DAR at first admitted that this was true, but when Boluntaryo attempted to file their opposition, DAR declared that they had made a mistake. It was a barefaced lie. After issuing a notice of coverage, DAR decided to exempt the 40 hectares from CARP and allow its conversion into a real estate housing project. DAR gives then takes the land away.
Hausland Development Corporation tried to do what Ayala and Leonio Land did in Porac. They descended on Irung and tried to build a fence that would bar the barrio folk from their own community. Willy Tan was accompanied by security guards as well as the local police. Ka Bart Pasion pointed out that the land case was not yet resolved and Hausland and the police had no legal and moral basis for their actions. The attempt failed and the people are staying put in Irung. Both the DAR’s central office and the Office of the President have ruled in favor of Hausland. Boluntaryo has filed a motion for reconsideration and the legal battle is ongoing.
If this story seems familiar well it is. It is the GLOBAL LAND GRAB. It is happening in Irung and in the entire world. Its outcome will have a major impact on climate change and our survival.
(End Part 1)