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Agrarian justice: Land in the hands of the tillers 

A briefing paper on Bondoc Peninsula tenants land rights struggle

By Danny Carranza

 

Background

After close to two decades of struggle, land rights claimants in the most contentious haciendas in Bondoc Peninsula are on the cusp of ending feudal oppression and exploitation via the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). The latest landholdings that were distributed by the Department of Agrarian Reform include portions of Hacienda Villa Reyes and parcels of Tan and Uy properties. This is promising to end long standing land-based conflicts that could usher in long-term solution to poverty through a more comprehensive rural development initiative founded on secure land tenure of tillers.

About two decades ago, Bondoc Peninsula was considered among the poorest region in the country. Widespread poverty was largely attributed to landlessness due to a highly skewed landownership structure. The biggest haciendas include: Hacienda Villa Reyes (est. 8,000 – 12,000 hectares), Hacienda Uy (3,000 hectares), Hacienda Matias, (2,000 hectares), Tan estates (600 hectares more or less), among others. Tenants relied solely on sharing system where they got between 33% and 40% of the produce. In some haciendas, even the raising of pigs for additional income was not allowed.

There have been very profound changes in the land ownership configuration in Bondoc Peninsula with the gradual break up of big haciendas through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). This sustained successes have been mainly the result of sustained pressure from below and the positive openings of CARP, with support of government officials

 

Failed expectation. Liberation from feudal exploitation, however, did not come to fruition even during the height of armed movement’s strength in the area. Tenancy persisted in the biggest haciendas. And even after the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was enacted in 1988, the biggest haciendas escaped agrarian reform due to the failure of the government to impose the law. The CARP, substantially expanded and considered to be the most progressive agrarian reform law in Philippine agrarian history, nonetheless opened up a new political opportunity for tenants with a promise to end the oppressive sharing system through leasehold and land redistribution.

CARP, however, was not self-executing, such that more than a decade after its promulgation, many landholdings such as Hacienda Reyes and Hacienda Matias located in Bondoc Peninsula remained untouched by the agrarian reform program. Landless tenants’ consistent demand for land reform started in 1996, after external, reform-oriented organizers started to establish land rights claimants organizations in the biggest haciendas in the area. This organizing work expanded over time to cover all of the biggest haciendas in Bondoc Peninsula and covered timberlands under the control of private owners.

Reform-oriented organizations however, threatened both landlords control of the land and the armed insurgency’s effort to control and organize the tenants around armed insurgency. This triggered the sustained harassment and violence against reform-oriented tenants resulting in serious human rights violations such as unjust imprisonment and killings of leaders of land rights claimants.

Since 2009, Breaking Barriers to Peace Project had supported the demand of farmers for a more effective implementation of agrarian reform in both private and public lands as a means of resolving land-related conflicts in the area. BBP also contributed to the advocacy to decriminalize agrarian reform claimants and to respect and protect their human rights. There have been very significant improvement in the peace situation in the area, as well as in the substantial fulfilment of farmers demand for land rights.

Biggest haciendas

Hacienda Matias located in Barangays Don Juan Vercelos and Butanguiad in San Francisco, Quezon, is a vast coconut plantation with an area of 1,829 hectares. Farmers in this isolated hacienda petitioned for land reform in 2003, 15 years after the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program took effect in 1988. Thereafter, land rights claimants were subjected to various forms of sustained harassment, including the criminalization of their agrarian movements, (trespassing, qualified theft, frustrated homicide, etc.) physical attacks, verbal threats and forcible evictions, among others. The landowners also filed a protest on coverage, before shifting to applying for exemption asserting that Hacienda Matias is devoted to livestock production.

Hacienda Villa Reyes, a huge coconut plantation situated in the boundary of San Narciso and San Andres with an area of around 8,000 hectares, is one of the most contentious agrarian reform haciendas in the area. Agrarian reform breakthrough in any Reyes-owned property in the region did not take place in the main hacienda but somewhere else – in Brgy. Catulin, in the nearby town of Buenavista Quezon, where a historic inter-agency task force composed of various government agencies was formed in 1999 to install 55 forcibly evicted tenants amidst threats of violence. This initial success story triggered tenants’ petition for agrarian reform in Hacienda Villa Reyes in 2001, again with support from external organizers. Starting from one sitio, the petition spread like a wildfire and in no time consolidated tenants in 13 sitios around the call for a serious implementation of the government’s agrarian reform program. After their petition, more than 100 tenants were charged with qualified theft cases. Near clashes between tenants and armed men of landowners were also reported as the tenants resisted attempts of landowner’s men to forcibly take away petitioners coconut harvests. Last year’s reform breakthrough involved the redistribution of 408 hectares to 276 farmers.

The owners of Hacienda Tan, around 400 hectares of coconut lands, located at Don Juan Vercelos in San Francisco, Bondoc Peninsula may be the closest representation of enlightened landowners in the area. After farmers successfully petitioned for leasehold in 2009-2010, the landowners offered the land under the Voluntary Offer to Sell (VOS) of the government. The said lands were previously granted exemption from CARP coverage as livestock area.

 

Highlights of 2014

Riding from the momentum of 2013, PCICC-BBP supported the consummation of land rights claim in several haciendas by complementing the independent initiatives of tenants in the area. The year 2014 has reached a level of reform inevitability in many of these haciendas through the complementary efforts of the farmers, their non-governmental allies and BBP-PCICC. For its part, PCICC-BBP supported key mobilizations, some of the bilateral dialogues, and initiated capacity building and multi-stakeholder dialogue.

 In June 2014, PCICC-BBP supported the mobilization of Matias farmers for a national dialogue that aimed to push the Office of the President to issue a follow up decision to a 2013 decision which affirmed the coverage of Hacienda Matias under the current agrarian reform program. This mobilization enabled a key woman leader of the Bondoc farmers to participate in a dialogue with the President himself, Pnoy Aquino. In the said dialogue, the leader was able to personally request from the President himself to fast track the decision on the Matias case that was then pending at the Office of the President.

Several bilateral dialogues were also supported by PCICC-BBP to push the resolution of several issues that thwart the implementation of agrarian reform program. These include several meetings with the DENR to fast track the issuance of implementing rules and regulation on UPALs. In the said dialogues, private land reform proved to be progressing more rapidly than public land reform, and the possibility of actual land transfer increased due to the decisions that resolved the cases.

A human rights defenders training was also conducted to enhance the capacity of communities that are most vulnerable to violence. The said training enabled farmers to assess the security situation in their respective communities and formulate a plan to protect the security of individuals as well as communities threatened by physical violence as a whole.

A local multi-stakeholder dialogue was also conducted in November as a major follow through of the various initiatives to resolve land tenure issue and concerns of farmers. The said multi-strakeholder dialogue was highlighted by the pronouncement of the Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer, Atty. Sam Solomero, that several landholdings with cumulative total of 1,500 hectares or more, could be distributed before year end.

 Community meetings were also constantly conducted to:

  • raise the level of involvement of farmers affected by land tenure issues;
  • raise the knowledge of farmers about the various policies hindering the resolution of their cases;
  • jointly strategize on the next steps to be done in response to the current situation of the issues confronting the farmers

Among the issues discussed on the community meetings are:

  • The Joint Administrative Order Number 3, Series of 2013 which sets the limit on ownership of public lands based on DOJ Opinion 100 Series of 2012 and its implications to the pace of land distribution of untitled privately claimed lands.
  • The imminent redistribution of portions of Haciendas Matias, Tan, Reyes, and Uy and possible, though remote, causes of delays. These may include possible delay in the registration of CLOAs at the level of the ROD, among others. In Hacienda Matias, possible technicality may arise from a conservative legal interpretation of the land reform process if the landowner has a pending appeal at the Court of Appeal or the SC.

 

IMPORTANT MILESTONES

Dialogue with the President. On June 10, 2014, Maribel Luzara, president of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Bondoc Peninsula (KMBP a district-wide federation of farmers whose members are in the most contentious landholdings in the area) and one of the leaders of Hacienda Matias tenants, was able to participate in a dialogue with the president himself, President Benigno Aquino. Pnoy committed to act on the request of Maribel Luzara to fast track the decision on the pending Matias case. This decision is important for it would pave the way for the continuity of the processing of the land application of more than 600 farmers of Hacienda Matias.

Decision of the Office of the President. On June 26, 2014, consistent with his commitment to decide on the issue, Maribel Luzara received a copy of the decision of the Office of the President dismissing the Motion for Reconsideration of Hacienda Matias owners. This has paved the way for the continuity of processing of land application of Maribel Luzara and the other Matias tenants.

Formal announcement of land redistribution of several haciendas. During a follow-up dialogue with DAR officials, Atty. Samuel Solomero, Provincial Agrarian Reform Program Officer (PARPO) of Quezon assured the farmers that at least 639 hectares of the Matias holdings will be transferred to farmers before end of 2014. This could increase to 1,200 if the valuation and registration of two parcels of lands could be fast tracked. Likewise at least 120 hectares more of the Reyes properties, 300 hectares of Tan properties and 133 hectares of the Uy properties would also be distributed in what promises to be a happy ending for a rather contentious and difficult agrarian reform transformation of the area.

Actual distribution of portions of Hacienda Matias, Tan, Uy, and Reyes holdings. The decision of the Office of the President affirmed the coverage of the 1,829-hectare coconut lands located in the town of San Francisco, in the province of Quezon. The said decision paved the way for the actual distribution of 639 hectares of Matias properties to 282 benefiaires on December 19, 2014. Aside from the Matias properties, other significant landholdings were distributed on Deember 19 the said date including portions of Villa Reyes, Tan and Uy properties. More than 900 hectares were distributed on the said date with more than 400 farmer-beneficiaries. With the land distribution, beneficiary-households are transformed as small landowners independent of any landlord control.

 

CHALLENGES

Despite the imminent successes in agrarian reform in several contentious private lands, certain concerns of farmers continue to be obstacles to the total conflict transformation in the area.

Claims. Many timberlands have titles and preparation for the filing of reversion often take more than ten years. In the meantime, occupants without proper tenure instrument continue to be vulnerable to threats of forcible eviction from the men of claimants

  • Refusal of local government to endorse CBFMP application. In areas that have been certified to be clear of any claim, a major obstacle is the refusal of the local government units at the barangay and municipal level to endorse the CBFMP application of applicants. At least three applications have been paralyzed by this refusal of the LGU in the last three years. The DENR unfortunately has not been able to resolve this impasse.
  • Continuing threats of violence. Violence remains a threat. Threats escalated after new claimants surfaced in contested public lands that previously belonged to the lands claimed by the Reyes family. The number of threatened farmers has increased. And farmer-leader Lisa Tulid’s murder in October 2013 punctuated the increased level of threats to occupants.
  • Improving productivity of distributed lands. Post-land distribution challenge is enormous around the area of improving productivity and access to markets. The area has huge potential for mass-based integrated coconut processing that would benefit thousands of agrarian reform beneficiaries. Previously conflict-affected farmers need to be fully integrated into efforts to develop the coconut industry as part of the conflict transformation. The coco hub proposal of the Department of Agriculture (DA) is a good starting point to jumpstart a comprehensive and integrated coco-based project that would benefit the farmers. The government can build from the initial support of the Department of Agriculture which ginger intercropping for 40 farmers and corn project. Bad weather, however, resulted in poor harvest. A carabao distribution project in 2011 has also helped in opening up new intercropping areas.
  • Decriminalizing farmers’. There are still criminal cases being filed against farmers every now and then. But this is no longer a serious concern among farmers. What farmers want to be decisively resolved are the long standing warrants involving more than 40 farmers on cases filed years ago and the enormous amount of bail amounting to P 2.6. Million. The government should allocate money for bail bond of unjustly prosecuted farmers in Bondoc Peninsula to show that the government is seriously trying to dispense justice equally. Once referred, the government will recover the money used for bailing farmers out.
  • Uninstalled Matias farmers. Despite the award of CLOA, 69 farmers have yet to get installed on the awarded lands. Actual CLOA-holder applicants, on the other hand, are unable to peacefully cultivate the land due to sustained harassment from the goons of former-landowner Matias.

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