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RESURGENCE OF CRIMINALIZATION OF PEASANT MOVEMENT IN THE BONDOC PENINSULA

 By the

Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services (RIGHTS), Inc.

 

 

Situationer. Pending arrest warrants continue to threaten the freedom of farmers at Hacienda Matias, a large coconut estate measuring 1,716 hectares located in Brgys. Butanguiad and Don Juan Vercelos in the municipality of San Francisco, Bondoc Peninsula in Quezon province. This is fueled by the inexplicable resurgence of criminal cases of theft and the subsequent issuance of warrants of arrest against the tenants and prospective farmer-beneficiaries in the said estate. The farmers belong to the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Bondoc Peninsula (KMBP, or Peasant Movement of Bondoc Peninsula), a district level chapter of Kilusan para sa Repormang Agraryo at Katarungang Panlipunan (Movement for Agrarian Reform and Social Justice). KATARUNGAN is a mass movement of landless tenants, small farmers, upland dwellers, marginal fishers and indigenous peoples with presence in 17 provinces nationwide.

Bondoc Peninsula continues to be an agrarian flashpoint area. Seven (7) farmer leaders had been murdered in the course of landless tenants’ agrarian reform struggle between 1998 and 2016. More than two dozen individuals sustained various forms of injuries from physical attacks of anti-reform actors that include the extreme armed left group. At least 200 families were also previously displaced as a result of these attacks.

One of the anti-reform tools that was employed by landlords to harass land rights petitioners in the area was the filing of criminal cases. At the height of the criminalization of agrarian reform claimants in Bondoc Peninsula which covered the years 2003 and 2006, the number of criminal cases reached more than 300 counts of various criminal offenses filed against more than 200 farmers. More than 80 of these criminalized land rights claimants came from Hacienda Matias who confronted multiple counts of qualified theft, frustrated murder, trespassing, and malicious mischief among others.

 

Agrarian angle. The previous cases against landless tenants were filed and resolved piece by piece, obscuring the pattern of systematic filing by just a few complainants against the farmers over a period of time. The mass agrarian unrest that gave birth to these cases could only be gleaned by linking all the cases filed over the years. A finding that the land is public would negate culpability in estafa and qualified theft cases.  Even if the land is private, a finding that the farmers are share tenants or leaseholders would negate criminal liability.  A tenant or lessee has a right to harvest and appropriate the coconuts in the land he is tilling. His obligation to the landowner would only be civil, in the form of the rent due for the use of the land. The same reasoning could apply to the crimes of Other Forms of Trespass and Malicious Mischief. As legal occupants of the land, they have the right to enter and work therein.

An overwhelming majority of these previous cases involved qualified theft of coconuts while total bail amounted to more than PhP 10 Million. A campaign dubbed as “mass surrender” initiated by farmers in 2006 pressured the government into shelling out more than Php 3 million in government funds for the temporary liberty of the criminalized farmers. Meanwhile, the criminal cases that were filed in the years 2003-2008 were gradually dismissed after reforms were introduced in the existing agrarian reform law.

 

Referral system. The criminal cases that were filed against farmers in the early up to late 2000s’ were gradually dismissed after the referral system was introduced in Section 19 of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPER) of 2009. The referral system mandates that, upon motion of farmers, cases filed against them at any stage of criminal proceedings shall be referred to the DAR for determination as to whether the case is agrarian or criminal in nature. Since almost all cases filed against KMBP members after 2009 were referred to and certified as agrarian in nature by the local DAR, post-2009 cases were dismissed and no new cases evolved into full blown criminal cases. In the case of the farmers of the 8,000-hectare Hacienda Villa Reyes, cases were dismissed after farmers finally got their Certificate of Landownership Awards (CLOAs) between the years 2013 and 2015.

 

Present Cases: Theft cases against Matias farmers

The current cases involved charges of theft filed against 35 farmers including 10 women farmers in Hacienda Matias. Section 67 of the Criminal Code of the Philippines defines theft as “Any person who, with intent to gain, takes or appropriates any personal property belonging to another without the latter’s consent is punishable within Level 3 […]”[1] Despite referrals and dismissals of previous cases involving the same farmers, the current cases were inexplicably elevated as regular criminal cases after the prosecutor denied the answer and counter-affidavits of accused farmers.

These cases follow the same pattern of past criminal cases filed against Bondoc Peninsula farmers. The agrarian nature is obscured by the allegations of the accusers who are usually the farm overseers. These new cases, however, have a unique new twist in that the present day Hacienda Matias no longer qualifies as private land as a result of the advancement of the ongoing agrarian reform process. As one of the last large estates subjected to farmers claim-making, 683 hectares of the hacienda had been distributed to 283 farmers in late 2015. The remaining areas of around 1,000 hectares constituting four titles are very close to being redistributed to farmers. It is in these yet to be distributed lands that the criminal cases against farmers are emanating.

As early as 2014, however, the ownership of remaining unreformed Matias lands had been transferred to the government in continuance of the coverage of the land under the existing agrarian reform program. The government in fact, already deposited cash payments for the just compensation of the land owners. As a consequence, the titles of landowner Matias had been cancelled and transferred in the name of the Republic of the Philippines.

The cases against farmers were filed in August 2016, or more than a year after the properties had been transferred in the name of the Republic of the Philippines. The filing of theft cases was triggered by the decision of the farmers to harvest the coconuts from the lands they are tilling, fully believing that the government and not the Matias family, owns the land. Up to the time when they decided to harvest the coconuts for their full benefit, the farmers were still under the share tenancy scheme where the Matias family gets 2/3 of the produce. Since 1988, however, share tenancy scheme in all its form had been declared to be contrary to law.

 

Financial Cost. At least 19 cases of theft had been accounted for by the farmers as of this writing. The amount of bail for each of the 35 accused varies from as high as PhP 40,000 per count, to as low as PhP20,000.00 per count. Total bail amounts to P 1,098,000.00. Due to poverty, farmers are unable to raise the amount needed for their temporary liberty. Their situation is made more difficult by destruction of their crops due to the recent Typhoon Nina which struck and almost totally destroyed their crops on December 25, 2016. At least one year will be needed for their coconut trees to recover. To avoid being arrested, many of them are hiding in various places, some as far as Metro Manila, about 8 hours from Hacienda Matias. At least 20 elementary school-aged children of accused farmers may stop going to school in the coming school opening if the situation of accused farmers is not remedied.

 

Main Concerns of Farmers: (i) high cost of bail; (ii) fund for legal needs to address the resurgence of criminal cases (retained lawyers, other fees, etc.); (iii) addressing policy and procedural gaps and loopholes in the referral system; (iv) fast tracking the awarding of CLOAs to farmers as the ultimate solution to the issue of harassment from unjust prosecution from the men of former landowner.

 

Moving forward:

Urgent action is needed for:

  • The Department of Justice (DOJ) to stop the criminalization of farmers of Hacienda Matias and other similarly situated farmers. In this regard, the DOJ is respectfully requested:
    • To review the theft cases filed against Matias farmers and move for their immediate dismissal;
    • To investigate the handling prosecutors involved in the unjust and baseless prosecution of Hacienda Matias farmers;
    • To conduct seminars and forums to educate prosecutors nationwide on the referral system.
  • The Department of Agrarian Reform to immediately generate and release the CLOAs of criminalized Hacienda Matias famers and the other potential beneficiaries in the said estate.

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[1] Criminal Code of the Philippines. Retrieved from https://www.doj.gov.ph/files/ccc/Criminal_Code_September-2014(draft).pdf

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