Criminalization of peasant land rights claimants and redistributive agrarian reform:
The case of Bondoc Peninsula (Part 2 of 3: Aquino Case)
This is an excerpt from “Backlash and Beyond: The Criminalization of Agrarian Reform and Peasant” by Danilo Carranza and Jennifer Franco.
A subsequent case shows what can happen when the underground rebel movement becomes involved. This case involved a 201-hectare parcel of land that had been acquired by the Aquino family through judicial titling. The Aquinos had originally applied for a title to two parcels of land with a combined area of 402 hectares. At the time of their application, Don Vicente Del Rosario was reportedly the presiding judge of the Court of First Instance (CFI) of Quezon. The farmers believe that because both Aquino and Del Rosario knew that the area was within a forest zone, the judge agreed to issue titles to the two parcels in exchange for receiving one of the landholdings. Aquino and Del Rosario thus divided the newly titled land between themselves. The area attracted farmer-settlers who initially planted banana, citrus trees and coffee. Later, in the 1960s, they began planting coconut trees with financial assistance from Aquino and under the direction of an overseer who was the father of the village chief. Once the trees became productive in the early-1970s, a sharing scheme was introduced. Several individuals took turns to oversee the collection, including the local police chief. The town’s police force took part in collecting shares from the tenants in the name of the landowner. At times, one ‘overseer’ would demand payment even after another had just collected. Some of the farmers would pay, but many refused, and began asking for receipts as proof of payment, which led to a temporary halt in the collection.
In the early-1980s, Serafin Aquino, son of the original title-holder and a municipal councilor and notoriously abusive man, took over as farm manager. Fearing retribution, some of the farmers who had previously stopped paying the share began to pay again. However, when Aquino imposed additional onerous conditions upon them (regarding production costs), some balked, prompting Aquino to file criminal charges against them. The charges were never really pursued in court and the legal case was eventually shelved. This happened around the same time that the underground guerrilla movement began to build a presence in the region. The guerrillas’ promises of ‘genuine agrarian reform’ initially won over many of the region’s sharecropping farmers with its (i) free distribution of land to farmers; and (ii) rent-reduction in the form of ‘tersyong baligtad’, or an inversion of onerous sharing in favor of the farmers.
By 1985, the sharing was an extremely oppressive 80-20 in favor of Serafin Aquino. This should have made it a good place to implement their so-called ‘genuine’ agrarian reform, and indeed the guerrillas promised to support the farmers if they were to demand a better share. With this understanding, the farmers arranged a dialogue with Aquino, expecting the armed guerrillas to back them up. Thirty farmers arrived at the meeting in the house of one of the tenants, but the guerrillas never showed up and the dialogue never materialized. Instead, Aquino proceeded to castigate the farmers, who, one by one, meekly apologized, with their hopes for better conditions having evaporated. The 80-20 sharing system remained in place for the next ten years.
In the early-1990s, the Aquino farmers learned about the new government agrarian reform program, prompting them to petition for the leasehold provision in 1995.31 Predictably, the Aquinos resisted. Therefore, the municipal agrarian reform officer (MARO) decided instead to push ahead with the even more radical compulsory acquisition of the land. In the process of moving forward with this plan, the farmers discovered that the land was in fact part of the state timberland zone (e.g. state/public land that cannot be privately owned). Furthermore, they also discovered that share tenancy had been made illegal under the new agrarian reform law.34 Emboldened by this new information, the farmers organized themselves under the Samahan ng Malayang Magsasaka sa Lupaing Aquino (SAMALA, or Association of Free Farmers of the Aquino Estate), and collectively decided to stop the payment of shares to the Aquinos. Anticipating a legal battle, they deposited the equivalent of 25% per member of the produce in the organization’s bank account.
The landowners retaliated by filing estafa cases against them, with 108 counts filed by the end of 1997. On 18 September 1995, five farmers were arrested and detained for five days. On 5 December 1996, thirteen farmers were arrested and detained before being released upon posting bail. On 8 August 1997, two farmers, both 63 years old, were arrested and imprisoned for six days. Moreover, on 30 August 199, four farmers were arrested and detained for six days, before being released after the mayor petitioned for their release. Bailing out the first two farmers was not difficult because they used the members’ 25% share to post bail.
However, they later had to use land titles that the mayor helped them to borrow to post as bail.
Once it became known that the case involved public land, the government should have initiated reversion proceedings to cancel and invalidate the Aquino titles. However, movement in this direction proceeded slowly, with the farmers encountering various legal, administrative and political obstacles. For more than two years, the farmers lobbied government agencies to file the cancellation proceedings, albeit to no avail. Since the cancellation of title was linked to the pending estafa case, the farmers eventually filed the petition themselves in February 1997, combined with a camp-out in Manila to pressure the relevant government agencies. Seven months later, the DENR central office (which oversees state/public land) finally ordered the regional office to file the case, which finally happened on 24 October 1997, to the farmers’ relief.
After the required cancellation proceedings began, the farmers’ lawyer petitioned the Municipal Trial Court to suspend the criminal cases that had been lodged against them, citing the pending prejudicial question of ownership and arguing that the issue of ownership should be decided first to determine whether or not the estafa cases could proceed. At first, the presiding judge granted the motion of farmers in November 1997 and suspended the case, although the matter did not end there. Responding perhaps to landlord pressure (or inducements of another sort), the judge later lifted his own suspension order, leading to the arrest of the SAMALA president on 19 October 1998 on the grounds of a pending arrest warrant. He was released when the mayor took custody of him through a motion for bail on recognizance.
However, by this time, a new movement of peasant farmers was emerging in the region, with the support of community organizers with a national non-governmental organization called the Philippine Ecumenical Action for Community Empowerment (PEACE Foundation), whose most immediate aim was to claim their legal land rights under the 1988 CARP. Faced with well-organized, angry and militant pressure from this new movement, especially after the grisly and brazen murder of one of its rising leaders, the national government created the Inter-Agency Task Force on Bondoc Peninsula. This was a high-level body composed of the Office of the President, DAR, DENR, CHR, DND-AFP PNP and DOJ, among others, whose raison d’etre was to resolve ‘flashpoint’ land conflicts resulting from efforts to implement the agrarian reform law. As a result, the atmosphere at the local level dramatically changed, at least for this particular case. The local police stopped arresting the farmers, and would even alert them to the presence of the overseer (since it was previously the overseer who demanded their arrest). By 1998, the Aquinos had simply stopped filing new estafa charges against the farmers. Even if the old charges are still pending, the farmer-settlers’ long struggle to be free from the grip of landlordism in effect seems to have succeeded, at least for the time being.