Sumilao farmers begin 2-month “march for land and justice” to Malacañang

“Makaabot ba ta’g Malacañang?” (Can we reach Malacañang?) farmer-leaders Samuel Merida and Rene Penas, shouted, as they marched uphill here.

Raising their right hands, the fists clenched, 53 farmers, a dozen of them women, chanted, “Padayon!” (Proceed).

The farmers from Sumilao began this morning their two-month “march for land, march for justice” to Malacañang, to demand the return of the 144-hectare land they said was illegally converted for non-agricultural use.

But a few kilometers after they left Sumilao, their lawyers in Cagayan de Oro City, 56 kilometers away, received at 11:30 a.m. today the October 3, 2007 decision from the Office of the President in Malacañang, denying the farmers’ appeal for the “cancellation and/or revocation of the conversion order” over the contested 144-hectare land in San Vicente, Sumilao.

The farmers, members of the Mapadayonong Panaghiusa sa mga Lumad Alang sa Damlag (Mapalad), appealed before the Office of the President the Department of Agrarian Reform’s October 27, 2006 ruling dismissing the farmers’ November 3, 2004 petition “for cancellation and/or revocation,” citing lack of jurisdiction.

The Office of the President, in a decision dated October 3, 2007 but received by the farmers’ lawyers in Cagayan de Oro only today, dismissed the appeal “for lack of legal standing by the petitioners-appellants.”

“How can we lack legal standing?” Penas, Mapalad president, and Nerida, Mapalad board director, asked.

To recall, the Mapalad farmers staged a 28-day hunger strike before the DAR central office in Quezon City 10 years ago following a series of disappointments in their quest to get back their land.

The DAR, on November 14, 1994, put under compulsory coverage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law the 144-hectare property.

The Norberto Quisumbing Sr. Management and Development Corporation (NQSRMDC) had applied for conversion of the land from agricultural to agro-industrial. This was denied by the DAR but appealed before the Office of the President (OP). Then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres set aside DAR’s decision and approved the conversion on March 29, 1996.

The DAR moved for reconsideration which was denied on June 23, 1997. The OP also said the March 1996 decision had become final and executory.

The DAR filed a second motion for reconsideration. On November 7, 1997, the OP modified the March 1996 decision by allowing the conversion of approximately 44 hectares of the land adjacent to the highway and distributing the remaining approximately 100 hectares traversed by an irrigation canal and found suitable for agriculture to qualified beneficiaries.

Then President Fidel Ramos hailed the decision as a “win-win” solution.

But Penas said the “win-win” for Ramos was not “daug” (victory) for them. Instead, he said, “gi-daugdaug mi” (we were exploited).

“We never got the land,” he told MindaNews.

The NQSRMDC, the farmer-leaders said, sold the 144 hectares of land to Eduardo Cojuangco’s San Miguel Foods in 2002, for the latter’s piggery project.

“Piggery is also under agriculture,” Penas said. “Why are they making the land available for pigs and not for us?” he asked in Cebuano.

As it turned out, after the so-called “win-win” decision, the NQSRMDC filed a petition for “certiorari, prohibition and injunction with urgent prayer for a temporary restraining order and/or writ of preliminary injunction” before the Supreme Court which the Court granted on April 27, 1998.

The high court set aside the November 7, 1997 “win-win” order of the Office of the President and denied the motions for reconsideration “with finality” on November 17, 1998.

On November 3, 2004, Mapalad filed before the DAR a “petition for cancellation and/or revocation with prayer for the issuance of a Cease and Desist Order” against the NQSRMDC and San Miguel Foods, Inc.

The DAR dismissed the petition on October 27, 2006 for lack of jurisdiction, saying the power is “lodged with the Office who issued the order of approval.”

Penas and Merida said there was a violation of the land conversion because the law provides that development must take place within one year on the land converted for non-agricultural use and must be completed within five years. In the case of the NQSRMDC, no such development was made on the land.

The NQSRMDC had cited as reason for conversion of the agricultural land to agro-industrial, its plan to set up the Bukidnon Agro-Industrial Development Association (BAIDA). The BAIDA was supposed to have included a Development Academy of Mindanao; Bukidnon Agro-Industrial Park; Forest Development; Support facilities, including a 360-hotel room, restaurants, dormitories, housing; a Mindanao Sports Development Complex and a commercial mall.

But even the DAR regional office in Cagayan de Oro, in a memorandum for Secretary Nasser Pangandaman last month, had proposed that a “notice of coverage” be issued on the 144-hectare land for immediate distribution.

Dated September 25 this year, the memorandum of DAR OIC regional director John Maruhom recommended that the DAR and the Office of the President should take note of the June 20, 2005 Memorandum from the regional office that “there has been no development in the NQSRMDC property that can be associated with the landowners’ conversion application; that San Miguel Foods, “assuming that it may be considered as successor-in-interest, be declared as to have violated the strict rules governing the approval and implementation of the Conversion Order by not limiting itself to the development proposal submitted by NQSRMDC;” and that a notice of coverage on the 144-hectare land “be immediately issued to place the said landholding for coverage under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program in pursuance of the DAR’s commitment to accelerate the completion of Land Acquisition and Distribution.”

A copy of Maruhom’s memorandum was furnished the Office of the President. The Office of the President dismissed the farmers’ appeal on October 3.

The farmers’ lawyers in Cagayan de Oro – the Balay Alternative Legal Advocates for the Development of Mindanaw (Balaod-Mindanaw) – is filing a motion for reconsideration on the October 3 decision.