Siargao cop donates part of salary to acquire land for islanders’ communal farm

LA JANUZA, General Luna, Siargao Island (MindaNews / 16 July) – Master Sergeant Hermes J. Arguillas Jr., of the General Luna Police Station, was assigned by his boss to organize farmers and help them with their livelihood as part of the police’s outreach program.

Master Sergeant Hermes J. Arguillas Jr. helps out farmers at La Januza Island in General Luna, Siargao. He used his own money to lease a four-hectare idle land for the residents to cultivate. Photo taken 9 July 2020 by ROEL N. CATOTO / MindaNews

Last February, Arguillas convinced local residents to cultivate the 2,000 square meters of vacant lot beside the La Januza Elementary School. He wanted local folks, who rely mainly on fishing as livelihood, to have another source of income.

Two months later, this small island about an hour away by boat from mainland Siargao, enjoyed a bumper harvest of string beans, okra, eggplant, patola, sweet potato, water melon, opo, squash, petchay, chili, tomatoes, among others.

This program, dubbed “Hardin ng Pagbabago,” is part of the initiative of Capt. Wise Vincent Panuelos, now police chief of this municipality. He started this program when he was assigned at the San Isidro municipality in the northern part of Siargao, and has now spread in many parts of Siargao.

But Arguillas noted one thing about the residents tilling the small plot of land beside the school. “The local folks were reluctant to work really hard because it’s not their land, worried that it’ll be taken away from them anytime,” he told MindaNews during a visit to this island last week.

The land, which the residents now call Phase 1, is owned by the school. Arguillas said that the school might use it anytime and the farmers can do nothing about it.

He thus searched for a vacant lot that the 51 members of the La Januza Farm Association can cultivate. Luckily, he found a four-hectare idle land only 15 minutes’ walk away from Phase 1.

Members of the La Januza Farmers Association in Siargao ready to work at the Phase 2 of their farm on 9 July 2020. MindaNews photo by ROEL N. CATOTO

The owners, siblings Clarendo Perocho and Elizabeth P. Tejada, were willing to lease out the land for five years for P30,000.

The farmers’ association, however, does not have the money. But, Arguillas thought, he has spare cash because he has been getting his salary in full the past months due to the deferment of payment of loans with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

“My family is economically okay, my wife has her own job, so I might as well use the money to help the farmers,” said the policeman from Surigao City.

“If we want to help, we might as well give all we got because life would have no meaning if we can’t help our fellow men, especially now with the difficult times because of the pandemic,” he added.

The four-hectare land has thus become Phase 2 for the members of the farmers’ association. They are now inspired to cultivate it, growing vegetables and other crops, knowing that they have assurance this will be their land to till for the next five years, courtesy of Arguillas.

“People here have become very productive these days. People whose main livelihood is fishing now have an alternative source of income,” said Gabriel Perocho, a teacher at the La Januza Elementary School and member of the farmers’ association, which is under the umbrella of the Hardin Ng Pagbabago.

The communal farm, he added, has helped in making the community stronger.

Ellen Dulguime, the group’s farm manager, said that because of Hardin ng Pagbabago, prices of vegetables in this island are now low despite the pandemic. She noted that even though Phase 1 is small and they have just started the much bigger Phase 2, members and even non-members were encouraged to also plant vegetables in their backyards.

“We produce cheap, fresh, nutritious foods which we have never done before,” Dulguime said.

Phase 2 of the farm being cultivated by members of the La Januza Farmers Association in Siargao. Photo taken 9 July 2020, courtesy of DOMINIC RAND

She said there are now 30 communal farms all over Siargao under the Hardin ng Pagbabago umbrella, providing alternate income to a lot of people during these times when Siargao’s economy is down with tourism activities still being prohibited.

Siargao’s economy has largely depended on tourism in the last few decades, especially when surfers flocked to the island.

Capt. Panuelos, who started the Hardin ng Pagbabago, said the movement has somehow contributed to the low crime rate, like the zero-thievery incidence, in the municipality of General Luna since the imposition of quarantine. (La Januza Island is part of General Luna.)

Col. Adolf Almendra, police provincial director of Surigao del Norte, told MindaNews he was stunned to learn what Arguillas has done to the community.

“This is beyond the call of duty and this is what we want in the name of public service,” he stressed.

A stranded tourist, Swiss Charlené Guillaume, observed: “A lot of people have no jobs and majority of the businesses remain closed or have suffered huge losses, and yet you see them smiling and being so nice. No thievery and burglary incidents. These are incredibly amazing.” (Roel N. Catoto / MindaNews)