Sumilao farmers arrive home from two-month march

Their wives and children eagerly awaited for hours on the side of the Sayre Highway in Sumilao for the farmers to arrive from Cagayan de Oro City.
The farmers arrived just as dusk came and amid the tearful reunion, the farmers expressed gratitude that they will spend Christmas eve with their families.

"We did not sleep last night to makes these ribbons. We want to show our husbands that we appreciated their sacrifice for us," Inday Lingayao said as she and her two young sons stood on the side of the highway braving a heavy downpour.

Inday"s husband, Jimmy, was among those who staged a hunger strike ten years ago and when the call was made to hike across the country this year, he volunteered again.

"My mind was always with them especially when I nearly blacked out from days of walking. I was making a sacrifice for my children, " said Jimmy who wore out three pairs of sandal from walking 1,700 kilometers to Manila from Sumilao.

The farmers started their walk from the village of San Vicente in Sumilao on October 10. They arrived at the Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro City Sunday morning on board a Philippine Air Force C-130 plane courtesy of President Arroyo, who told the farmers that she recognized their just struggle to get back their 144 hectare land now owned by San Miguel Foods, Inc., a subsidiary of San Miguel Corporation.

The plane also carried the passenger jeep, a multicab used by the farmers as logistical support vehicles in their march and boxes of sardines and clothes donated by the nuns in Manila.

Many of the soldiers at the PAF station at the airport gave the farmers thumbs up signs as they disembarked from the C-130 cargo aircraft.

Department of Agrarian Reform region 10 officials and employees were also there to welcome the farmers, as  they unfurled a huge streamer, "Welcome Home Sumilao Farmers! Your Story is DAR's Success."

Ironically, no DAR official or employee was present when the farmers started their march last October 10.

Samuel Merida, president of the Mapalad Multipurpose Cooperative, said they decided to come home after Manila Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales gave them assurance that the Church will take up their demands.

Rosales used to be Bishop of Bukidnon.

"We are convinced that the next struggle will be here in Sumilao. We also wanted to spend Christmas with our families," Merida said.

He said they will urge local DAR officials to issue a Notice of Coverage, another step closer in getting back the 144 hectare land, which President Arroyo promised to give back to them.

"We firmly believe that with the help of the bishops and the NGOs, DAR will no longer have a reason to delay the transfer of the land to us," Merida said.

A few hundred meters from where Merida and the farmers stood, the gates of San Miguel Foods Incoporated’s  Sumilao farm remained closed. A huge streamer " Ang Pagpadayon niining Proyekto Makatarungan. Kinahanglan Suportahan" hang on the gates.

President Arroyo on December 18 ordered that the controversial 144-hectare land in Sumilao restored for agricultural use and cancelled the earlier conversion order exempting it from the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

Earlier, Arroyo met with the Sumilao farmers in Malacanang after Cardinal Rosales and the influential Catholic Church interceded in their behalf.

Merida narrated he experienced goose bumps when police who met them with truncheons and water cannons in their earlier march, came out to meet them bearing red and white roses and bottles of cold water.

"It was really weird. The first time we came. the police were really ready to throw us out. When President Arroyo said she will meet us, the police suddenly became nicer," he said.

The farmers were first granted the 144-hectare property in San Vicente, Sumilao, way back in 1996 as part of the government's CARP program. But the government later approved a request for conversion of the land for agro-industrial use by the Norberto Quisumbing Sr. Resource Management and Development Center (NQSRMDC) because of a the latter's promise to establish a development academy, a cultural center, an institute for livelihood science, a museum, library, golf course, a sports development complex, an agro-industrial park, forest development and support facilities, and construction of a 360-room hotel, restaurant, housing projects, among others.

Quisumbing later sold the property to San Miguel Foods, Inc. which planned to convert it into a hog farm.

The farmers cried foul demanding that the farm was rightfully theirs. " Para sa tao, dili sa baboy" became their cry as they went on a two-month march covering 1,700 kilometers to the gates of Malacanang.
Graceful Ligmon said despite the hardship and after five pairs of slippers, the march was fruitful.

She said they were able to share their experiences with other farmer communities along the way and learned that they have a common problem: the lack of land to till.

"The other farmers are drawing inspiration from us. They saw that in our unity we can achieve something without resorting to violence," Ligmon said.

Ligmon said there were also periods that they felt dejected especially after two parish priests in Abuyog town, southern Leyte and Surigao del Norte turned down their request to sleep in the churches.

She said they have to sleep on dirty floors of the town gyms after the priests refused them.

Still, Ligmon said they are willing to march again if the land will not be given to them. (Froilan Gallardo/MindaNews)