For the first time since 1997, the barbed wires of the perimeter fence of the 144-hectare contested property here was cut as the farmers entered as owners of a portion of the property Sunday noon just before the thanksgiving mass led by bishops.
"We want to plant rice and corn here very soon, as soon as we can clear the area," 24-year-old Napoleon "Yoyong" Merida Jr., among the farmers’ leaders, said shortly after disembarking from the jeepney.
The farmers who returned from Manila on board a C-130 cargo aircraft, arrived past noon, almost two hours after Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) employees arrived in a chartered air-conditioned bus and more than an hour after the arrival of the bishops.
The farmers cried victory and an "end to an Exodus" as the memorandum of agreement, signed Saturday noon, gave them 50 of the 144-hectare property. SMFI committed to buy 94 hectares more in nearby lots for the farmers to till.
Merida said they did not know what kind of pain they had to go through and which path they would pass but their efforts have finally paid of.
"The 50 hectare land is already something,” he said, adding that it already brought them so much happiness. But he asserted they will continue to struggle to get a total of 144 hectares, which they demanded right from the start.
He said they cannot wait any longer to till the land.
The Sunday celebration was set in a 400×200-meter prior-agreed area in the SMFI property complete with SMFI security guards who required mass-goers to sign in a logbook.
Rodolfo Buclasan, another leader of the farmers, said the deal was good enough because farmers can earn their living from it while SMFI operations continue.
"This is also attuned to the interest of the local government here," he said.
The memorandum of agreement, signed after three months of negotiation and after at least 10 drafts from March 12 to March 29, provided for the transfer of the 50-hectare portion via a deed of donation to the newly formed Panaw Sumilao Multi-purpose Cooperative and the purchase by SMFI of irrigated land measuring 94 hectares in adjacent areas via a "voluntary offer to sell.”
A collective Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) would be issued to the same cooperative for the 94-hectare land parcels to be bought outside of the SMFI property.
The transfer of the land, however, would be made in phases as provided for in the MOA.
The 50-hectare property will be turned over as soon as the land has been surveyed, the cooperative has been registered with the Cooperative Development Authority and the deed of donation shall have been executed by SMFI and the cooperative.
Lawyer Arlene Bag-ao told MindaNews the turnover should be made on April 1 as the requirements have been completed, except for some adjustments with the land's technical description as per request of SMFI. Some facilities of SMFI, such as a water treatment structure, is within the 50-hectare delineated for the farmers.
An initial 64.8 out of 94 hectares already identified by beneficiaries from an SMFI list of parcels would also be turned over after the acquisition and distribution process through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) is completed.
The remaining 29.2 hectares, yet to be identified, would also go through the same process.
Bag-ao could not project a time frame for the turnover of the properties but stressed SMFI would consider it urgent as the completion of the transfer is a requisite in the MOA's provision on waiver on pending cases.
But the MOA also provides for limitations on the use and disposition of the 50-hectare property.
It requires that the land could be used only for agriculture using "acceptable organic farming systems" and should not "hamper, impair of obstruct" SMFI operations.
The farmers are barred also from building permanent dwellings except in the property's boundary with the Carlos Estate earlier acquired by Mapalad farmers.
The farmers also could not sell the property within 10 years from the donation.
Buclasan told MindaNews they do not plan to sell or lease the property.
Bag-ao stressed that violations to the agreement will never affect the farmers’ ownership of the property except for possible civil and criminal liabilities resulting from the violations.
The MOA provides for the convening of a technical working group (TWG) after the donation to monitor and review compliance to the limitations. The TWG is to be composed of the agriculture secretary as chair, a representative from SMFI, the beneficiary cooperative, the Church, and the local government unit of Sumilao.
The MOA also states that once the 144-hectare property has been completely transferred, the parties, including the farmers, the Quisumbing firm which sold the land to SMFI and SMFI must execute and file a joint manifestation and motion at the Office of the President (OP) dismissing pending legal actions at the OP and the Supreme Court.
The parties have also agreed on a mutual waiver and release for all past, present and future obligations with each other that may come out on account of the SMFI property.
Bag-ao stressed that this would happen only if the transfer of the whole 144 hectares, not just the 50 hectares, has already been completed.
Romeo Anlicao, Panaw Sumilao chair, led farmers in thanking bishops, priests, lawyers and other support group workers in a brief program following the mass.
He said victory is finally in their hands but only because of the help of a lot of people.
But Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, SJ, who celebrated the mass with Bukidnon Bishop Honesto Pacana, also a Jesuit, and Sumilao parish priest Dan Paciente, in his homily said "it is not the end".
"This is indeed a cause for joy and celebration considering your long journey. But this is just the beginning," he said as he challenged the farmers to be models not only in receiving land but also in making the land productive for their own and the community's use.
The Catholic church, led by Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, brokered the deal sealing the fate of the farmers in their legal tussle with corporate giant San Miguel Corporation.
Buclasan told MindaNews, however, that the next battle is with the local government in the conversion of the 50-hectare property they now own as an agriculture area since the MOA has become an instrument to reinstate the conversion of the property into an agro-industrial area as decided by the Office of the President in 1996.
President Arroyo revoked the conversion in December last year. But the MOA provided that after complete transfer of ownership, the dismissal of motions for reconsideration will become "moot and academic." (Walter I. Balane / MindaNews)