Now 52, Catulong recalls with a tinge of melancholy how his father cleared the forested area that had become their farm since 1969. They planted coconut and rubber trees there.
“But those trees we planted were cut down by the school,” he said while staring at his calloused hands, proof of the hard work they did in a farm they cannot call their own.
As a result, they were forced to cultivate a small patch of garden in unplanted areas or paw-ang in Cebuano.
All of his six children are grown up now but “none of them ever had the chance to study” in a college that is just a stone‘s throw away from where they live.
“Life has been hard for us,” he said.
Timuay Petronio Gumapit, the 63-year-old tribal chieftain who also occupied a parcel of the school reservation, saw how Catulong was in near tears and tried to lighten the mood. He tried to laugh aloud but sounded hollow instead. The crowd around also went silent.
Catulong and Timuay were among those present during a meeting called by the New Tampilisan United Farmers Association at the Barangay Hall of Barangay Poblacion here last Sunday, March 30.
Of the association’s 327 household head-members, almost a hundred were present.
“The purpose of the meeting is for us to finalize our demand for the segregation from the school reservation, of the land we occupied and cultivated,” Alberto Reyes, the association’s president, told the members.
“We need to bring our case to the attention of no less than President (Gloria Macapagal) Arroyo,” he told the members.
To MindaNews, he said, “we will ask President Arroyo to intervene in order to alleviate our plight as landless farmers and farmworkers in this part of the country.”
The association’s members, Reyes said, are poor and landless farmers and farmworkers who occupied a portion of land inside the reservation of Dr. Jose Rizal Memorial State College-Tampilisan Campus.
Then President Diosdado Macapagal signed Proclamation No. 113 in 1963 “reserving for agricultural school site purposes of the Zamboanga del Norte National Agricultural School…” some 2,330 hectares of forest reservation.
It became a state college in 1964 and was managed by the Western Mindanao State University until its integration to JRMSC pursuant to Commission of Higher Education Order No. 27 in 2000.
Reyes said some of their members had occupied the area even before the signing of Presidential Proclamation No. 113.
He said the school offers a “myriad of opportunities to poor students coming from the different parts of Zamboanga Peninsula” but the school “for us living in the area has almost become synonymous with our dream for decades now, to own the land that we till.”
“The irony is on us,” he said, explaining that they “live within the school reservation but some of our children cannot even avail of the educational services of the school for lack of opportunities to earn a decent income enough to send our children to school.”
“Life for most us inside the reservation, is as precarious as our dream to finally have the land we till in our names. Because we don’t own the land we till, our hands are bound from fully developing it,” Reyes said.
“We are hoping that President Arroyo will favorably act on our petition,” he said.
Tampilisan, located at the southernmost tip of the province of Zamboanga del Norte, is a sixth class municipality with a population of about 20,000 based on the 2000 census. (Antonio M. Manaytay/MindaNews contributor)