Early in the morning of Thursday, September 1, residents near the regional office of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) along the corner of Tiano and Del Pilar Streets in Cagayan de Oro City were caught by surprise upon seeing a coffin displayed by the side of the road.
It wasn’t one of those fake coffins commonly used by demonstrators signifying the death of democracy or some other ideals; it was one real coffin with one real corpse inside, that of Welcie Gica, a Higaonon farmer allegedly killed by one of the security guards of a big ranch in Maramag, Bukidnon owned by the Villalon family, the patriarch of whom was former mayor of neighboring Kibawe town.
Near the coffin sat Rosita Gica, grieving the loss of her son.
Welcie’s colleagues, all members of the Panalsalan Dagumbaan Tribal Association (PADATA), brought his body to the NCIP because they accused the government office of honoring what they called a fake free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from another tribal group that eventually led to the Villalons’ occupation of the ranch instead of the Higaonons owning the lands they had been tilling for long.
“Will he buy bread?”
In Maramag town in Bukidnon a few days earlier, Rosita had a hard time explaining to Welcie’s sons, aged three and four, the whereabouts of their father.
“I tell them their father was in the farm, harvesting corn. And the children would say, ‘Papa is harvesting corn? Will he buy bread?’”
Rosita couldn’t tell her grandsons their father couldn’t come home anymore.
Welcie’s wife has not been heard from since two years ago, when she left for Cagayan de Oro City to work as house help.
His father, Wilberto, told reporters they will not bury his son until the suspects are arrested. “The suspects were already detained by the police but why were they released?” he complained.
Welcie was gunned down by security guards of the Villalon Ranch on August 24, six days before his 30th birthday.
Based on a spot report at the Malaybalay Provincial Police Office, the guards of the Villalon Ranch called 26 of the farmers for a dialogue before they could harvest their corn inside the ranch. The 26 farmers were among 235 members of PADATA. The guards ordered the farmers to submit their backpacks and bolos for security reasons.
Police said Welcie refused to hand his backpack and instead drew his handgun, prompting one of the guards to shoot him.
“The victim actually tried to draw his gun when he was asked to submit his backpack. That prompted the guard to shoot him,” Senior Supt. Canilo Fuentes, deputy provincial director, said, quoting reports.
Welcie’s colleagues have another version of the incident.
Carmelita Guiwanon, one of the farmers, said Welcie arrived late. In her affidavit, she said a guard grabbed Welcie’s backpack but he refused to part with it, not having known of the previous order to hand the bags and bolos to the guards. It was then that he was shot by a guard named Milo Ceballos.
“When Welcie was already down, the security guard shot him again, hitting him on the left side of the body and on the neck,” Guiwanon said. Her affidavit was received by the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor at 11:20 a.m. on August 25.
Other PADATA members who witnessed the shooting are now reportedly kept in a safe place for security reasons.
Eveyone scampered for safety during the shooting. When Welcies’ colleagues returned, they saw him on the ground with bullet wounds, a handgun on his left hand.
Welcie’s father denied his son owned a gun. He claimed it was planted by the guards.
The police arrived around three hours later and took both the security guards and the farmers to the police station for investigation. The ranch is about 40 kilometers from the town proper and can only be reached through motorcycles, the types known as “habal-habal,” with extended seats to accommodate more passengers.
Fuentes confirmed to MindaNews over mobile phone that the suspects were taken to the police station. The Maramag police also brought their firearms and conducted paraffin test on the suspects, but said it would take some time for the results to come out.
Fuentes said the security guards were released because the 36-hour detention period expired and no case had been filed against them. He blamed the witnesses for not cooperating with the police, saying they refused to submit their affidavit while the suspects were still detained at the police station.
But Task Force Mapalad, a group helping farmers, said the Villalon guards were released less than 24 hours after the shooting incident. TFM-Mindanao coordinator Joseph Coles said the Maramag police chief, Chief Insp. Linoraldo Maylan Torres, may be in hot waters for the early release of the nine Villalon Ranch guards.
“We will file administrative charges at the Ombudsman against the arresting team and the police chief for releasing the suspects,” he said.
PADATA, a group of indigenous peoples belonging to the Higaonon and Talaandig tribes, has been contesting the 480-hectare Villalon Ranch as part of their ancestral domain.
Records from the Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO) show that the Forest Land Grazing Management Agreement (FGLMA) holder for the Villalon Ranch is Ernesto Villalon, a former mayor of Kibawe, also in Bukidnon, but the documents were signed on his behalf by his daughter, Dr. Concepcion Villalon.
PENRO Bukidnon chief Agustilo Obsioma told reporters that the Villalons’ FGLMA, which was issued in 1982, expired in December 1997 and they applied for renewal in 2003. But the application was not acted upon at the central of office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The Villalons reapplied for FGLMA in 2007 but it was approved only early in 2010 by then Environment Secretary Horacio Ramos.
PADATA chair Vilma Monera said the Villalons never obtained the FPIC from PADATA members who have been occupying portions of the ranch before the FGLMA was renewed. Under Republic Act 8371, or the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act of 1997, FPIC is required in securing FGLMA.
Monera claimed that the FPIC the Villalons obtained is fake since it came from the Manobo tribe in another village.
MindaNews sought the Villalons for comment but was referred to their lawyer in Malaybalay City, Claver Ariño. The lawyer showed MindaNews a memorandum he filed on behalf of the Villalons before the NCIP.
The memorandum claimed that the Villalons obtained a valid FPIC through Bae Victoria Jakosalem Pangahin, who had claimed part of the ranch and argued against allegation she was not a legitimate tribal leader. Ariño cited a report commissioned by former NCIP 10 regional director Tommy Labaon showing that Pangahin is a Manobo and daughter of Datu “Salem” Antonio Jakosalem, former tribal chieftain of Dagumbaan.
But the same memorandum has also argued that the ranch was not occupied or claimed by indigenous peoples as certified by Dagumbaan barangay chair Romeo Navarro and his counterpart in Panalsalan, who was not named in the memorandum.
Villalon has claimed that the petitioners are squatters who come from “different parts of the country” and were allegedly mobilized by Task Force Mapalad.
CBFM or CADT?
Prior to the renewal of the FGLMA, PADATA had filed an application for Community-based Forest Management (CBFM) in 2008 for the same property. Monera said her group believes that CBFM was the most viable option at that time to avert food shortages and ensure other economic needs.
But Obsioma said that had PADATA applied for a Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title (CADT) right at the start instead of CBFM, they may have already occupied the ranch by now.
PADATA eventually filed the CADT application in September last year covering 800 hectares, but the Villalons were already granted the FGLMA by then.
Obsioma said it is still possible for the NCIP to grant PADATA’s application even if there is an existing FGLMA within the CADT claim, but PADATA members will have to wait for the Villalons’ FGLMA to expire by 2035 before they can occupy the land.
Villalons don’t want to talk
Maramag Mayor Alicia Resus said her office has been trying to contact the Villalons since the incident but no one wants to talk on the issue. But she assured reporters she has ordered the police to conduct a thorough investigation on Welcie’s killing as well as the alleged harassments perpetrated by the security guards.
She added that she will also request the police to establish an outpost near the ranch to ease the tension between the farmers and farm guards.
TFM’s Coles said that had the police, DENR and NCIP acted on the demands of the farmers, the shooting incident may have never happened.
But Pinky Pabelic, NCIP regional director, said that only the commission sitting en banc can decide on the issue, particularly, PADATA’s petition against the renewal of the Villalons’ FLGMA.
She denied PADATA’s claim that her office has done nothing on the farmers’ demands.
Pabelic lamented that she felt “betrayed” and “stabbed at the back” because she had done all she could for the case and had always been transparent with PADATA.
Meanwhile, several harassments against farmers have allegedly taken place since June, Coles said. He lamented that the police has not done anything to prevent the guards from threatening the farmers. He added that several dialogues had been held to resolve the issue but the Villalons never showed up.
Monera said some of them had forcibly entered the ranch when they also applied for CBFM in 2008, but they live in fear in that sometimes they live inside the ranch, and sometimes outside. “If there are harassments, we move outside the ranch, but some of us are left living inside the ranch. Then if the tension subsides, some will move back inside. For now, some 100 families are still living inside the ranch,” she added. (Keith Bacongco in Maramag, Bukidnon with reports from Walter I. Balane in Malaybalay City and Cong Corrales in Cagayan de Oro City/MindaNews)