Agrarian reform beneficiaries reenter contested ranch in Maramag

Special Report
MARAMAG, Bukidnon (MindaNews/03 December) – Gonzalo Pinuti held his hammer tight as he detached the barbed wire from a fence of a former cattle ranch amid the blistering heat of the sun. With help from a fellow farmer, it took him about five minutes to detach the barbed wires and put down three wooden posts and let his colleagues enter the ranch with carpentry tools, round timber and tents for their temporary shelter.

These farmers were not intruding into a private property but reoccupying a portion of the ranch where they used to dwell.

About 30 minutes later, 57-year old Pinuti, his frame silhouetted below the blue skies, scaled one of the posts to nail one of the frames for a makeshift tent. “For now, we will sleep under this tent while we are building our permanent houses,” the farmer who had worked in the sugarcane plantation in the same area in the 1970s said.

While on the other hill, another group of farmers started to build a new makeshift hut near where the roof frame of a destroyed one was resting. One of them was Rodolfo Panuga, who dug a hole and buried a round timber as post of their new makeshift hut.

Panuga, a farmer who used to live in nearby Barangay Danggawan, is one of the 237 farmer-beneficiaries who were reinstalled at Ocaya Ranch in Barangay Kuya on Friday, December 2.

Re-installed farmer beneficiaries of the Ocaya Ranch in Barangay Kuya, Maramag, Bukidnon build a hut in the 48-hectare land awarded to them by the Department of Agrarian Reform under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reform (CARPER) on Friday, December 2. MindaNews Photo by Ruby Thursday MoreFrom the hill, many more farmers entered the ranch carrying their own building materials.

On February 22 this year, these farmers had been installed in the area as beneficiaries of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) after the 48-hectare portion of the 820-hectare ranch, which was originally covered by a Forest Land Grazing Lease Agreement (FLGLA), was awarded to them. But three months later, they were forced to leave due to harassments reportedly perpetrated by the armed guards of the ranch.

On Friday, some of the farmers arrived on horses and on trucks that were also loaded with bamboo poles, round timbers, barbed wires, tents and other belongings. [View more photos]

Panuga said it was their first time to reenter the area since they left in April. He said he was surprised to see that their huts were not just demolished but also partly burned. “Look at the charred remains, we thought they just destroyed it.”

Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer (PARO) for South Bukidnon Norberto Paquingan told reporters the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) turned over the jurisdiction over the ranch after the FLGLA was cancelled in 2008.

Paquingan said that of the total area, 148 hectares were classified as alienable and disposable. But only 48 hectares was covered by the CARP.

PNP, Army secure the farmers

During the briefing at the Municipal Agrarian Reform Office (MARO), Paquingan said they received reports that the Ocayas had reportedly deployed additional guards in the area to prevent the farmers from occupying a portion of the ranch.

For security purposes, the PARO coordinated the reinstallation of farmers with the Philippine National Police and the 8th Infantry Battalion. Twenty members of the PNP’s elite Striking Force and two squads of Army soldiers escorted the DAR officials and farmers to the cattle ranch. But not a single guard was seen at the periphery of the ranch when the group arrived.

After reading the reinstallation order before the farmers, the PARO instructed the farmers to erect a new fence along the perimeter of their area.

A few minutes later, a certain Joan Arsueli, who claimed to be a representative of the Ocayas, confronted Paquingan.  She said the farmers should not be allowed to occupy the area because they are not rightful beneficiaries of the land.

“We have filed our appeal to the DAR Central Office,” the woman frantically told the DAR officials, media and the police.

Arsueli arrived with a lone security guard armed with a modified Carbine rifle. The police were quick to check to the pertinent papers of the security guard, and to remind him to wear proper uniform when on duty.

DAR’s Quick Response Officer Wenceslao Magallanes advised Arsueli to raise her issue in the proper forum instead of grandstand in front of the farmer-beneficiaries.

Magallanes also disclosed that the appeal of the Ocayas in 2008 was denied by then DENR secretary Lito Atienza after the agency found violations of the lease agreement.

Terminated FLGLA

DAR records showed that the FLGLA was issued to Citadel T. Development Corporation (Citadeco), represented by late Bukidnon Gov. Timoteo Ocaya, on April 17, 1986 and was supposed to expire on December 31, 2011.

But the Dangawan Landless Farmers Association (DLFA) filed a petition to cancel the FLGLA due to some violations. The Community Environment and Natural Resources Office (CENRO) in Pangantucan town whose jurisdiction includes Maramag endorsed the cancellation to the regional office and eventually to the national office.

Thus on August 2008, Secretary Atienza ordered the cancellation of the FLGLA after finding that the Ocaya Ranch subleased the area, a violation of the agreement.

Among the other violations cited were low rate stock of cattle, which should accrue to at least one cattle per hectare, and planting corn and sugarcane in several hectares in excess of the 20 hectares allowed for food production.

In October of the same year, the Ocayas, through Remedios Ocaya-Soriano, a daughter of the late governor, submitted a letter of consideration to the DENR but the secretary once again denied the appeal.

Oscar Maniego, chair of the DLFA, expressed exhilaration that they can once again occupy their land. He said he could not wait to finish the fencing so that he can plant corn or cassava.

“Right now, we can feel that it is much safer because the police and military are here to accompany us to prevent any harassment,” he said in the vernacular.

In the past, Maniego said, some people loyal to the Ocayas came here and threatened them. “We could hear some gunshots to scare us,” added the farmer leader, who has been waiting to finally own the land for 10 years.

But Magallanes assured the farmers that the police and military will stay for a month to secure them. “Then we will assess if their stay should be extended depending on the situation,” he told reporters.

He also advised the farmers not to destroy the standing crops inside the ranch. “Let’s wait for the owners of the crop to harvest them. Otherwise, you will be facing charges.”

Patches of corn and sugar cane still stood inside the CARP-covered area. Those were believed to be owned by some outsiders who were allowed by the Ocayas to utilize the land, said Magallanes.

Meanwhile, to ensure the safety of the farmers, a 13-man police team conducted a foot patrol in the periphery of the ranch.

Women power

While some of the men were building the temporary huts, the women were the ones who prepared the food. But later on, some of the women were seen carrying round timbers, shovels and bolo. They also dug holes for the perimeter fence.

Theresa Bernardo said that once the fencing is completed, they will plant sugar cane in their area. She said they prefer sugar cane over corn because it does not require so much maintenance work.

“But for now, since we have not yet built our own houses, only our men will stay here at night and we will go back here at daytime to help them,” she said. (Keith Bacongco /MindaNews)