Sumilao farmers 4 years after: Out of the streets for good

SAN VICENTE, Sumilao, Bukidnon (MindaNews/11 October) — Since becoming a farmer, waking up at 4am has become one of the daily rituals for Wenefrido San-ajan. This is perhaps the only habit he hasn’t discarded in his decision to change his farming practices. Starting in 2008 when he learned about growing vegetables, Junjun, as he is called by neighbors, has stopped relying only on corn.

Jun-jun, father of three, now earns at least P300 per day from selling pechay, eggplant, string beans, ampalaya, cabbage, and bell onions. This income from the 1,000-square meter plot beside his corn farm is a far cry from his meager earnings in previous years that came only from corn and “just enough to pay loans.”

FRUITS OF THEIR LABOR. Sumilao women display their product, Sumilao Corn Coffee in their mini-market in Sitio Fatima, Barangay San Vicente in Sumilao, Bukidnon on Tuesday, October 11, 2011. The farmers presented the products of their farm during the 4th anniversary of their epic 1,700 kilometer "walk for land, walk for justice" from Sumilao to Manila. MindaNews photo by Walter Balane“With this I am confident I can send at least a child to college,” he told MindaNews after he was asked to speak Monday about his experience in shifting from planting only corn to growing various plants, on the 4th anniversary of their celebrated 1,700-“walk for land, walk for justice” to Manila.

From struggling to own a piece of land to till, members of the Panaw Sumilao Multi-purpose Cooperative now talk about pushing for diversified organic farming.

“We want to tell the world that we are not only good in marching. We can also do well in farming. We should not only be bright in protesting but also in tilling the land,” Junjun added.

Before, they cried for land and justice. Now the farmers’ new fight is how to make the land distributed to them through agrarian reform become more productive, Napoleon Merida Jr., the group’s chairperson said. He noted that one of their problems now is the lack of solar dryers for their corn.

Merida announced during the commemoration held in a warehouse they built using government funds that the farmers have already planted corn and cassava in 41 hectares of the 50-hectare area initially turned over as part of the 147-hectare land eventually awarded to them. Their claim had only covered 144 hectares.

The Sumilao farmers hogged the headlines in 2007 when they marched from this town to Manila to press their claim on the land under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

The farmers planned to use the 50-hectare area in San Vicente into family-operated organic farms using natural farming technology. The 97 hectares, located in other villages of Sumilao, will be used for industrial crops.

Merida, who quipped that his having gained weight was one sign of progress, cited that a lot has changed among their members.

“Sa una galakaw-lakaw ra mi nga marag walay tumong (We used to walk around aimlessly). Now about 50 of our members already have motorcycles,” he added to the applause of about 200 cooperative members and guests from groups who have been supporting the farmers over the years.

About 70 percent of the farmers, Merida said, have paid up their amortization of the P2-million soft loan from the Department of Agrarian Reform.  Other government and non-government donors also extended support to the farmers, he added.

He also cited that the Department of Budget and Management has approved their request for a P5-million building project for their products.

The farmers plan to professionalize their cooperative, computerize their operations, diversify crops and provide better social services to their members, among other goals.

But Merida said they needed external support to make 56 more hectares productive, aside from additional farm equipment like a tractor and dryers, and access to markets.

He urged the members to do their best to show that they deserved the land awarded to them.

“We want to work out that we can develop the area even without the help of the big companies, through our hard work,” he added.

At the entrance to the hall where the commemoration was held, the women of the village served snacks from root crops planted in their gardens. They also displayed some of their products like soft brooms and Sumilao corn coffee.

Merida thanked the stakeholders who helped them including government agencies like the DAR and Department of Agriculture, NGOs, the Catholic Relief Services, Xavier University, among others.

He said they used to quarrel with DAR, but “now they are our partners,” he added.

Cagayan de Oro Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, who celebrated the mass Monday with Malaybalay Bishop Jose Cabantan and Fr. Danilo Paciente, said the Sumilao farmers’ experience in farming could serve as model.

“The others should know about their experience,” he said. He added in program after the mass that he welcomed the plans of the farmers because it really came from them.

Cabantan said the farmers’ journey has not ended yet. “After getting the land, the struggle continues to make good use of God’s gift,” he added.

Akbayan Rep. Arlene Bag-ao, who was the group’s lawyer from Balaod Mindanao, said the new task to work out their plans has begun. She cited that the farmers and the support groups that helped them went through very difficult times.

Bag-ao said that now that they have achieved their goals the farmers must be mindful of their big responsibility as models to other farmers who were inspired by their struggle and victory.

“Wala sa gawas ang kalambuan, naa sa sulod ang gahum nga mulampos (Development is not from outside. The power to succeed is from within),” she added in her emotional speech where she expressed her joy over the success of the farmers.

Junjun, the first among the Sumilao farmers to work fully on his diversified farm said the ball is now in their hands. He said he never expected that landless farmers like him who earned just enough to pay debts from financiers could ever reach this far.

After receiving training from agricultural technicians, Junjun said he wants to impart his knowledge to his fellow farmers. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)