Bukidnon farmers ask Pnoy’s help vs ‘goons’ in contested land

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/26 April) – A farmers’ group in Bukidnon has sought the President’s intervention to stop what they called a “reign of terror” by “goons” of the contested 502-hectare Villalon Ranch in this town.

In a statement, Alyansa Bukidnon chair Oscar Maniego said “armed goons deployed by the owner of the ranch have been running amok, and government inaction has emboldened them to commit human rights violations against members of the Panalsalan Dagumbaan Tribal Association (Padata) and even to murder a farmer last year.”

Maniego based his statement on the result of a fact-finding mission on March 29 that cited the alleged abuses perpetrated by the ranch guards against the farmers. The allegations included looting of farm animals and produce, firing at houses and damage to property, as well as harassment.

Veronica Candar told the fact-finding mission that the security guards of the ranch harvested her family’s corn from their one-hectare land twice, making them unable to recoup their expenses.

On March 2010, they installed a barbed wire fence around the cornfield so that the guards could not let the cattle eat their corn and prevent them from sneaking inside.

“We knew that they would still harvest our corn but we still tried to replant until June 2011 because we were hoping to harvest even a small portion from the cornfield,” the 46-year woman farmer said in tears.

But a month later, Candar said, they decided to vacate their hut inside the ranch because the guards reportedly destroyed it.

“We noticed that the guards were going towards our house and they were firing their guns in the air. We were really scared, so we ran towards the cornfield to hide. Then we saw them sawing the posts of our house until it eventually collapsed,” recounted her husband Anecito.

The Candar couple also said that the guards allegedly harvested some of their root crops and vegetables.

They are currently living with their only son in Barangay Dagumbaan, Maramag.

Had the local authorities, particularly the police, acted on the complaints of the farmers in the past years, Maniego said, it could have prevented the guards from committing the same abuses again.

“Since the local authorities, especially the police, are not doing anything to prevent these incidents, the suspects have become even more abusive. We know that the police are fully aware of these incidents because they have recorded these,” he added.

He said that Milo Ceballos, who is believed to be the head guard of the ranch and the primary suspect in the murder of farmer Welcie Gica, was able to flee Dagumbaan after a warrant of arrest was issued against him in December 2011.

Gica was killed in August last year.

On March 29, the police served the warrant of arrest against Ceballos and 14 others who were tagged in Gica’s murder, but the suspects were nowhere to be found.

“Had the police acted immediately, justice may have already been served to our colleague Welcie Gica,” Maniego stressed.

The mission report also disclosed that couple Joseph and Myrna Ople were reportedly strafed by the ranch guards on June 14 last year.

“Days before the incident, they already heard volleys of gunfire while they were putting their harvested tomatoes into boxes. On the day they were strafed, they already had 75 boxed tomatoes ready for delivery while the rest that were not boxed yet were estimated to reach, more or less, 140 boxes,” the report said.

It added the couple were forced to leave their house after the alleged strafing incident. Then on June 27, 2011, they tried to retrieve their tomatoes, but everything was gone and their house was allegedly demolished by the guards.

Edgardo Villalon, the ranch operator, first obtained the 15-year Pasture Lease Agreement (PLA) No. 1816 in 1981. When it expired, he applied for renewal. The PLA was later renamed FLGMA.

With the passage of Republic Act 8371, or the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (IPRA), the renewal process has included a free and prior informed consent (FPIC) from the indigenous peoples in the community where the area subject of the lease agreement belongs.

Villalon obtained the compliance certificate in 2008 after the NCIP Ancestral Domain Office recommended it on August 8, 2008. But ten days after, the Padata members, backed by the Task Force Mapalad, lodged a protest before the NCIP, asserting the FPIC used to file for the extension of the FLGMA was fake.

In September last year, the NCIP en banc issued a “final and executory” decision on the ranch, denying the motion for reconsideration filed by Villalon for “lack of merit” and “for being filed out of time.” (Keith Bacongco/MindaNews)