Better days for Sumilao farmers 6 years after ‘walk for land, walk for justice’

SUMILAO, Bukidnon (MindaNews/15 October)—Leonora Lumala, 33, owns a portion of the 147 hectares (ha) of land obtained by the Sumilao farmers after their historic 1,700-kilometer “walk for land, walk for justice” to Manila in 2007.

Every time the Panaw Sumilao Multi-Purpose Cooperative(PSMPC) holds a gathering since the land was awarded to them in 2008 after their grueling protest walk a year earlier, the mother of six is among those assigned to cook for members and guests.

Hesitant at first as the dishes may not taste good, Lumala now beams with confidence, mastering how to cook pancit guisado, afritada, chopsuey and other viands for their guests and other cooperative members. For the farm tour and PSMPC board meeting on October 11 as part of their three-day celebration of the sixth anniversary of their 1,700-kilometer “walk for land, walk for justice,” she cooked fish in soy sauce and vinegar that tasted like it is served in restaurants.

“I’ve got use to cooking for guests. I think this is part of our new skills,” she said, adding their lives have generally improved although clarifying “that economically we are still tight.”

For every cropping of their almost one hectare corn farm, Lumala said the family earns P70, 000 gross and pays half of it for farm inputs, the rest going to payments for loans made for their daily sustenance.

“Even if we loan our daily needs, at least we have the farm now as our guarantee,” she stressed.

Individually and collectively, there are improvements but there is still a lot of work to be done, said Yoyong Merida, founding chair of the cooperative.

He stressed they are proud, however, to count their blessings.

“Of course, we are very far away from our situation back when we started the walk,” he said.

Far different

When they went out of Sitio Fatima, their hamlet, last October 12, the Sumilao farmers were far different from six years ago—they rode on the cooperative’s vehicles and their own motorcycles for a caravan around Barangay San Vicente and the rest of Sumilao town.

In parade were about 30 members riding on their own motorcycles. The rest of the members and their families rode in a forward truck vehicle, an elf cargo vehicle, and a multi-cab, all owned by the cooperative.

The forward truck vehicle and multi-cab were part of the P2.5 million grant from Senator Francis Pangilinan’s Sagip Saka program through the Cooperative Development Authority. The grant also came with training, production, marketing and other project start up components.

The caravan from Sitio Fatima to the town proper of Sumilao and back was among the highlights of the anniversary celebration.

Six years after their historic 1,700-kilometer “walk for land, walk for justice” to Manila in 2007, the Sumilao farmers’ cooperative reported improved “economic status” and “better quality of life” with total assets of P52.54 million as of this month, including about P2.26 million in current account.

Starting this year, they have paid a total of P400, 000 to the Land Bank of the Philippines as installment for 97 ha of land transferred to them in 2010 by San Miguel Corp. (SMC) They also paid a total of P47, 000 for real property taxes for 50 ha, which SMC turned over to them through a deed of donation.

Merida, the cooperative’s founding chair, said the challenge now for the farmers is how to sustain and develop their lands in accordance with the 10-year development plan laid out for the cooperative’s 163 members.

In his presentation at the program highlighting the October 10-12 celebrations at the San Vicente Barangay Plaza, Merida cited the farmers’ plan to diversify their products.

The celebration was themed “Panaw: Naghugpong aron Pagpagahum ug Pagpalambu sa Kumunidad” or “united to empower and develop the community.”

According to the farmers’ plan, they would plant coffee, cacao, citronella and durian, among other high-value crops, aside from corn and vegetables.

Merida noted the cooperative members have gone a long way from their situation six years ago.

“Our members can now afford to send their children to school and have better quality of life,” he added.

Merida said they are looking at sustainable agriculture in the 50-ha area and looking for financing for the 97 ha spread across eight non-contiguous areas.

He cited that only 32 ha of the 97-ha area had been planted, mostly to corn.

For the cooperative, it earns by renting farm production equipment and trucks and through interest payments from loans by members.

Grants for development

Among the highlights of the anniversary program was the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement between the cooperative and the Department of Agrarian Reform for a P2.5 million grant, which was previously released to the cooperative as a conditional grant. The money was loaned to members for their farm inputs.

The cooperative also received a P2.4 million tractor from the Department of Agriculture in July 2012, which they rent to members and other farmers in the town, along with their elf and forward truck vehicles.

Merida said the cooperative was also able to obtain another grant worth P1.3 million to put up a warehouse and for their communal production.

The group also received a building from Akbayan, which it uses as people’s center and offices for the cooperative and its support groups. It also served as a tulugan or tribal hall.

Through the Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (Pakisama), the cooperative also availed of another P2.5 million grant for capability building initiatives to include agriculture cluster formation and commodity trainings for cacao, rubber and coffee.

There are now a total of four vegetable clusters in the cooperative covering 50 members and another 50 members for the corn cluster that directly connect with the industry supply chain.

The cooperative intends to have an enterprise for women, set up an Agricultural Field School, and venture into vermin-culture and enzyme compost production.

Merida cited that additional support services such as mechanical dryers and corn mills can further improve the cooperative’s economic condition.

One of the strengths of the cooperative, Merida said, is its group of support organizations that helped them through the years.

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

They first rose to national prominence earlier in 2007 after they staged a 28-day hunger strike in Quezon and Cagayan de Oro cities to dramatize their demand to get back 144 ha of their ancestral land.

Their ancestral land area, around 243 ha of flat agricultural lands, used to be the seat of the Higaonon tribe until a big landowner came in the 1930s and allegedly drove them away.

Ownership of the land, which is bound by Mt. Sayawan and Mt. Palaopao, changed several times through the years until it was divided into two lots.

One lot, around 99 ha, went to Salvador Carlos, a Manila-based businessman and Norberto Quisumbing, owner of the Cebu-based Yamaha Norkis manufacturing. The land was eventually sold to SMC.

Carlos, however, declared in his will that 66 ha be given back to the farmers. (Walter I. Balane/MindaNews)