Mapalad update: Farmers pack up after 89 days at the Supreme Court
By Gina Mission

Justice delayed -- justice denied? Members of the Mapalad Farmers Cooperative of Sumilao, Bukidnon
along with their supporters, gather in front of the Supreme Court. The farmers ended their 89-day vigil yesterday,
a day after the Supreme Court decided not to tackle the Mapalad case, which had actually been first on their agenda.
(photo provided by PARFUND)

fter 89 days of camping out in front of the Supreme Court, Mapalad farmers are going back to Sumilao, Bukidnon. "We feel the Supreme Court is dragging our case," Rene Peņas, President of the Mapalad Farmers Cooperative told CyberDyaryo. "Clearly, they don’t have the will to decide on it," he said.

___Peņas’ statement was made the day after the Supreme Court failed to tackle the Mapalad case, which on its agenda. The farmers learned about the aborted "deliberation," though a closed-door one, from a staff member of one of the members of the court who told Peņa about the schedule.

___"We are disappointed at the silence the Court has shown," said Ben Lucas, national coordinator of AR Now, an NGO supporting the Mapalad farmers.

___Added to the judicial delay is the fact that these farmers have families back in the province to take care of. Their children are in school and have their needs. Their families have to eat, and they, the breadwinners, are in Manila camping out with no form of sustenance whatsoever. Most importantly, they have to go back to consolidate their "ranks and members, for a more unified, and strong farmers’ force in another campaign."

___Lucas spoke of disappointment over Supreme Court Chief Justice Davide who promised to "personally" see to it that the case would be decided en banc. "We thought that since he is a ‘progressive’ justice, he would keep his word," Lucas continued. Instead, the case was assigned to the First Division, and after a month it was returned back to the Second Division, which, Lucas added, is "notorious" for unpopular decisions.

___The Mapalad story is often referred to in the NGO world as one of tragedy and of success. Tragedy, because after winning the sympathy of the nation, the Mapalad farmers still do not have possession of the land due to them under the agrarian reform program. Success, because the farmers used non-violence to highlight their cause. But at the same time, their hunger strikes focused the attention of nation on agrarian reform, and exposed how links between wealthy landlords and certain political figures can be used to evade the law.

___The case stemmed from then-Executive Secretary Ruben Torres' decision to reverse a Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) ruling putting a 144-hectare piece of land in Bukidnon owned by the Quisumbing family under land reform. For some reason, Torres saw merit in the Quisumbings' proposal to turn the land into an industrial zone.

___In a win-win solution handed down by then-President Fidel Ramos, the Mapalad farmers were awarded 100 hectares of the 144-hectare Quisumbing estate. Unfortunately, the decision was appealed before the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the former owners. The farmers have since filed a Motion for Reconsideration.

___In November 17, 1998 the High Tribunal, in deliberating the said motion, failed to garner the three votes necessary to sustain the case, with two justices voting for the farmers and two voting for the Quisumbings. According to the Philippine Constitution, under Art. 8, Sec. 4(3), a Supreme Court division needs at least three out of five votes to finally decide on a case, or else the case is automatically referred to the Court en banc (where the entire court decides, not just one of the three divisions).

___The farmers used this constitutional provision in their appeal. The Court, however, chose to ignore them, and instead had the First and Second Divisions of the Court playing pingpong over who should decide on the case. And most recently, it failed to tackle the same issue of jurisdiction when it was scheduled to do so.

___With this development, Lani Francia of PAKISAMA reiterated civil society’s stand on the Mapalad case. "The case is seen by civil society as critical to the outcome of agrarian reform. If the Quisumbings win, other landowners will be emboldened to resist agrarian reform, even if they don't have the kind of powerful political connections that the Quisumbings have," she said.

___If the case is decided against the farmers, Lucas is afraid other landlords, to avoid land reform, will use it as a precedent case. "They will just think that it is possible for them to have their lands converted even if the farmer-tenants have been issued certificates of land acquisition (CLOA), as is the case of the Mapalad farmers," Lucas said. Even the DAR, will have a hard time distributing the remaining 1.3 million hectares of private agricultural land, precisely because of this precedent case, he added.

___Perhaps the most notable element of the Mapalad case from the perspective of civil society is that the Supreme Court has so far not decided on its merits, but on what civil society perceives as a mere technicality, a case of "sheer bureaucratic incompetence," which caused the DAR’s failure to respond to Torres’ ruling within the specified time period.

___"When we come back, it will be with a more aggressive campaign for the Supreme Court to decide the case on its merits, and not on a mere technicality," Peņas said.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.07.29