Monday, 17 April 2000

Restless in Sapang Palay

Will farmers lose the lands they till?
By Gina Mission


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Nana Doring: "What will an old farmer like
me do without land?"

San Jose del Monte, Bulacan--At 71, Nana Doring feels she has lived a full life. Only three of her eight children do not have families of their own. Although she can't have the luxury of a pensioned retirement, she feels secure in her old age. Her family's two-hectare farm in Hacienda Sapang Palay, San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, is going well, and the income from its produce-vegetables, fruits and palay--remains sufficient to meet their needs.

.....But an application from a real estate developer to convert lands in the hacienda to non-agricultural purposes threatens to shatter Nana Doring's sense of security. Like most other tillers in the hacienda, she is worried by the looming change.

....."Ano na lang ang gagawin ng isang matandang magsasaka katulad ko kung wala nang lupa? (What will an old farmer like me do without land?)," she asked rhetorically, in an interview with PNI in her home on April 13. She proceeded to express the hope that "Erap," as she called President Estrada, would hear her voice and "do something" about it.

.....She and other farmers tilling portions of the 108.5-hectare Hacienda Sapang Palay urged Agrarian Reform Secretary Horacio Morales to uphold the decision of former Agrarian Reform Secretary Ernesto Garilao denying the land conversion application of real estate developer Moldex Realty Inc. The area consists of rice fields, vegetables and farmers' residential lots.

.....Ruben Cruz, president of the farmers' group Samahang Magbubukid ng Sapang Palay (SAMASA), said Morales should prove that the department exists to serve land reform beneficiaries, and not real estate developers. SAMASA members find it difficult to accept that the lands they, their parents and their grandparents before them, had long been tilling as tenants are now being taken away.

....."Former Secretary Garilao had decided in our favor,'' Cruz said. "We hope Secretary Morales will look at the merits of the case and not reverse what we have already gained."

.....Uncertainty over their lands has been hanging over the farmers' heads like the sword of Damocles for the past decade.

High hopes

.....Ironically, their story started on a note of hope. On July 12, 1990, the Department of Agrarian Reform under then-Secretary Florencio "Butch" Abad ordered that Hacienda Sapang Palay be placed under land reform through Operation Land Transfer. The hacienda owners opposed the order, but the department overruled them and proceeded to issue certificates of leasehold to the tenants, the first stage in the process leading to the transfer of ownership. The owners resorted to other legal moves to go around the order until finally, on Jan. 20, 1995, they were able to sell the hacienda to Moldex for P25 per square meter.

.....The farmers, through their lawyer, claim that Moldex violated the procedural rules for land conversion prescribed in the agrarian reform law by applying for land conversion even before getting approval of the reclassification of the land from agricultural to commercial and residential use.

.....Moldex applied to the municipal council for the reclassification of the land on Dec. 16, 1994. The municipal council of San Jose del Monte approved it in June 1995. The firm applied to the Agrarian Reform department for conversion of the land on Jan. 16, 1995, six months before the land was reclassified by the municipal council.

Option to buy violated

.....The farmers claimed there was another violation when the owners sold the land to Moldex without giving them the first option to buy. They said they were not even informed by the owners that the land was up for sale.

.....On Aug. 5, 1996, the Agrarian Reform department, by that time headed by Garilao, denied Moldex's application for conversion, ruling that the company failed to substantiate its claim that the hacienda was not agricultural land.

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Nana Doring's vegetable farm and rice field in
Hacienda Sapang Palay.

.....Meanwhile, Sapang Palay farmers filed two cases of redemption before the provincial adjudicator's office to nullify the sale and enable them to exercise their option to buy.

.....Moldex filed a motion for reconsideration of Garilao's decision, but again got a denial in December 1996. The developer appealed the decision to the Office of the President on Jan. 30, 1997, without furnishing a copy to SAMASA, the farmers' group. On May 15, 1998, then- Executive Secretary Alexander Aguirre reversed Garilao's decision.

.....Consequently, Moldex tried to bulldoze a portion of the hacienda the following month, on June 5, 1998. But the office of the mayor of San Jose del Monte issued a cease-and-desist order to Moldex, prohibiting it from doing any "land development activity'' in the hacienda. The mayor's office pointed out that the company had no development permit and that the land conversion order was not yet final and executory.

.....In June 1998, SAMASA filed a motion for reconsideration with the Office of the President. Agrarian reform officials filed a similar motion two days later.

.....The farmers won a round at the local level when the provincial council of Bulacan approved on June 15, 1998, a resolution of the San Jose del Monte municipal council (Resolution 52-06-98), which nullified the reclassification of Hacienda Sapang Palay from agricultural to residential and commercial land.

Short-lived victory

.....But their victory was short-lived. On Aug. 3, 1998, Executive Secretary Ronaldo Zamora denied the motions of SAMASA and DAR seeking the upholding of Garilao's decision.

.....Agrarian reform officials filed a second motion for reconsideration, but Zamora denied it on March 29, 1999. SAMASA filed its own motion for reconsideration with the Supreme Court, but this was denied on May 15, 1999.

.....Encouraged by that decision, Moldex bulldozed a portion of the hacienda on July 5, 1999, but the town mayor stopped it on the same day through a cease-and-desist order, after unidentified armed groups shot at the company's security guards. One guard was killed, another was wounded. The order was obviously intended to prevent further violence. Until now, nobody can say who shot the security guards.

.....After the bulldozing was stopped, farmers claimed that Moldex's security guards resorted to harassing them. One farmer, Quirino Lorenzo, told PNI there had been attempts to destroy his irrigation pipe and that when those attempts failed, the pipe was detached and stolen. He pointed an accusing finger at the security guards. Other forms of harassment in the hacienda included the destruction of plants in the fields, he said.

Just 'doing their job'

.....Giving the guards' side, Danilo Santillan, head of the 16-member Moldex security command stationed in the hacienda, told PNI that they were only "doing their job."

.....Santillan showed a July 1999 order from Juanito Malto, head of the estate management division of Moldex, directing his group in July 1999 to "provide security services/protection" to Moldex's three properties--one of them, Hacienda Sapang Palay. Malto instructed the group to patrol these areas daily and "prevent, stop and monitor unauthorized activities within the properties by the farmers." The order did not state what the two other properties were.

.....Despite the alleged cases of harassment, the SAMASA members said they are not afraid of Santillan's group and are instead strengthened by the rightness of their cause. As Cruz, the SAMASA president, said: "Moldex cannot call us 'illegal farmers' until the court declares that we are. And we have all the reasons to win the case.''

.....They are confident of winning "as long as the court, or Secretary Morales, looks at the merits of the case,'' he added.

.....The farmers believe there's no basis to any of the rulings against them. Cruz stressed that the land is, as it has always been, agricultural land. "How can that be approved for conversion?" he asked.

.....In fact, the Department of Agriculture has an ongoing rice technology demonstration on a farm developed inside the hacienda. Last year, the provincial agriculture office of Bulacan selected the hacienda as a "star barangay" for its food security program. Under the program, technical, support services and other assistance are provided to help improve the food production of the province.

Surprising decisions

.....Sixty-three-year old Teodora Dimasutil, who occupies two hectares in the hacienda, was very surprised at the decisions of the Supreme Court and the Office of the President. Just last year, she said, they were given technical and technology assistance by the Agriculture department as recipients of the "star barangay" award. They were also given hand tractors, driers, threshers, seedlings and other supplies.

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Farmers Damaso Leang and Teodora Dimasutil find
themselves suddenly landless.

....."Binigyan kami ng lahat n'un tapos, kukunin lang pala yung lupa namin, (We were given all these, and then they're going to take our lands away),'' she lamented. "Had I been informed that they [the owners] were selling the land, I would have bought the two hectares I was tilling. I can afford the P25-per-square-meter price."

.....Nana Doring said that, had they been informed of the sale, she and her husband would have done everything they could to raise the purchase money for the two hectares they occupy.

.....But the sale to Moldex went through without their knowing it, and Nana Doring believes only the President can help them now. "Kayo na lang po ang pag-asa namin (You are our only hope)"-that's the message she wants relayed to the President. .