11 Jun 2012

Taking Hold Of The Terrain: Reaffirming Institutional Strengths And Empowering Partners

The story of the Sumilao Farmers can be retold in countless ways and through different perspectives. One of those is that of legal empowerment of farmers long deprived of their rights and public accountability forced upon a lethargic if not indifferent government. It is a story of the triumph of civil society's vigilance over the culture of disregarding the law and shortchanging the powerless.

Tracing Back the Steps

The Sumilao Farmers is a group of at least 165 farmers from Sumilao, Bukidnon with more than 500 family members, 90% of whom are members of the Higaonon Indigenous Communities. They have struggled, for more than a decade and against seemingly unsurpassable odds, to reclaim their land covering a total of 144 hectares located in San Vicente, Sumilao, Bukidnon.

The irrigated prime agricultural land, which used to be the "Seat of Power" of their Higaonon ancestor, was covered under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program and distributed to the Sumilao farmers in 1995 by virtue of a Certificate of Land Ownership Award issued in their names. However, the Quisumbing family illegally converted the land into industrial land with promises of "real" development while violently driving out the Sumilao Farmers from the land.

In 1999, Quisumbing's application for conversion of the land was approved by the Office of the President and affirmed by the Supreme Court in a rather controversial ruling. The Sumilao Farmers respected the Supreme Court decision despite the apparent objective of the Quisumbing family through its NQSRMDC to circumvent the CARP. The farmers observed the law and obeyed government institutions despite the reality that their lives and livelihood were on the line.

When the Sumilao Farmers started their campaign for justice in 2007, more than 10 years have passed and the land has remained idle and uncultivated, in violation of the conditions of the conversion order. Thus, the Quisumbings successfully evaded the CARP coverage of the land and the implementation of genuine agrarian reform. In further violation of the law, in 2002 the Quisumbings sold the land to Danding Cojuangco's San Miguel Foods, Inc. (SMFI) which then started building a piggery farm, without any regard for the approved conversion plan and for the rights of the Sumilao Farmers.

In 2004, the Sumilao farmers filed a petition for revocation/cancellation of the conversion order, trusting that the DAR will rule in accordance with the law the farmers themselves painfully obeyed. Sadly, the DAR Secretary dismissed the case and the Office of the President (OP) on appeal also dismissed the case. In Sumilao, SMFI was illegally continuing the construction of the piggery and was claiming that it did not assume the Quisumbings' obligation in connection with the conversion and at that the agricultural land can no longer be subject to agrarian reform. Simply put, it was saying that the Sumilao Farmers had no other recourse but to accept the injustice wrought upon them for decades.

The farmers decided to claim what was rightfully theirs and make the government execute its laws. The Sumilao farmers realized that the only way to acquire justice was to bring their cause to the seat of the national government and to raise awareness about their struggle along the way. Thus, they launched the "Sumilao March". At the end of the long campaign, on March 29, 2008, the Sumilao Farmers' decade-long struggle has finally bore fruit when they forged with SMFI an agreement under which 50 hectares within the 144-hectare subject property was donated to the farmers, and another 94 hectares within the vicinity was agreed to be subjected to CARP coverage and distributed to the farmers, thereby completing the 144 hectares that the farmers have demanded.

The next day, the Sumilao Farmers finally entered their ancestral land.

Walking the Mission, Going the Distance

Before the farmers were able to cherish this terrain-changing triumph, they started with that risky first step with conviction. And KAISAHAN was with the Sumilao farmers the whole length of this arduous journey which began on October 10, 2007, when 54 Sumilao farmers headed for Malacanang from Sumilao, Bukidnon with the goal of voicing out anger and disappointment on the mockery of agrarian reform laws by unscrupulous landowners.

The Sumilao Farmers won over several support groups during their campaign. KAISAHAN was one of the groups which spearheaded the said campaign and was also at the forefront of the legal battle, being one of three member organizations of the Paralegal Education and Skills Advancement and Networking Technology (PESANTEch) coalition. PESANTEch, which is composed of KAISAHAN, BAALAOD, and SALIGAN, also led the campaign of the Sumilao Farmers in 1997.

KAISAHAN took charge of the Visayas leg of the march and arranged for logistical and security concerns, among others. Through close coordination with the dioceses and local governments in the Visayas route, KAISAHAN successfully ensured that the farmers' would have renewed strength and high morale upon entering Luzon for the final leg of the march.

KAISAHAN's preparations for the Visayas leg were just as important as its groundwork in networking and advocacy in Metro Manila. The network of allies and supporters which KAISAHAN helped establish in Metro Manila solidified the clamor for justice and bolstered the pressure upon the government to act on the farmers' concerns.

The height of the Sumilao campaign was a surprising testimony to the fruits of years and years invested by the institution in its relationship with the agrarian reform community, the church, and other human rights advocates in Manila and its ASDP areas as well. Also significant is KAISAHAN's contribution to the clarification of the legal issues of the case to the public and the government bureaucracy as well. Faced with the seeming insurmountability of obstacles in the legal (court) battle, KAISAHAN, with the other PESANTEch member organizations, did not bow down but forged on. The fact that no less than the President herself faced the farmers in two dialogues is a manifestation not only of the farmers' resolve but also of the soundness of their legal cause. KAISAHAN is proud to have been at the helm of rallying legal luminaries and former officials of the Department of Agrarian Reform behind the farmers' cause.

KAISAHAN was able to reaffirm the importance of preparing for the big battles, choosing the arenas in which one has the most strength, learning from losses, having faith in those who have walked with you, and giving space for participation for all those whose stakeholdership you have helped augment.

The Church played a major role in the resolution of the Sumilao case. The personal involvement of Manila Archbishop Cardinal Rosales, former archbishop of the Sumilao Farmers in Bukidnon, made a big difference. In addition, however, the support groups of the farmers also actively sought the support of the church as a whole, not only in Manila but in all of the dioceses which the farmers passed through. And in this endeavor, KAISAHAN's relationship and previous cooperation with the church for the National Rural Congress were keys to an immediate and rather effective partnership between the church and the NGO supporters of the farmers.

The case of the Sumilao Farmers would not have been as well understood by the public if not for the help of the media, the supportive legal luminaries, and the students. KAISAHAN also stepped up in this aspect of the campaign by making arrangements regarding the educational sessions conducted in various schools and universities in Metro Manila. Said educational sessions served several purposes, that of drawing in more supporters for the Sumilao farmers, securing support from the schools in terms of food and lodging for the farmers, and gaining permanent allies for agrarian reform in general, all while raising awareness and participation of students and teachers in the fight for social justice, good governance, and public accountability.

Along with these undertakings, KAISAHAN also took the challenge of pursuing the case of the farmers at the Office of the President and even at the Supreme Court despite the odds brought about by the unfavorable decisions rendered by the Office of the President, the confusion left upon the public by the Fortich vs. Corona decision, and the known prowess and influence of the opponent, San Miguel Corporation. KAISAHAN was one of three legal support groups of the Sumilao farmers. The institution did not hesitate to lead legal strategizing sessions and to meet and consult with legal luminaries such as former Constitutional Commissioner Christian Monsod and former DAR officials. The institution succeeded despite the fact that KAISAHAN only had a few lawyers at the time of the campaign. The institution succeeded because it genuinely believed in the capacity of its staff and partner-farmers to use the law for empowerment, because it actually walked its talk: the law as a tool, and not an alienating phenomenon, for empowerment of the poor and the marginalized. Among other important gains, the institution was able to reaffirm and reinforce its status as a legal resource center for farmers' groups because of the exacting nature of this case. KAISAHAN was able to do an inventory of its skills and strengths and to reflect on its areas for improvement because of the Sumilao campaign. And now, KAISAHAN is ready to take on the challenges presented by the impending end of government funding of the agrarian reform program and the influx of more cases which call for the stepping up of institutions like KAISAHAN.

Rallying the Filipino Peasant

At this juncture where reliance on the government will spell disaster for agrarian reform implementation, KAISAHAN is ready to step up and share its experience, if not expertise, in handling farmers' cases and pursuing their causes. At this point when KAISAHAN is backed up by its learnings not only regarding legal empowerment but also on the importance of networks and alliances, it will not shirk away from continuing on its mission of rallying behind the Filipino farmer until the peasant sector's role in society is recognized and the farmer has been empowered to protect his entitlements. KAISAHAN is proud to be able to assert that the institution is treading the very path it bravely envisioned to take in partnership with the farmer whose sustainability it seeks to achieve.


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