Tagum shooting shows land conflicts still root of PH unrest

Inday Espina-Varona, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 12 2016 08:35 PM | Updated as of Dec 12 2016 09:29 PM

Farmers raise mobile phones as armed guards of a plantation controlled by Lapanday Foods Cor approach their barricade in Tagum City.

A long-running conflict between Lapanday Foods Corporation and agrarian reform beneficiaries in Tagum City, the capital of Davao del Norte, exploded on Monday during a shooting incident that followed a successful attempt by farmers to reclaim their land.

Renante Mantos, chairperson of Hugpong Sa Mga Mag-uuma sa Walhog Compostela (Humawac), the alliance of farmer cooperatives from the Tagum barangays of Madaum and San Isidro, said in a phone interview that guards of Lapanday’s security agency, ACDISA, wounded seven protesters.

Jose Balucos, 42 years old; Rico Saladaga, Jojo Gomez, Belardo Francisco, Emanuel Buladaco, 46 years old; Taldan Miparanun, 16 years old; and Joseph Bertulfo, 58 years old, were rushed to the Davao Regional Medical Center.

Buladaco and Bertulfo are among the 159 direct beneficiaries involved in the protest, according to Mantos, who remains with more than 200 farmers on the reclaimed land.

The others are members of Humawac cooperatives in the Southern Mindanao area who reinforced the beneficiaries in their efforts to assert their land ownership that a court and the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) upheld in 2011.

He said they are waiting for medical updates on their colleagues.

Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano has ordered the Regional Office of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) in Region XI and the Provincial Agrarian Reform Office of Davao Del Norte to probe the reported gunfire attack by security guards of the Lapanday Foods Corporation (LFC) at the farmers’ encampment in Barangay Madaum, Tagum City.

A press release from the DAR said Mariano also instructed local DAR officials to coordinate with the Philippine National Police of Davao del Norte for the possible filing of cases against the suspects of the shooting incident.

The shooting came two days after some 2,000 agrarian reform beneficiaries and supporters stormed the gates of their land, which was forcibly taken over by Lapanday in 2011 following the DAR decision.

FESTERING CONFLICT

Mantos said armed guards of Lapanday entered the encampment past 7 a.m.

He and other protest leaders were holding a dialogue with the guards’ leader, only known by his surname Vicente, just three meters from the main bulk of protesters when they heard gunshots.

As protesters rushed to aid the fallen, the guards retreated. The other protesters strengthened their barricades and undertook defensive formations.

After the wounded were taken off the encampment, Mantos said, the guards returned with wooden clubs as their new weapons. They challenged the farmers to a brawl but were ignored, Mantos added.

The land dispute in an area barely an hour from President Rodrigo Duterte’s Davao City turf has been festering since 1996 when DAR awarded 724 farmers in Madaum nearly 570 hectares of land, mostly planted with banana export crop.

Sought for a comment, the company emailed this statement:

“Lapanday Foods Corporation (LFC) denies any involvement in the reported shooting of alleged agrarian reform beneficiaries in Barangay Madaum, Tagum City this morning. Since last week, the company has been seeking police assistance to investigate the presence of armed men who were seen within the areas under Hijo Employees Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative 1 (HEARBCO-1). HEARBCO-1 which has acknowledged its existing and valid contracts with LFC has been in conflict with a breakaway group of its former members led by Mely Yu who has been engaging armed men to inflict violence and disrupt operations in the farm. Mely Yu and her group were ousted as officers by the majority of HEARBCO-1 in 2011 and since then, her group has caused severe damage to the cooperative. This internal conflict among the HEARBCO-1 and this breakaway group may be the reason for this latest incident.”

Protesters deny the claim of armed men, saying guards fired in the air when they asserted farmers' right to the land. A Kilab Multimedia photo shows most of the protesters without shirts on December 9, "to prove they were not armed."

The timeline of the land dispute also indicates that Lapanday has waged a legal battle with the farmers - and lost its case twice.

Doctors at the Davao Regional Medical Center treat the wounded in the shooting of agrarian reform beneficiaries by plantation guards under Lapanday Foods Corp. photo by Kilab Multimedia

A DECADE OF WOES

The DAR order was covered by Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) No.00398239, issued under Transfer Certificate of Title No. C-10527 and registered on December 18, 1996.

The mother cooperative of beneficiaries, the Hijo Employees Agrarian Reform Cooperative 1 (HEARCO1), signed a Banana Sales and Marketing Agreement (BSMA) with Lapanday, owned by the Lorenzo family.

Mantos said within two years, many farmer beneficiaries expressed dismay at the low price for their products and the many supposed debts subtracted from their sales income.

“Kasi di nila alam saan nanggagaling ang utang at walang supporting documents,” he explained.

(Because they don’t know where the debts come from and they don’t see any supporting documents.)

In the ten years from 1998 to 2008, skirmishes between restive beneficiaries and guards have claimed two lives and injured several from both sides.

Farmer leaders have also been booted out of work and reinstated only after years of legal battle.

When the contract with Lapanday expired in 2009, the beneficiaries undertook a referendum for future plans.

Majority voted to extend the contract, while 159 voted not to.

The nay-voters eventually reached an agreement with the mother cooperative, which allowed them to leave, ceding over 145 hectares covered by a document.

“They found a new buyer with better contract - $8 a box from $4 a box paid by Lapanday,” Mantos said.

The DAR ruled in favor of the beneficiaries in 2010, upholding their right to the land parcel ceded by the mother cooperative.

LAPANDAY: NO OWNER - BUT EXERTS CONTROL

Mantos said the 145 hectares is only one case. Other land parcels are also involved in ongoing disputes between beneficiaries and Lapanday, for unjust wages and onerous practices – reminiscent, he said, of the old, feudal plantation setups in the pre-CARP [Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program] era.

Lapanday denies ownership of the land. But it filed a a case against the new group, covering the lands they tilled. The corporation lost that legal battle too, with the regional trial court ruling in favor of the farmers.

Mantos said the agrarian reform beneficiaries were preparing to till the land after victory when “300 Lapanday guards and goons attacked.”

“Tinutukan sila ng baril at pinalayas,” he said.

(Guns were pointed at them and they were forced off the land.)
 
Despite the legal victories, the beneficiaries were kept out of their lands for the next six years.
 
After seven months of pickets at the gate of Lapanday’s local office, the farmers sought reinforcement from other peasant’s group in the region and entered to reclaim their land on December 9.

Doctors at the Davao Regional Medical Center treat the wounded in the shooting of agrarian reform beneficiaries by plantation guards under Lapanday Foods Corp. photo by Kilab Multimedia

LORDS OF THE LAND

The Tagum dispute is an emblem of the struggles that face Filipino farmers decades after the passage of what was pledged to be a landmark law for a Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and Congress' approval of a successor program, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reform (CARPER).

Lapanday is controlled by the Lorenzo clan. Its chief executive officer, Regina Lorenzo, is the sister of Martin Lorenzo, a top executive of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac, the sugar mill of the Cojuangco clan’s sprawling Hacienda Luisita.

A recent outbreak of violence also occurred in Luisita, where beleaguered land workers still have yet to benefit fully from a final Supreme Court ruling in 2013.

Distribution of land has gone very slowly for beneficiaries. In 2009, the Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department of the House of Representatives said CARP had a balance of 1.6 million hectares, covering 1.2 million farmer beneficiaries.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), it added, also had nearly 600,000 hectares of land still undistributed to farmer-tillers.

CARPER received a P150 billion budget. But in a 2015 report, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism said DAR had failed to distribute 726, 421 hectares and the DENR still had some 100,000 hectares to go.

Even those who have received land continue to struggle from their lack of access to affordable credit, the continued lack of support mechanisms from government, and the market control exercised by agriculture dealers who are also often big landlords.

The hardships often end up with re-concentration of lands, which are then blamed on workers and not on government neglect and collusion with big landowners.

HALTING AN UNJUST CYCLE

In August, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano, the former representative of militant party-list group, Anakpawis, received President Rodrigo Duterte’s backing on the planned executive order (EO) for a halt to land use conversion.

Mariano said the proposed EO should also cover applications for exemption/exclusion of land from the coverage of CARP and other agrarian reform laws and programs.

The practice is currently allowed by Section 20 of the Local Government Code, which authorizes municipal and city councils to reclassify agricultural lands into other uses.

It's a long, long fight, paid for by tears and blood.

Farmers formed the bulk of restive Filipinos who rose up against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and joined the New People's Army as big ticket development projects drove them off their lands.

Sixteen years after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, alternative news website Bulatlat.com became a finalist in the JVO awards for excellence in journalism with a damning report on "CARP: Lands are Back in the Hands of the Lords."

Read Also: Are Filipino Peasants Better Off Now?

It's now four decades since the EDSA People Power Revolt, yet farmers are still shedding blood for lands that are theirs by right.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.