Farming advocates dig deep in effort to save QC land from commercial conversion

Patrick Quintos

Posted at Jun 01 2019 04:29 PM | Updated as of Jun 01 2019 08:57 PM

MANILA—Roaring tricycles shakily move past people, tin-roofed vegetable and meat stalls, small “sari-sari” stores, barbershops, and cramped eateries, making their way like ants through an intricate labyrinth of narrow streets in Quezon City early Saturday morning.

But hidden in this close-knit urbanity sprawling with industry, rice crops and vegetables grow big and healthy in a piece farmland, one of the last few green breathing spaces in the metro, threatened by land conversion within the University of the Philippines area in Diliman.

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Donna Miranda of Saka helps a volunteer plant new crops in a vegetable garden beside a small but productive rice field in Quezon City. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

“Wala pa itong pataba ha. Lupa lang ’to na tinaniman. Nagsimula kami dito February. In 3 months, sobrang dami na niyang na-produce na gulay—okra, kangkong, talong, basil, sili, pechay, mais . . . Last week, naggapas na kami ng palay,” said Donna Miranda of Saka, an alliance of artists and cultural workers fighting for genuine agrarian reform.

(We didn’t even use fertilizers here. We just planted the crops. We started in February and in just 3 months the land yielded lots of vegetables such as okra, kangkong, eggplants, basil, chili, pechay, and corn. Last week, we even began reaping ripe rice grains.)

According to Miranda, the farmlands in the university, which cover about 10 hectares in total — about the land area of SM Megamall — falls under the UP Master Development Plan that will convert areas owned by the state university into income-generating assets, making it less reliant on the annual guaranteed budget from the General Appropriations Act.

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Golden rice grains ready for harvest stand tall against the cityscape in this hidden Quezon City farm. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

 Recent examples of projects from this plan include the UP Technohub and the UP Town Center, both managed by property development giant Ayala, Miranda noted, adding that this direction shows the government’s shrinking subsidy for state universities.

These income-generating projects, Miranda stressed, will be implemented at the expense of the small farmers within the UP area, who have only known tilling as their primary trade for decades now.

Some of the farmers there, she added, even have cedulas from the Spanish colonial period to prove their claims. The Department of Agrarian Reform has also issued a notice of coverage over the farm land.

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A farmer brings his corn harvests to his resting area under a tree in the middle of the farm. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

“Paglabag ’yun sa karapatang pantao nila, paglabag din ’yun sa mismong programa ng gobyerno sa agrarian reform,” she said, stressing that the according to the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, productive agricultural land cannot just be subject to land conversion.

(This is a violation not only of their human rights, but also of the government’s own agrarian reform program.)

This is why Saka, short for Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo, along with peasant groups such as Unyon ng Manggagawang Agrikultural and Anakpawis, and some volunteers launched “bungkalan,” helping the farmers till the land through sustainable and organic means, as the “highest expression of political assertion of land.”

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Members and volunteers of Saka reap rice stalks for harvest. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

“Napakaliit naman nito ’no. Hindi ito pang-market production. Mas subsistence production siya, for every day needs. Imbes na bumili ka ng pancit canton, puwede kang mag-boil ng okra, mas masustansya pa,” she said, explaining how sustainable and organic urban farming can benefit the immediate community.

(This is just a small piece of land. It’s more of subsistence production than market production for the community’s every day needs. Instead of buying instant noodles, you can just boil a nutritious okra.)

Bungkalan, the Filipino word for tillage, has been the go-to campaign of farmers from different disputed lands in the country, such as Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac and some other haciendas in Negros, to assert their agrarian-reform rights against landlords and other land owners.

Miranda said her group has been told that the Supreme Court already ruled in favor of UP on the issue of land conversion back in 2006. But the ruling, she said, was never served to farmers.

“Ang stand natin ay hangga’t hindi pa ’yan nai-implement, hindi pa siya final dahil din meron pang ibang batas, ibang policies na sumasagka doon. Katulad nu’ng, hindi naman basta-basta maaaring i-convert ang isang agricultural land into another establishment or for another use,” she said.

(Our stand is that, until the ruling is implemented, it is not yet final. There are still policies that prevent it from taking effect. You cannot just convert agricultural lands into establishments or for other use.)

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Angelo Suarez of Saka picks ripe eggplants from the farm’s small vegetable garden, Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

“Dito sa mismong kinatatayuan natin, ang balak dito ay campus extension. Siguro tatayuan ng building, ng bagong campuses, o research facilities,” she said, noting the last “science and technology park” established by UP under the master development, was the UP Technohub, which is now home to business process outsourcing offices.

(This piece of land we’re standing on will be a campus extension. It’s not yet sure whether this will be converted into a new building, new campuses, or research facilities.)

Miranda said bungkalan is an opportunity for the group’s members and those who want to volunteer to learn the process of producing crops from the ground and to understand the hardships faced by agricultural workers in the country.

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The abundant yield in this Quezon City farm is proof that the land is productive and cannot be converted, says Donna Miranda. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

“Napakaliit ng subsidyo sa ating magsasaka, hindi lang magsasaka ng palay kundi pati sa mga magsasaka ng gulay. Ang nagtatakda ng presyo ng pagbili sa kanilang produce ay merkado. Binabarat sila at nagiging effect noon, ’yung consumer nagiging less ’yung access niya sa pagkain,” she said.

(Subsidy for rice and vegetable farmers is very small. The market dictates the price of their produce, which are bought at a very low price. In effect, the consumers have less access to food.)

Bungkalan, she added, is also an opportunity to learn about the fight of Filipino farmers facing land disputes not only in Quezon City but also in the provinces.

Farmers fighting for their rights in the countryside have been met with violence, with the recent one in 3 Negros Oriental towns in March, where 14 farmers were killed in joint operations by the police and military.

Just last year, 9 red-tagged sugarcane farmers in Sagay, Negros Occidental participating in bungkalan were also massacred by unidentified assailants.

Farmers in the UP area may not be experiencing these kinds of violence, but Miranda said they are facing “passive” aggression as developers have already started pouring rocks into some areas facing land conversion.

Asked what he will do once the conversion begins, 61-year-old farmer Toto just shrugged in silence, looking at the towering buildings that backdrop their farmland.

“’Pag wala na, ano magagawa ko?” he sighed. (What else can I do if this land is taken away.)