By Arnell Ozaeta
Wednesday, April 23, 2008 / Philippine Star
BATANGAS CITY – Sixty agrarian reform beneficiaries from Calatagan, Batangas began their march to Metro Manila last Monday to protest a government decision reclassifying an agricultural land into a mining area.
On their website, Uper Aleroza, national chairman of the Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, said they would oppose any government move to allow a private company to excavate limestone, a mineral used in the production of cement, in their farmlands.
“We strongly oppose the reversal of agrarian reform in Barangays Baha and Talibayog in Calatagan. It is unjust to dispossess the farmers of Baha and Talibayog of the land that was rightfully transferred to them 10 years ago to give way to mining,” Aleroza said.
The disputed land, formerly owned by Ceferino Ascue, consists of 507.87 hectares reportedly planted to rice and corn.
Two years after the enactment of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law in 1990, the Ascue property was distributed to 318 tenants under the Operation Land Transfer (OLT) of the Marcos land reform law – Presidential Decree No. 27. A total of 818 emancipation patents were distributed to the agrarian reform beneficiaries.
In 1995, Ascue’s heirs sold the property to ACII Chemical Industries Inc., which, in turn, questioned the legality of the distribution of the land to farmers under PD 27.
ACII claimed that the distribution was erroneous because the land was allegedly never planted to rice and corn and the former landowner did not recognize any tenancy arrangement.
In July 1997, ACII was able to obtain from the DENR a mineral production sharing agreement (MPSA) and an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) covering 2,336.8 hectares, including the land in question. This became the company’s basis to claim that the land was already classified as mineral land.
In response to ACII’s protest, the provincial agrarian reform officer created Task Force Baha to verify the company’s claims.
After an ocular inspection, the task force reported that there were alleged procedural lapses in the land’s coverage under Operation Land Transfer; a portion of the OLT-covered area was planted to sugar cane; and the landowner supposedly did not recognize the tenancy rights of the farmers.
Later, a validating team by the DAR-Region 4 office said it could not be established “beyond reasonable doubt” that the property was planted to palay or corn and tenanted.
The team recommended that the OLT coverage of the land and the 818 emancipation patents granted to the farmers be nullified.
On Aug. 4, 2000, the DAR, through Undersecretary for Operations Conrado Navarro, sustained ACII’s protest and nullified the land’s coverage under OLT.
Navarro said the land was not primarily devoted to rice or corn production; the tenancy relations were “not clearly established”; and that the land long ceased to be agricultural as it was “mineralized.”
Aleroza said the government should be serious in its implementation of the land conversion ban in the face of a food crisis.
“Our march from Calatagan to Manila is our assertion of the rights of the farmers as agrarian reform beneficiaries and as our assertion of our role as producers of food,” he said.
The Calatagan farmers, who dubbed their march as Lakbay-Kalampag Para sa Lupang Sakahan, Hindi Minahan, are expected to arrive in Manila on April 27.
They intend to hold protest actions at the Senate, DAR and Department of Environment and Natural Resources and attend a hearing of the House committee on agrarian reform on House Bill 1257 that seeks to extend CARP.
Last December, some 40 Calatagan farmers joined their fellow farmers from Sumilao, Bukidnon in the final leg of the latter’s 1,700-kilometer walk from Bukidnon to Manila.
This time, the Sumilao farmers are joining the Calatagan folk in their march as a gesture of gratitude.
“We were touched by the show of solidarity of the Calatagan farmers during our walk last year. They sacrificed with us and inspired us during the time when we were almost overcome by fatigue. During their five-day walk with us, we exchanged experiences and we came to know their problems,” said Napoleon Merida Jr., a spokesman of the Sumilao farmers.
Since winning back a 144-hectare land in a settlement agreement with San Miguel Corp. last March 28, the Sumilao farmers have continued their advocacy for agrarian reform.
“We support the Calatagan farmers because we believe that they are rightful beneficiaries of the land that they till. They are victims of the twisting of the law to favor the interests of the rich,” said lawyer Arlene Bag-ao, legal counsel of the Sumilao farmers.