LIPA CITY, Philippines — Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles has asked President Gloria Macapagal–Arroyo to declare as agricultural the disputed 508-hectare property in Baha and Talibayog villages in Calatagan, Batangas.
“The Church in Lipa bewails the use of mining laws to dispossess the farmers of their legitimate rights to the land they already own as it has been classified earlier and clearly recognized as agricultural,” the bishop said in his April 28 pastoral letter.
Since the time of then Lipa Archbishop Gaudencio Rosales, Arguelles said, the Church has always advocated for respect of the poor’s rights over the lands that they till and supported efforts to preserve the province’s natural beauty.
“Let us pray to God that the authorities, headed by the President, will hear the cry of the poor. The Calatagan farmers are not seeking extraordinary favors. They only ask that their rights be restored and respected,” he added.
Arguelles is supporting the group of farmers who are fighting for their rights to own the 508-hectare contested land in Calatagan, originally owned by the late Ceferino Ascue and awarded to them by the government in the 1970s under Presidential Decree No. 27 and Operation Land Transfer.
Most of them have fully paid their amortizations and have been issued emancipation patents.
In 1994, however, the heirs of Ascue used the original certificate of title and sold the whole 800-hectare property, including the 508 hectares awarded to the farmers, to Asturias Chemical Industries, which plans to build a cement plant complex and industrial park in the area.
Asturias later protested to the Department of Agrarian Reform, claiming that the farmland should not have been distributed to the farmers since it contained minerals, to which the DAR agreed.
On July 28, 2005, the Supreme Court upheld the DAR decision that the 508-hectare property is a “mineral land.”
The farmers claimed that the Supreme Court’s decision was “unfair” since the land was agricultural in nature when the DAR awarded it to them and that no feasibility study had been conducted showing that the area contained minerals and their economic value.
“It is unfortunate that the government, which is supposed to protect the rights of the poor and assist the farmers to become even more productive, appears to connive with business that promises progress with little concern for the total good of the people and for the preservation of nature,” Arguelles said.
On April 29, the day after the bishop issued his statement, the Mines and Geosciences Bureau said it had already issued an order suspending the agreement issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to Asturias.
The announcement was made in a meeting with Task Force Barangays Baha and Talibayog, which consists of representatives from the farmers, church, nongovernment organizations, people’s organizations, DAR, DENR and Calatagan municipal government, in the hope of resolving the decades-long land dispute.
DENR-MGB Director Horacio Ramos signed the order, which temporarily stops the company from undertaking mining exploration activities in Baha and Talibayog in order “to prevent untoward incidents in the locality.”
Earlier in an April 23 statement sent to the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Asturias legal counsel Micaela Rosales said that there was no reason to cancel the MPSA since she claimed that the company had “faithfully complied with its provisions.”