BAHA-TALIBAYOG: Tales of Injustices, Food Insecurity and Environmental Danger
Silvino Cudiamat, a 67 year old farmer from Baha in Calatagan, Batangas thought that he had already achieved his lifelong dream of owning the piece of land that he had worked for since he was 16 years old. Tatay Ben was a tenant for 11 years before he became a beneficiary of the land reform program. He became one of the 323 beneficiaries of the land reform program under PD 27.
Today, Tatay Ben’s lifelong dream is about to be shattered into pieces. He and his fellow agrarian reform beneficiaries of the land formerly owned by Ceferino Ascue have been involved in a land controversy since 1995. Biased government agencies and a legal system that favors the rich have bended the law to favor the interests of the rich, leaving the likes of Tatay Ben in danger of losing the land that they depend on so much to live decent lives.
The land in this controversy was formerly owned by Ceferino Ascue. The 507.87 hectare property was planted to rice and corn. The residents of barangays Baha and Talibayog were tenants to the land.
In 1990, two years after the enactment of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, the property was distributed to the tenants. Being a tenanted rice and corn land, the 507-hectare Ascue property was distributed to 318 tenant farmers under the Operation Land Transfer of the Marcos land reform law - Presidential Decree No. 27. A total of 818 Emancipation Patents were distributed to the agrarian reform beneficiaries.
For the next 10 years, the agrarian reform beneficiaries peacefully tilled the land and, given a new lease to improve their lives, cultivated the land according to their own plans and dreams. Some remained rice and corn farmers, others preferred to grow vegetables and a variety of other crops. Within those years they were able to fully pay the land amortizations to the government.
Neither the ten long years of peaceful possession nor the fact that they have fully paid the land amortizations kept the farmers safe from the threat of losing what has become justly and rightfully theirs.
Seeds of Injustice
In 1995, the heirs of Ceferino Ascue sold the property to Asturias Industries. They conveniently ignored the fact that the land was no longer theirs and were aided by the fact that the Register of Deeds of Batangas mysteriously failed to annotate the distribution of that the land in the land title. The attack on the gains of social justice began as soon as the questionable sale was consummated.
In July 1997, Asturias Industries was able to obtain from the DENR a Mineral Production Sharing Agreement (MPSA) and an Environmental Compliance Certificate (ECC) covering 2,336.8 hectare including the land in question. This became their basis to claim that the land was already classified as mineral land.
Asturias Industries began the intensification of legal maneuvers to jeopardize the ownership of the farmers of the land by questioning the distribution of the land under PD27. They claimed that it was erroneously distributed since the land was never planted to rice and corn and the former land owner did not recognize any tenancy arrangements.
Bending the facts and the law against the farmers
In response to the protest of Asturias Industries, the Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer (PARO) of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) created Task Force Baha to verify the claims of mining company. An ocular inspection was conducted and TF Baha reported that "(1) procedural lapses attended the OLT coverage; (2)significant portions of the OLT-covered area were planted to sugar cane; and (3) the landowner did not recognize tenancy relations with the ARBs."
A validating team was deployed by the DAR Region IV Office and they reported that "it cannot be established beyond reasonable doubt that the property is planted to palay or corn and tenanted." The team went on to recommend based on their findings the nullification of the coverage of the land under OLT and 818 emancipation Patents the DAR issued to the agrarian reform beneficiaries.
In August 4, 2000, the DAR through USEC for Operations Conrado S. Navarro sustained the protest of ASTURIAS INDUSTRIES and nullified the coverage of the land under OLT. Navarro cited that his judgment was based on the premises that (1) the landholding was not primarily devoted to the production of rice or corn; (2) the tenancy relations was not clearly established and (3) the land long ceased to be agricultural as it is "mineralized."
Just mere 10 years after the DAR distributed the land to the farmers, it already danced to a different song - the one that Asturias Industries is playing. They did not even consider that their ocular inspection was 10 years too late and there have been changes in crops within the 10 year period. They did not even consider that landowners when faced with agrarian reform always deny having tenants. They even dug up a 1965 Bureau of Mines study to justify their claim that the land was "mineralized" and therefore ceased to be agricultural a long time ago.
The Department of Agrarian Reform became instrumental in twisting the facts and the law in laying the legal groundwork for undoing agrarian reform that it is mandated to implement, promote and defend. DAR’s arguments became the strongest legal arguments for ASTURIAS INDUSTRIES when the case was brought to the Office of the President, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court on appeal.
In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled against Tatay Ben and his fellow Calatagan farmer beneficiaries and upheld the decision of the DAR stating that: (1) the disputed land was erroneously covered by PD 27; (2) the land was "mineralized" based on the DAR decision, the 1965 Bureau of Mines study and DENR’s issuance of an MPSA and ECC to Asturias Industries; and (the cancellation of the Emancipation Patents issued to the farmers shall be a separate proceeding under the authority of the Department of Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board (DARAB).
The decisions of the different government institutions in the Baha-Talibayog case has serious implications to agrarian reform. These decisions have far-reaching implications.
Based on the case, the development and promotion of the mining industry has greater priority over social justice, agrarian reform and agricultural development;
Lands can be classified as mineral by a mere study by the Bureau of Mines previous to P.D. 27 and R.A. 6657, it is found that "ample" reserves of mineral resources are found in the area even if there is no positive act from the executive or the legislature;
Agricultural lands can now become mineral lands not by executive act but through any mining agreement executed by the DENR and a private person covering such agricultural land under the mining act;
Local government units within their territorial jurisdiction can change the classification of an agricultural land to other uses by a mere passage of a Zoning ordinance.
From Beneficiaries of Social Justice to Victims of Injustice
As agrarian reform beneficiaries, the Calatagan farmers were given new hope to improve their lives and become productive members of their community. They have developed the land that was distributed to them and made them productive. They have faithfully paid their land amortizations until it was fully paid. They are even faithful taxpayers to their local government.
With the exception of the actual cancellation of the Emancipation Patents issued to the Calatagan farmers in Baha and Talibayog, the reversal of agrarian reform and the turnaround in social justice has reached the highest level of our government system. All these favored the rich despite the strength of the claim and ownership of the Calatagan farmers of the land.
Where will the farmers turn when:
the Department of Agrarian Reform who is tasked to enforce the implementation of agrarian reform, on the basis of a mere study of the Bureau of Mines and an ocular inspection that is 10 years too late has decided to nullify the coverage of the land that awarded them the lands they now own?
the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) who is tasked to protect the environment has prioritized mining over food production and has given more weight to the claims of ASTURIAS INDUSTRIES rather than the rights of agrarian reform beneficiaries?
the Office of the President who holds the highest executive power of the country has chosen to side uphold the convoluted and distorted decision of the DAR?
the Supreme Court, the highest interpreter of laws of the land, has chosen to interpret the laws according to the myopic, distorted and biased view of the Department of Agrarian Reform?
Protest Walk: Lakbay-Kalampag para sa Lupang Sakahan, Hindi Minahan
Last December 2007, the farmers of Calatagan walked in solidarity with the Sumilao Farmers. From San Pedro in Laguna to the gates of Malacañang, 36 Calatagan farmers walked side by side with the Sumilao farmers.
On April 21, 2008, the agrarian reform beneficiaries from the communities of Baha and Talibayog in Calatagan, will embark on a journey on foot from their homes to the seat of power in Metro Manila to make their voices heard. The government that gave them hope through agrarian reform has betrayed them and they are making this sacrifice to magnify the injustices committed against them.
Their 300-kilometer walk which will begin in the town Calatagan is dedicated bare the injustices being committed against the farmers of Calatagan in favor of the mining interests of Asturias Industries. Through this walk, the farmers of Calatagan are calling for the revocation of the Mineral Production Share Agreement (MPSA) issued by the DENR to Asturias Industries. Their walk is their assertion of their rights as owner-cultivators of the land.