by JOHN MILTON LOZANDE
An errant signpost interrupts the stretch of sugarcane fields in Butong, Quezon, Bukidnon in Mindanao, which is only a few kilometers away from the imposing facade of the Bukidnon Sugar Company, Inc. or Busco, one of the biggest sugar mills in the country.
In other such haciendas, sugar workers call this interlude the tiempo muerto. It is dead season, and the bare quiet along the endless dirtroad seems to be the nagging hunger of farmworkers as they wait for the cane to grow. This painful lull of idleness will be broken by their hard toil when harvest time finally comes along.
Fifteen years after a collective land reform certificate was awarded to sugarcane farmworkers in Hacienda Carmen through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), the so-called beneficiaries are still slaving away as tapaseros or cane cutters. They are barred from cultivating their own land and growing their own food.
The area marked with a “NO TRESPASSING” signpost is now a barren field stretching a few hundred hectares towards the massive mountain ranges of Bukidnon. The former sugarcane hacienda is now claimed by a corporate agricultural plantation.
The land is reserved for pineapples.
In an interview with UMA, Mang Arnel, one of the original Hacienda Carmen agrarian reform beneficiaries, says theirs is a long and painful story. But for the thousands of farmworkers toiling in sugarcane estates such as Hacienda Luisita, Hacienda Roxas or in the sugarland Negros, this anguished narrative is all too familiar.
Bogus Land Reform
In February 2000, 52 out of the total 130 farmworkers in Hacienda Carmen were initially awarded a 288-hectare parcel through a collective Certificate of Land Ownership Award or mother CLOA.
The beneficiaries were eventually organized by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) as the South East Sugar Workers Multi-Purpose Cooperative (SESWMPC) where non-government organizations and so-called development groups closely linked with government agencies have brokered agricultural projects using land reform funds. The SESWMPC held the collective certificate for 319.47 hectares. If distributed, each beneficiary would hold 2.19 hectares of land.
The Hacienda Carmen sugarcane estate was assessed by the DAR and the Land Bank to have a market value so high each beneficiary would be obliged to pay the government almost a million pesos for their individual parcel. Under the CARP, the government must pay “just compensation” to the landlords which will eventually be sourced from amortization payments of beneficiaries. Amortization must be completed for a period of 30 years before beneficiaries could finally own the parcels of land awarded through land reform.
Farmers lament that these obligations are utterly inappropriate without adequate government support for their agricultural production. Each beneficiary was compelled to pay the Land Bank a yearly amortization of Php 27,813. After only three years of bad harvests and debt traps, it was estimated that 99% of the beneficiaries in Hacienda Carmen cannot fulfill these heavy payments.
Without any assistance from the government or its patently bogus land reform program, some of the beneficiaries were compelled to pawn their lands. Wealthy landlords and sugar planters saw the hapless and impoverished beneficiaries as easy prey. By 2003, beneficiaries were coerced to enter into lease agreements where they were paid Php 5,000 per hectare per year – an amount that Mang Arnel claims is not even enough to cover their yearly amortization obligations.
By 2008, the annual rent went as high as Php 15,000 per hectare. But as the sugar planters dictated the terms of these lease agreements, the supposed land reform beneficiaries have totally lost effective control over their awarded parcels.
At first, the beneficiaries were hired as farmhands in their own land until eventually, the sugar planters hauled in their own people to do work for cheaper wages. Before long, some of the beneficiaries were duped to sell their lands to unscrupulous buyers evading CARP restrictions through dubious waivers.
By 2012, the Land Bank and the DAR warned beneficiaries that the awarded land reform certificate will soon be cancelled because of their failure to pay amortization. By this time, the empty threat mouthed by these insincere and irresponsible government institutions was just like rubbing salt on their open wounds.
The shady deals forged by sugar planters with individual beneficiaries have now allowed the entry of giant agribusiness firms. According to Mang Arnel, wealthy sugar planters with the collusion of local government officials have entered Hacienda Carmen through a 15-year contract with DAVCO, without the knowledge of residents and land reform beneficiaries in the area.
The Davao Agri-Ventures Corporation, Inc. or DAVCO, a firm established by the late agribusiness mogul Antonio Floirendo Sr. and now headed by his son, Antonio Floirendo Jr., is notorious for encroaching into peasant and lumad or indigenous peoples’ communities in Bukidnon as part of its aggressive and seemingly uninterrupted expansion thrust.
Originally engaged in fresh banana production, the Floriendos own the Tagum Development Corporation or TADECO which controls vast banana plantations with complete processing facilities in Davao del Norte. Since then, the corporation has ventured into several businesses including pineapple production. With its enterprise with global fruit giant Del Monte, DAVCO exports an average of at least 8.5 million boxes of Del Monte gold pineapples per year, sold to trading partners in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, the Middle East and New Zealand.
Since last year, Hacienda Carmen land reform beneficiaries with support from advocates and peasant groups such as Kahugpungan sa mga Mag-uuma (Farmers Association) or Kasama-Bukidnon, affiliated with the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and the Organisasyon sa Yanong Obrerong Nagkahiusa (Organization of United Farmworkers) or Ogyon, UMA’s local affiliate in Bukidnon province, barricaded the area from DAVCO and embarked on a land cultivation initiative to produce food for the community such as corn, peanuts, cassava and other root crops.
Farmers set up and manned the barricades unfazed. Even while engaged in production, farmers were constantly threatened and harassed by armed goons employed by DAVCO.
Earlier this year, after two successful harvests by the farmers, the company’s bulldozers rolled in into their plots and completely destroyed their precious food crops.
The DAR Adjudication Board has finally intervened – but in favor of the pineapple plantation. Charges were slapped against farmers, barring them from their own land as bitterly prompted by the menacing “NO TRESPASSING” signpost.
This kind of violence – spawned by bogus land reform and impunity – is planting hunger among the country’s food producers.
JOHN MILTON LOZANDE is the acting chairperson of the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura or UMA. He is also the secretary general of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) based in Negros Island.
UMA, KMP, the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), and the national office and Northern Mindanao chapter of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), will spearhead the formation of a national action network resisting the expansion of agricultural plantations in Mindanao.
The formation to be called REAP Mindanao Network will be launched during the National Conference on Mindanao Plantations on October 28, 9:00 am at the UP College of Education Auditorium in Diliman, Quezon City. The conference, which is part of activities of the island-wide protest caravan Manilakbayan ng Mindanao 2015, is open to the public.