MARAMAG, Bukidnon -- The 36-year-old leader of the Danggawan Landless Farmers Association just came from a meeting in nearby Malaybalay City, excited to tell his fellow farmers the good news.

Roel Panuga wished the red bus he was riding to Barangay Kuya here has a pair of wings that can fly.

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At the meeting in Malaybalay City, officials of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) told Panuga they have rejected the final legal impediment over the 100-hectare Ocaya ranch owned by the late Bukidnon governor Timoteo Ocaya in Barangay Kuya.

Felix Aguhob of DAR Northern Mindanao said the remaining 50 hectares will be awarded to farmers as soon as DAR finished scrutinizing the list of beneficiaries.

DAR had already awarded Certificates of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) to 16 beneficiaries covering the 45 hectares of the Ocaya ranch last April.

“The decision took so long but I am glad it is over. We waited for so many years for this,” Panuga said.

At a small clearing beside a green field of corn at the ranch, Panuga announced their victory to his fellow farmers.

Before the bulldozers could plow the earth, a hundred farmers swooped into the ranch last July 24, setting up tents and streamers, telling Del Monte Philippines that the DAR have already declared the Ocaya ranch covered under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

“We have to protect what is our land. If DAR had not yet decided on our claim to the land, then nobody should touch it. That would be fair for all parties,” Panuga said.

Del Monte pulled back their equipment, especially after DAR informed them in a letter last July 26 that the ranch was about to be distributed to CARP beneficiaries after the free patent applications of former landowner Charise

Beltran was rejected.

“Our office is (still) in the process of screening and identifying potential beneficiaries. You are not supposed to deal with anybody except for the DAR,” Engr. Norberto Paquingan told Del Monte officials.

The farmers have welcomed the order but vowed to remain vigilant and continue their occupation of the Ocaya ranch.

“We must remain strong and united. It will be a matter of days and we shall own this land,” Panuga told the farmers.

Last July 30, unidentified armed men fired at the farmers as they slept inside the blue tents at the edge of the cornfield. No one was hurt.

Security guards of the Ocaya ranch and Del Monte Philippines said they were not responsible for the shooting.

The incident at the Ocaya ranch is the latest flashpoint in the land-locked province of Bukidnon whose 829,378 hectares of land are mostly cultivated by corporations and rich landowners.

Agrarian reform is a simmering social issue between the haves and the have-nots in the province.

Records at the DAR Northern Mindanao showed that more than 5,000 hectares cultivated by corporations and rich landowners are covered under CARP.

The DAR’s list includes lands owned or cultivated by Bukidnon’s veritable collection of families and corporations that have links to several of the country’s elite.

These are landholdings of the family of Senator Teofisto Guingona III in Barangay Dalwangan, Malaybalay City; Puyat Farm in Barangays Kulasihan and Bantuanon in Malaybalay City; the Mandac Farm in Barangay Dalwangan, Malaybalay City; the Montenegro Farm in Barangay Kalasungay, also in Malaybalay City; the Lavina Estate in Barangay Tugaya, Valencia City; the Sawaga Farming Corporation in Barangay Kalasungay in Malaybalay City; and various landholdings of former

Bukidnon Governor Carlos Fortich.

Also in the DAR list are the estate of the Tans and Neri in Barangay San Jose, Malaybalay City; the Ramcar ranch of Ernesto Agustines in Barangay Lupiagan, Sumilao town; the CD Ranch covering 232 hectares in Barangays Mantibugao and Minsuro in Manolo Fortich town; the Carlos Gamboa farm in Barangay Lilingayon, Valencia City; the Jose Yulo Estate in Barangay Laligan, Valencia City; and the Villarosa Estate also in Barangay Laligan, Valencia City.

The 2,218 hectares military reservation area covering four barangays in Quezon town, is also in the DAR list.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines planned to use the reservation area once Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro city will be sold to commercial investors.

Aside from the Ocaya ranch, the farmers were also successful in acquiring lands from San Miguel Corporation in Sumilao town and the CD ranch in Manolo Fortich town.

But the triumphs of the farmers are few and sometimes, their struggle turned bloody as landowners put up stiff legal battles or employ security guard to thwart any attempt to take over the lands.

Last August 3, armed men attacked a group of farmers occupying a ranch owned by the late Roberto Montalvan in Maramag town in Bukidnon, wounding two.

The attack raised the issue of land reform in Bukidnon into a new level.

“It is natural that the level of resistance will escalate as the farmers try to own the land. Many of these properties are owned by families who are pioneers to this province. They have worked hard to develop these lands,” said DAR Assistant Regional Director Nicanor Peralta.

“Unfortunately, their large landholdings are covered under the extended Carp. The law is blind whether they are pioneers or not,” Peralta added.

Peralta said although he believed that many of the landowners are resigned to the fact that they could no longer hold on to their lands, there is resistance.

“The land owners are reluctant to let go of their lands because of the low prices,” he said.

Agrarian Reform is a key social justice issue when democracy was restored in 1986. The late President Corazon signed in 1988 the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (Carl) as the centerpiece of her administration. The program ended in June 2008.

On August 7, 2009, former President Gloria Arroyo signed Republic Act 9700 or Carper extending the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program for another five years.

Critics said the original Carp was a “complete failure” due to underfunding in Congress, lack of commitment on the executive department, and the delaying tactics of the landowners.

“Agrarian reform does not end in the acquisition and distribution of land to the farmers. The farmers need financial and technical support after that. Otherwise, it will become another vicious cycle,” said Abel Nayal, a community organizer of Task Force Mapalad, a non-government organization helping the farmers.

Nayal said farmer beneficiaries, who are not given financial and technical support, will be forced to sell their lands to survive.

Last August 3, the family of President Benigno Aquino III announced they have reached a settlement with farmers in its 6,500-hectare plantation. The deal will give 10,502 farmer beneficiaries of Hacienda Luisita the option to retain shares of stocks in the corporation or acquire parcels of land from a portion of the 6,500-hectare plantation.

But this kind of settlement is disadvantageous to the farmers as what happened to the Del Monte plantation workers who became Carp beneficiaries in 1998.

More than 20,000 hectares of land in Bukidnon that was intended for distribution for the workers were given to a cooperative called Del Monte Employee ARBs Coop Inc. (DEARBCI), who managed the land for the beneficiaries.

The workers were issued Certificates of Land Ownership Awards but were not allowed to till their lands, thus losing their individual rights.

The DEARBCI then entered into a joint venture with Del Monte to plant pineapples in the land owned by the Carp beneficiaries.

“This is a classic case of a dummy coop. Del Monte did not lose any of their land and the Coop leaders profited by the joint venture,” Nayal said.

According to Task Force Mapalad, Del Monte gradually retrenched the workers in 2000 until 2008.

The NGO said retrenched workers who were Carp beneficiaries received P25,000 of their share annually from the coop or P2,003 a month.

“It’s an income that is below the poverty threshold. Worse, Del Monte and the

Coop do not recognized the rights of these workers to their land,” Nayal said.

He said the removal of the beneficiaries from DEARBCI should not be construed as a waiver to their individual rights to the lands.

“They still deserve that piece of land that was awarded to them,” Nayal said.

The Philippines is an agricultural country. Of its 30 million hectares, 47 percent is being used for agriculture.

Unlike South Korea and Taiwan, DAR was able to distribute only 80 percent or 4.1 million hectares of land out of the 5.1 million hectares for distribution at the end of 2008.

South Korea and Taiwan’s comprehensive agrarian reform lead to the abolition of landlordism in these countries and successful industrialization. (Froilan Gallardo)