A Needless Wait

The farmers of Hacienda Velez-Malaga are still in the fight for their future

The Decquios, like most farmers in the country, are used to waiting. Mario, 39 and wife Linde, 48 have been waiting for the court to junk former landlord Roberto Cuenca’s appeal against distributing the rest of Hacienda Velez-Malaga to its 122 beneficiaries.

Their patience betrays the turmoil that marked these farmers’ cause. Cuenca has used the courts to defy a government order to turn over a quarter of the 455-hectare land in La Castellana, Negros Occidental. Meanwhile, his private army used bullets. The Decquios, with other families, stood their ground and lived in nearby foxholes they dug up themselves to hide.

There was no peace, no order, he says in Filipino. We were harassed by Cuenca’s goons. They’d throw rocks at us and shoot at our homes. Their 16-year-old daughter, Jiolyn wondered why she and her sister Joella, 11 had to stop going to school. It wasn’t easy to explain, says Linde. All our four children, especially the younger ones, didn’t feel secure. It was a hard life for them, and it hurt to put them at risk. But we’re fighting now, because this is for their future.

A month after one of the farmers, 60-year-old Pepito Santillan was shot and killed in January 2007, she joined 22 others who shaved their heads and staged a hunger strike in front of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) office in Quezon City. DAR secretary Nasser Pangandaman, accompanied by police and army escorts, then installed 57 of them in Velez-Malaga. This, 11 years after the notice of land coverage was first issued to Cuenca on August 22, 1996.

It shouldn’t have taken this long. But flawed provisions in the current Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) have allowed Cuenca and other landowners to force legal deadlocks to stall land distribution. Illegal conversion, leasebacks, farmland as collateral or FAC are just some of them. With FAC, the government practically gives up its obligation to provide support services to beneficiaries and invest in rural areas, says lawyer Aison Garcia of the nongovernmental organization, Sentro ng Aternatibong Lingap Panligal (SALIGAN). House representative Junie Cua filed a bill to extend the program.

Garcia is hoping that Congress will pass House Bill 1257, sponsored by Akbayan party-list representative Rissa Hontiveros-Baraquel, instead. The bill, drafted by his organization with representatives of farmer-organizations, aims to scrap the said provisions and strengthen support services after land acquisition and distribution.

Otherwise the farmers’ unwarranted struggle for something that is actually owed them continues. But the Decquios are still in the fight. We were given some of the land and we’re still unable to cultivate it, says Linde. But we don’t stop with our follow-ups in the courts. It’s been 11 years but we’re ready to wait some more.

The land is ours, adds Mario. It is also for our children.

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