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North Cotabato farmers decry killings, harassment over land dispute

The murder of farmers’ group leader Wilerme Dorado Agorde in front of his grandchildren in February further fuels suspicion that farmers locked in a land dispute with a state university are being ‘silenced’

FARMER-LEADER, CATHOLIC LAY WORKER. A photo of Wilerme Dorado Agorde is placed on his front door during his wake. Photo courtesy of Father Edwin Gariguez

MANILA, Philippines – Celio Carmelo, the 62-year-old leader of more than 2,000 peasants in North Cotabato, arrived at the Manila airport in early March for a meeting that he hoped would give relief to farmers in his province.

He wore shoes for the important meeting, though he continously complained about them that day. “I’m not used to wearing this,” he said to his companion, Father Lambert Pragados, the social action director of the Diocese of Kidapawan.

Father Edwin Gariguez, executive secretary of the National Secretariat for Social Action (Caritas Philippines) of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines fetched them at the airport. Inside the van, Carmelo reiterated his discomfort from wearing shoes, which apparently mirrored his apprehension about the meeting that was set to happen later that day.

“I am not used to this kind of meeting,” he said. But the worsening situation of farmers in his province motivated Carmelo to endure the agony of the unfamiliar.

They arrived at the Caritas Philippines office in Intramuros to find other farmers from the Diocese of Jaro, Iloilo, already there. Like Carmelo, these farmers were not used to talking with senior government officials.

The meeting, Gariguez was overheard telling a reporter on the phone, was supposed to be with Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, former Anakpawis representative and chairman of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas. The head of Caritas Philippines told the reporter that the farmers would bring up the issues of a “decades-old land dispute” with a state university in Mindanao, and the "brutal killing of a lay worker" of the diocese’s social action center (DSAC).

Death and intimidation

Mariano was not in his office when the group arrived at the Department of Agrarian Reform, but two DAR lawyers received the group. Carmelo’s concern about his shoes was replaced with nervousness when he started talking to lawyer Jobert Pahilga, technical consultant to Mariano.

Carmelo gave details of the murder of Wilerme Dorado Agorde, a 64-year-old farmer and the project coordinator of the agrarian reform program of Caritas Philippines in Diocese of Kidapawan.

Carmelo said he received a call from Agorde’s son at around 9 pm on February 19, when the farmer became suspicious of a group of men in the village. He saw them after attending Sunday mass.

Agorde reported the incident to the village chief. He was advised to confine himself inside his house and secure his family while village authorities investigate the matter.

It was already nightfall when he reached his home in Barangay Ilustre, President Roxas town in North Cotabato. His family ran a store selling animal feed in front of the house. His two grandchildren were watching TV inside the store when he arrived, while his son was feeding their pigs in the backyard.

A man went to the store and said he wanted to buy feeds. Agorde went to the store to tend to the customer. While preparing the man’s purchase, 3 men emerged and attacked him from behind.

Agorde’s grandchildren, 4 and 6, witnessed the brutal killing. The suspects stabbed him, and then shot him.

The assailants walked away as Agorde’s son rushed to him. “I was caught unprepared,” his son recalled his father telling him as he gasped for breath. Agorde was declared dead on arrival at the hospital.

Agorde was not the only "target of the execution," Carmelo claimed. Days before the murder, "suspicious unfamiliar faces” followed Carmelo and other peasant leaders while attending a wedding celebration, but villagers alerted the leaders and kept them in a safe place.

Agorde was the auditor of peasant group MAILUMINADO, which Carmelo heads. “As early as last year, we received death threats and intimidation,” Carmelo said.

Decades-old dispute

Pahilga looked disappointed after hearing Carmelo’s narration, but all he can do was to listen to the farmer. The hands of the DAR are tied on the killing of Agorde because it is a police matter, but DAR officials can do something about the land dispute, which farmers believed to be the motive for the killing.

CONCERN. Farmer leader Celio Carmelo and Father Edwin Gariguez, Caritas Philippines executive secretary, during the dialogue with agrarian reform officials. Photo by Mark Z. Saludes/Rappler

But even if the DAR wanted to immediately award the land to the farmers, legal remedies are still available to the landowners. In addition, a state-run university was involved.

Carmelo said they believed that the series of harassment against leaders and members of the peasant group stemmed from their claim to more than 5,000 hectares of agricultural land against the University of Southern Mindanao (USM). “It is their way to silence us,” he alleged.

On June 20, 1952, President Elpidio Quirino signed Republic Act Number 763, creating the Mindanao Institute of Technology, later renamed the University of Southern Mindanao. Its main campus spanned 1,000 hectares in Kabacan town.

After 5 years, President Carlos P Garcia issued a presidential proclamation allotting 7,200 more hectares as a reservation area for USM.

The reservation, located in President Roxas and Arakan towns, is 67.5 kilometers away from the USM main campus in Kabacan.

Prior to the proclamation, it was already inhabited by indigenous people, Muslims, and pioneer Christian settlers. Its fertile soil, bountiful resources, and good climate drew farmers to the area.

Carmelo’s father was one of the first inhabitants of the reserve who opposed the proclamation. “Although it was clear to them that it is a public land, they were already tilling the land even before the creation of the school,” said Carmelo.

According to an agrarian reform document obtained by ucanews.com, only 1,140 hectares of the total 5,018 hectares of the USM reservation area are being used. At least 3,800 hectares are "no longer actually, directly, and exclusively used or necessary for the purpose for which it had been reserved."

Under Philippine laws, if government reserved lands are "no longer used or necessary for the purpose for which it was reserved," and it is "suitable for agriculture," the DAR has the mandate to "acquire and distribute to qualified beneficiaries under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program."

After negotiations between DAR and the school, all parties agreed to initiate “a transfer of the unutilized portion for distribution” to farmer-occupants.

Despite this agreement, from 1992 to the present, USM has refused to sign the Deed of Transfer for the reasons that the "authority to sign the deed was not delegated by the school’s board of regents," and a condition that "affected farmers on the retained area of 1,000 hectares should be relocated."

In March 2012, the Department of Justice issued an opinion that "if there is no legal impediment that can prevent" USM, its landholdings should be transferred to DAR.

In December 2016, the farmers staged a two-week protest to seek the "immediate transfer" of the landholdings. They also condemned the plan "to use the land for a rubber nursery and a processing plant."

Church involvement

Before he was killed, Agorde was the coordinator of Caritas Philippines in implementing its program, “Empowering Farming Communities through Advocacy on Agrarian Reform, Social Enterprise, and Practice of Sustainable Agriculture."

Gariguez said the primary purpose of the program is to "help farmers in titling their lands, which are under the agrarian reform program of the government."

"Lobbying and dialogue to concerned agencies and parties are just among the many ways to aid poor farmers voice their interests," said the priest.

Agorde was instrumental in consolidating the farmers and documenting necessary information that would help organize and systematize their appeal.

"But it was not his only job," noted Pragados. The priest said that the farmer was assigned to "administer a small social enterprise" like a communal rice outlet that would help farmers sell their produce, and provide affordable rice to the community.

The SAC also led the farmers in starting “a diversified and integrated organic farming" and other alternative sources of livelihood such as livestock, poultry, and other farming-related ventures.

"It is imperative that the Church is always at the side of the poor. We are here to empower them and give them options, while we assist them in pursuit of social justice," said Pragados.

The priest said that the farmers’ continuing struggle to protect their land rights “have invited triggering factors” for harassment and human rights violations.

“The Church cannot just sit and pretend that everything is fine. As much as possible, we want to mediate between the parties with conflict, but it doesn’t mean that we will abandon the poor farmers in their struggle,” he added.

DAR’s commitment

DIALOGUE. Dialogue between the farmers and the Department of Agrarian Reform in Quezon City. Photo by Mark Saludes/Rappler

DAR’s Pahilga vowed to expedite the process and hold another dialogue with the landowners.

“But the secretary is firm with the department’s mandate. Agrarian reform is not arbitrary and capricious,” said the lawyer.

In a position statement, Mariano said, “We remain steadfast that the subject landholdings herein be awarded to the farmers who are actually and directly cultivating them.”

Carmelo flew back to Mindanao the next morning. The farmer hopes that the situation will not escalate further. "But I am ready to do whatever it takes…until we get what is rightfully ours," he said.

The peasant leader promised to exert all means to reach their goal, even if it means wearing his shoes again or selling his farm animal to buy an assault rifle. – Rappler.com