seeing is believing episode 1: autumn 2002 episode .
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Manobo tribe members in the "land of the dying"
by Joey R.B. Lozano Mindanao Bureau Correspondent Philippine Daily Inquirer
DON CARLOS, Bukidnon, November 14, 2001
Land reform area turned 'killing fields'?
This town, together with adjacent Maramag, hosts Bukidnon's biggest private land declared by the government as a land reform area: a total of 2,697 hectares out of approximately 4,086 hectares.
Classified as flat and undulating to rolling terrain, the place used to be the Bukidnon Farms, Inc. owned by Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, a crony of the deposed dictator Ferdinand E.Marcos and said to be one of the major financers of the candidacy of the recently ousted president Joseph "Erap" Estrada.
The area used to teem with various crops - coconuts, cacao and rice. There also was a tree plantation. Sequestered by the government after Corazon Aquino assumed power in 1986, the land was ordered for distribution to qualified beneficiaries in 1988.
Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer Engr. Julio C. Celestiano, Jr. said there was enough land for distribution to local residents under the guidelines set forth by the Department of Agrarian Reform. First priority was to be given to BFI farmworkers at the time of the sequestration. An area of 3 hectares is allocated each. Second priority, which entitles the beneficiary one hectare, are landless residents of the barangay where the land reform area is located. Other landless residents from the municipality are third priority.
There were approximately 400 employees at that time, says Leonardo Rubas who was once the manager of BFI, or "Cojuangco", as the area is now more popularly referred to.
Certificates of Land Ownership Awards gone awry
Municipal Agrarian Reform Officer Tarcisio Mapalo adds that 3 collective certificate of land ownership awards (CLOAs) had been designated to the three titles covered by the Cojuangco property. One had been converted and issued to 379 individual CLOAs amounting to 375.4 out of the 2,697 hectares, or an average of slightly more than a hectare per beneficiary.
As other CLOAs to cover the rest have yet to be issued to those qualified, the occupancy rate based on those already awarded is only 13.6 percent. But a visit into the place reveals a totally different picture. The entire area is practically fully occupied. Except for a few irrigated paddies and corn land which are the common preference of the formerly landless, the rest is filled with contiguous sugar plantations. Ang tubo para lang yan sa mga mayaman, malaki ang gastos, (Maintaining a sugar plantation is only for the rich, it's too expensive) said Cedric Yamba, one of those maintaining a plantation in the Cojuangco area.
Guns and goons for land occupation
How the Cojuangco estate had become a vast sugar plantation with only a handful of qualified beneficiaries speaks of another reality: the use of guns and goons for land occupation and to subvert land reform programs. Hence, the sugar plantation- dominated area, too, may be Bukidnon's own version of "killing fields". Rubas gives a low estimate of 100 already killed in the area since the sequestration date to the present. Others triple the figure. "Kanya -kanyang libing, gantihan, walang sumbungan," (each contending party bury its own dead, take revenge, keep the incidents to themselves), said a source who is privy with the area.
Only last month (October 13), two Manobo leaders were killed in an early morning ambush along a trail within the sugar cane plantations. This was followed 5 days later by the burning of what Mayor Felix Manzano described as "shanties".
He was irked by an Inquirer report stating that the structures razed by still unidentified armed men were "houses", and the place a "village".
Shanties or not, those were in fact the dwelling units of lumads who are claiming back portions of BFI as their ancestral land, and who were interviewed by the Inquirer in the area before the ambush and subsequent burning. On September 27, or two weeks before the ambush, the residence of the Datu Marcial Tahuyan, chairman of two lumad organizations spearheading the claim was strafed, leaving a woman and a young girl wounded. The woman's husband, Ananias Tahuyan, was one of the two ambush fatalities. It's hard to prosecute (the suspects to the ambush) as nobody is testifying, the mayor said in Pilipino, and nobody has filed a complaint.
Police negligence
But the lumads have reasons to think twice before reporting to authorities. For instance, the strafing incident remained only as a statistic in the police blotter. The police conducted an investigation only after their attention was called to it, almost a week after the incident. And it has yet to inform the victims of the result of its investigation. Incidents involving us are seldom attended to, if any at all, by the police, says Manobo leader Petronilo Cul-om in Visayan. He cites the morning ambush which killed two. The police arrived three hours later even though the station is just a mere 8 kilometers away.
Nagkahiusang Kahugpungan sa mga Manobo ug Talaandig (Nakamata) coalition chairman Datu Winefredo Sumael also cited more than 20 still-unsolved killings of lumads in recent years.
'Rule of the gun' in sugarland
Mayor Felix Manzano puts the blame on the Department of Agrarian Reform for the failure of its program here. Trouble came when DAR told the Certificate of Land Ownership Award beneficiaries to occupy their respective areas, he said, so it's normal for the owners to get angry.
Manzano would not identify who the "owners" are except to say that vast portions of the area are being financed by outsiders for sugar cane plantations, including "the husband of the vicemayor (Ma. Victoria O. Pizarro)." But municipal agrarian reform officer Tarcisio Mapalo puts the blame on the BFI management, instead.
None of these troubles could have happened had the Cojuangco management cooperated from the beginning. It's as if they don't want the area covered by land reform. This allowed outsiders to organize and forcibly occupy huge portions of the estate, Mapalo said.
Former BFI manager Leonardo Rubas explains: Our concept of sequestration is temporary, not what's actually happening now which is confiscation. We were hoping then that in a few months, we would resume operations. But most of Danding Cojuangco's assets, including those in the United Coconut Planters Bank, were frozen by the government. The BFI management then headed by Victoriano Sola had to downgrade operations for lack of funds.
Lay-offs followed, continued Rubas who was then one of four unit managers under Sola. It was at this time when Sola allowed employees to cultivate potions of the land for rice and corn to help them get by. The pressure to save the company became too heavy, and Sola reportedly committed suicide a year after the 1988 sequestration order. Rubas assumed his position.
Professional squatters and fanatical cults dominate
Some "trusted men" were also allowed the use of huge tracts of land for a minimal fee. These are people who were made to understand and have agreed to return entrusted areas when company operations resume.
Among these is Cedric Yamba, former rice miller in Valencia town and a resident of Misamis Oriental and Cagayan de Oro City. He admitted being used as a "front" by one of Cojuangco's managers to organize some 300 individuals to petition for pieces of land in the Cojuangco property. He personally maintains a 16-hectare sugar plantation, four of which, he said were forcibly taken by the Manobos.
The lull created by the sequestration order and actual implementation of land reform provided opportunities for "professional squatters" to organize. It was also what one sugar plantation manager described as a "crony-bashing" era and which was used as excuse by opportunists to grab whatever they could from crony-owned companies.
Every year, every summer, burnings (of plantation crops) happen, Rubas recalls. It was a time when the Don Carlos fire truck was most busy. The clearings left by the fire were occupied by "professional squatters". Rubas was all praises for the first agrarian reform officer whom he described as "very strict" with the screening process. But higher DAR and other officials messed up the listing.
Pasingit-singit ng mga pangalan hanggang magkagulo ang listahan at (they made a lot of insertions until the list got messed up), he said. The selection process was later characterized by briberies and accommodations he added. A look at the logbook of beneficiaries and applicants showed several erasures
Provincial agrarian reform officer Engr. Julio C. Celestiano Jr. denied the charges. He claimed strict guidelines were observed. He admitted knowledge, though, that some beneficiaries had conveyed their CLOAs to others, and that cases had been filed against those involved.
Municipal agrarian reform officer Mapalo also admitted that there are those who are qualified but were afraid to occupy their area because of "heavily armed squatters". The aggressive ones forced themselves inside (the Cojuangco area), he said. These groups include the fanatical cults called Putian, and the Ilaga headed by Kumander Ligaya Buko whose members come from the Cotabato and Zamboanga provinces.
The Ilaga is a band of paramilitary men, mostly Ilonggos, that was used by Marcos for antiinsurgency. Its first leader was Kumander Toothpick. But it was Norberto Manero, aka Kumander Bukay, who became the most notorious. He was convicted for the brutal murder of an Italian missionary. He was also charged for the murder and cannibalism of two Muslim brothers in South Cotabato.
The Ilaga (literally meaning rat), aside from occupying huge tracts of lands for themselves, became hired goons of landlords out to grab more lands for themselves. This earned for them the monicker Ilonggo (sometimes Imelda, wife of Marcos) Landgrabbers Association.
Big time financers
Vice-mayor Ma. Victoria Pizarro admits that her father and husband maintain sugar plantations in the area. Like other "big businessmen" and some municipal officials, her father and husband only provides financing for sugar plantations.
I want to make it clear that my father (and husband) are merely financers. Landowners approached us for help, so they came in to help, she added. It's better that we, not others, accept the offer because we are ready to return (the lands) when the owners want it back.
Pizarro did not elaborate how big the financed area is nor who the "owners" are. Sources said these include those who had forcibly occupied some area as their own and had it leased to the "sapian" (wealthy people). The law prohibits the selling of Certificates of Land Ownership Awards by beneficiaries for a period of ten years. It also requires the actual occupation and use of the land by the beneficiary.
It's based on his actual occupation and being tiller of the land that Cedric Yamba now uses as reason to own what was left of his 16 hectares of sugar field. He said he's ready to buy arms and would not hesitate to use them against those who would attempt to take the land away from him.
Land reform here is a total failure because only the rich are benefiting from it, Rubas said referring to the vast sugar plantations.
They are those who can harass (agrarian reform officials) who are being listed as beneficiaries, the former BFI manager stressed, or those who can hire armed goons who are able to benefit from the land. It's a 'rule of the gun' situation.
Land prospects for lumads remain dim. Caught in the land reform imbroglio are two lumad organizations who are claiming portions of the Cojuangco estate: the San Luis Bukidnon Native Farmers Association (SLBNFA) headed by Datu Marcial Tahuyan and the Nagkahiusang Tingog sa mga Mag-uumang Manobo sa Mulita Association (NAGTIMMMA). Both have a total membership of more than 300 families headed by Datu Petronilo Cul-om.
They are members of an indigenous peoples' coalition of 10 organizations called Nagkahiusang Tingog sa mga Manobo ug Talaandig (Nakamata). It was formally organized in December 1999 as a response to the intensifying marginalization of tribe members in south-central Bukidnon caused by the expansion of sugar plantations.
Nagtimmma members are presently occupying an almost two-hectare area along the national highway in barangay San Nicolas, and SLBNFA in San Juan.
I've been here since 1967. I've not seen nor heard of any Manobo living inside Cojuangco, mayor Manzano said as he dismisses the lumads' ancestral land claims. The mayor is right, Datu Cul-om said because the Manobos were forcibly driven away from the area in 1964.
Large-scale displacement of indigenous peoples in Mindanao commenced in the early 1960s with then president Ferdinand E. Marcos' thrust for cattle ranches. The area that Nagtimmma is claiming used to be a ranch owned by Don Enrique Zobel de Ayala, the chieftain said. The cowboys, he continued, started driving us away.
The Construction and Development
Corporation of the Philippines (CDCP) then headed by Antonio Cuenca, a Marcos crony, took over during martial law. It was at this time when Kumander Toothpick and his group started hunting down not only the Moro, but also the native inhabitants in the area.
Danding Cojuangco bought the property in 1983. The company reportedly employed a "private army of about 80 persons armed with armalite rifles and a 30-caliber machinegun." The succeeding years were marked by burning of lumad houses, Nagtimmma members claim, although some families were allowed to remain at the edges of the estate. Cul-om himself was hired as a cowboy.
No right over land
When asked if he believes the natives are also entitled to even just a small piece of land, the mayor responded: Palagay ko wala dahil may beneficiary na yan, may CLOA na (I don't think they have. There are already CLOAs issued to beneficiaries). But municipal agrarian reform officer Tarcisio Mapalo says there is an area of 50 hectares allotted for 50 natives. But they don't come here to apply for a document of acquisition, although 11 came later to apply.
Gi-abog man mi (DAR employees drove us away when we went to apply), Datu Cul-om alleged. Ngano ma-apply pa mi kay sa mga kaapuhan man namo na nga lugar ug gihulam ra (why do we have to apply when the area belongs to our ancestors and was just borrowed)? he added. The chieftain was referring to year 1930 when Don Manolo Fortich and his father Don Manuel came to see Datu Lorenzo Tigbabao, then the Supreme Tribal Chieftain. The Fortich requested for the allocation of 10,000 hectares for conversion into a communal cattle ranch by Manila businessmen.
Datu Tigababao, according to his descendants who are now claimants to the Cojuangco estate, agreed provided that it would only be for a 10-year period and that tribal leaders would be employed.
Maayo sa umpisa, (it was good at the start), they said. It was before the end of the ten year period that the tribe started to be driven away. They found out later that most of the area had been titled. I suppose they are real titles, provincial agrarian reform officer Julio Celestiano said, referring to the three titles that cover the entire Cojuangco farm. He dismisses suspicions that the area is part of an inalienable territory.
Legal remedies
It will be a long protracted legal battle for the Manobo if they intend to file a title reversion case, says Atty. Wilfredo Diel, former Integrated Bar of the Philippines president of the now SOCSARGEN (So. Cotabato-Sarangani-Gen. Santos) region. A fraudulent title issued to a fraudulent claimant is enough basis for cancellation, he added but that may take 15 years or more to prove in court.
Diel explained that there are alternatives, albeit conflicting, remedies that can stand independently of one another. One is for the tribe to pursue their application for a certificate of ancestral land title while pursuing a reversion proceeding. Another is to assume that the title is valid but that the CLOAs issued are null and void because of various violations committed in the processing.
Once nullified, tribe members can assert priority over the issuance of CLOAs. But that appears to be easier said than done given present realities. There is the laziness in the judiciary, he continues, aside from the fact that it is often understaffed and too bureaucratic.
Learning new techologies
Aside from organizing into a cohesive coalition, members of Nakamata have also learned new skills to assert their claim and to advance their cause. Recently, they had completed mapping the area with the use of the GPS (global positioning system) technology instead of the tedious and long survey with traditional transits.
Last August, WITNESS, a New York-based human rights organization sent the coalition their own equipment and accessories. WITNESS provides digital video cameras to individuals and organizations worldwide to help advocate for human rights.
Training on the use of the camera has been provided. They have used it to document the ambush which killed two tribe members. The leading GMA program, The Probe Team, recently aired the ambush incident footage and interviews with leaders and local officials.
These newfound skills and output which they could use later as evidence in court could be a reason for the intensified attack against us, admits Datu Cul-om. But we cannot be cowed. We will pursue peacefully what we believe is justly ours. We are ready to die for it.
Last month, the harvest season started. Along the highway here, truckloads of sugarcane pass by the Manobos' settlement on their way to two huge milling complexes in nearby Maramag and Quezon town. Sources say landowners and financers could earn from a low 15,000 pesos per hectare to as high as 50,000.
Harvest time used to be a welcome note for the tribe. It would be a good four months when they could serve as cane cutters to earn petty cash. It is not so now. Cane owners no longer hire ancestral land claimants for cutting. One reason, according to the lumads, is to deprive them of their only source of income. Second is the landowners' fear that they may be held liable if attacks against tribe members would happen in their area.
Hunger now stalks the lumads of Don Carlos. And there's the continued fear for their lives because of their growing assertions for their ancestral lands. Condescension from local officials remains strong and no government agency has so far extended any assistance.
As it is now, the Cojuangco estate here may yet live up, not only to its name as "killing fields", but also as the "field of the dying".
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