MANILA, DECEMBER 17, 2007 (STAR) By Katherine Adraneda - Awaiting an order to reclaim their ancestral land, the 55 farmers who traveled 1,700-kilometers from Sumilao in Bukidnon to Metro Manila celebrated their first Simbang Gabi outside the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) central office in Quezon City yesterday.

In his homily at the 4 a.m. Mass, Fr. Eduardo Apungan of the Claret Urban Poor Apostolate gave the farmers renewed hope to continue their struggle to win back the 144-hectare disputed property in Sumilao.

President Arroyo is scheduled to meet with the protesting farmers in Malacañang today.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pang-andaman was earlier tasked to come up with a proposal for the farmers.

“Let’s see what will happen in the meeting but the government is doing everything it can to address their concerns,” he said.

Pangandaman assured the farmers over the weekend that the Sumilao case would soon be settled.

Pangandaman assured the farmers a DAR legal team is already finalizing the review on the case.

His “status quo” order last week would stay until the DAR issues its resolution on the matter, he added.

Five of the Sumilao farmers marched side by side with their children from their hometown of Sumilao to Metro Manila.

“While Christmas is for families to be together, here we are far away from our families,” Napoleon Merida Sr. said in Bisaya. “Even if being away is painful for me, I will not give up on this struggle for my children’s future.”

Merida along with four of his children, Napoleon Jr., Miraflor, Marilou, and Bebing joined the “Walk for Justice” to dramatize their 10-year-old demand for the government to give them back the 144-hectare land in Barangay San Vicente, Sumilao, which was formerly owned by Norberto Quisumbing.

“Even if the actuations of Secretary Pangandaman have caused us serious doubts about his motives in our case, we find hope in the strength of the support that the church has shown for us,” said Linda Ligmon, who was joined by her two daughters, Graceful and Marlyn in the 60-day protest-march.

Kaka Bag-ao, legal counsel of the Sumilao farmers, said they are confident of their rights under the Agrarian Reform Law and the rules of the Department of Agrarian Reform.

The farmers were also gearing up for their march towards Malacañang today, where President Arroyo is expected to have a dialogue with them.

The Sumilao farmers will march to Malacañang to deliver to the President the letter Archbishop of Manila Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales had entrusted to them.

Rosales had urged Mrs. Arroyo to “give back the land to the Sumilao farmers.”

Church people will march with the farmers in their second trek to Malacañang.

The Sumilao farmers are hopeful that they will meet Mrs. Arroyo and persuade her to act decisively on their case.

“If through our walk, we were able to convince the Cardinal, the bishops, priests and the Church people to the righteousness and sincerity of our cause, we are hopeful that we can likewise convince the President so that she will take decisive action to resolve our case,” said Napoleon Jr., chairman of San Vicente Landless Farmers Association.

In today’s anticipated dialogue with Mrs. Arroyo, the farmers are keen on asking her to reverse Pangandaman’s “status quo” order by issuing “a real” cease-and-desist order that would stop any development activities in the contested 144-hectare land, which

Quisumbing sold to San Miguel Foods Inc., a subsidiary of food and beverage giant San Miguel Corp..

The SMFI is building a P2.4-billion, state-of-the-art hog farm in the land being claimed by the Sumilao farmers.

In Bukidnon, Gov. Jose Zubiri appealed to the farmers to reconsider their position and instead be open to further economic development by welcoming investors into the area.

“I support that which will benefit Sumilao and its communities in the long run,” he said in a statement. “We need to go beyond the needs of the few and take into consideration the welfare of the majority.”

Zubiri said both the farmers and SMFI can work together for progress in Sumilao.

San Miguel’s presence in the province has thus far done wonders in terms of business and livelihood opportunities for the residents, he added.

Zubiri said it was the local government of Sumilao that invited SMFI to invest in the area.

The SMFI had acquired the Sumilao property in good faith and without any legal impediments from Quisumbing, he added.

Zubiri said SMFI’s agro-industrial development program for Sumilao actually passed DAR’s scrutiny.

The company vowed to buy the farmers’ produce for the feed requirements of the hogs, he added.

The 144-hectare land was awarded to the farmers by the government in 1995.

However, the Quisumbing family contested the decision and the Supreme Court ruled in their favor.

On the other hand, the farmers said the conditions imposed by the SC were not followed so the land should be returned to them.

The disputed land was purchased by SMFI from the Quisumbing family five years ago. — with Paolo Romero, Edith Regalado

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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