MANILA, DECEMBER 19, 2007 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - The Sumilao farmers who marched from Bukidnon may not have gone past the gates of Malacañang but they came closer to reclaiming the land they call their own after President Arroyo signed yesterday an executive order placing the disputed property under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

Through the new executive order, President Arroyo revoked a 1995 Malacañang order that converted the disputed 144-hectare property in Sumilao, Bukidnon into agro-industrial use.

This in effect would allow the farmers to reclaim the land, which the government placed under land reform in 1994.

The order, signed by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita on behalf of Mrs. Arroyo, came a day after she met with the farmers, who marched some 1,700 kilometers for over two months from Bukidnon to dramatize their efforts to reclaim the land sold by the Quisumbing family to San Miguel Foods Inc. (SMFI).

After Ermita signed the six-page order at past noon, Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye and Cabinet Secretary Ricardo Saludo – upon instructions from Mrs. Arroyo – immediately gave a copy of the EO to the farmers, who were camping out at the College of the Holy Spirit chapel on Mendiola, just a stone’s throw away from the Palace.

Bunye said the farmers were asking for the cancellation of the order issued by former executive secretary Ruben Torres in 1995 converting the disputed land into agro-industrial use.

Mrs. Arroyo’s EO “resolves the long-standing petition of the farmers,” Bunye said. Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said the order effectively placed the land under CARP.

“From now on, rest assured that wherever this case will go, in whatever court, we are with you,” Bunye told the farmers and their lawyers during their meeting that lasted nearly two hours.

He said the lawyers – Marlon Manuel and Arlene Bag-ao – translated and interpreted the order to more than 50 farmers, adding there were a lot of questions raised by the group.

“Based on the President’s consultation with the farmers, and also based on the investigation of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), the recommendation of the DAR states that there was a violation of the conditions of the conversion order,” Bunye later told reporters.

“From our end, what is important is that a case that has been pending – the nature of the case is for the revocation or cancellation of the conversion order –has been resolved and that case was resolved in favor of the petitioner farmers,” he said.

In her executive order, Mrs. Arroyo said none of the conditions of the original conversion order had been complied with.

The original conversion order, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, expressly stated the development would include putting up a Development Academy of Mindanao, covering 24 hectares; Bukidnon Agro-Industrial Park, 67 hectares; forest development, 33 hectares; and support facilities, 20 hectares.

Mrs. Arroyo’s order also said that SMFI converted portions of the land into a hog farm, which is “not one of the purposes for which the conversion order has been issued.”

Bunye said SMFI may contest the order within 15 days before the Palace or the courts.

“When the DAR submitted its final recommendation, they have an annex one foot high, documenting the non-compliance with the letter and spirit of the conversion order,” Bunye said when asked whether the order could withstand legal scrutiny.

He said Ermita was scheduled to discuss the order with SMFI yesterday.

Bunye said SMFI would be compensated for the loss of the land, but he didn’t discuss details.

Lawyer Manuel claimed “no rejoicing” among the farmers when the order came out as they might have felt that some issues remained unaddressed. He said there was no mention in the order about land reform or a directive to the DAR to stop the construction of a hog farm on the property.

“This is just the start of a long, long journey for the farmers,” he told reporters.

Bishops rejoice

Roman Catholic bishops praised President Arroyo for her decision but advised the farmers to be on guard until her executive order is “implemented properly.”

“For us, it is a just decision – a good starting point. But the problem doesn’t end here since we still have to make sure this executive order would be implemented properly and the land would be returned to the farmers,” Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo said.

“But we can see that we are on the right track,” he added.

Pabillo was one of the three bishops who moderated a meeting between the President and the farmers Monday night at the office of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

With Pabillo during the 40-minute meeting were Marbel Bishop Dinualdo Gutierrez and Bishop Francisco Claver.

Also at the meeting were Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol and Bukidnon Gov. Jose Maria Zubiri.

“The discussion was cordial and open although everyone was in a hurry. The President read the draft of the executive order and explained it to farmers,” Pabillo said.

“Looking at the dialogue, I think she was sincere in trying to help the farmers,” he stressed.

The prelate said the bishops supported the farmers because their cause is valid and justified. “Their way of calling attention was really impressive – not violent and sacrificial,” he said.

Pabillo said Claver talked about the moral dimension of the issue and how the Higaonons and other indigenous people took care of the land for generations until “outsiders” arrived and developed the farms. Most of the Sumilao farmers are Higaonons.

Pabillo, quoting Claver, said the Higaonons believe in common ownership of lands, compared to “outsiders” who are accustomed to individual ownership.

Asked exactly what role CBCP played in the drama, Pabillo said “we just made arrangements for both parties to meet.”

The prelate said the farmers wanted to immediately reclaim the lands but he explained “it would not be that easy because of the processes involved.”

He said he himself wanted the issue to reach a favorable conclusion the soonest time possible but wouldn’t speculate if trouble still lies ahead. “I would rather wait for the release of the decision as I may preempt the authorities,” he said.

He stressed the Church would always be on the side of the poor and oppressed as it has always maintained in its social teachings. – with Edu Punay

Former estate owners urge gov’t: Junk farmers’ claims Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The former owners of the disputed Sumilao estate in Bukidnon urged the government yesterday to dismiss the claims of protesting farmers, citing alleged manipulation by some sectors to twist the facts of the issue.

“It’s about time that people should know the real truth about this case. Twisting of facts and the entry of unaccountable personalities who hide behind the cloak of those alleged farmers must end once and for all so the investment climate would clear up and be favorable to all companies that have real concern to uplift our people and our country,” said Antonio Medina, former vice governor of Masbate who is the spokesman for the Norberto Quisumbing Sr. Management Development Corp. (NQSRMDC).

Alex Carandang, counsel of NQSRMDC, also claimed the protesting farmers “have no legal personality in the first place” and should not be entertained since there was already a Supreme Court decision on the issue.

Carandang pointed out the issues being raised by the protesting farmers before the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the Office of the President were already decided by the SC in its April 24, 1998 ruling, affirming an earlier approval by the Office of the President to convert the property into agro-industrial use.

“We are bothered by the way the Supreme Court was criticized as having been allegedly influenced with their decision on (that) matter,” Carandang said.

Medina added that questions arising from the SC ruling is “unfair and a contemptible attack on the integrity of the Supreme Court.”

Carandang said the sale of the 144-hectare land to SMC was above board and done in good faith.

He said the NQSRMDC knew that SMC is in a much better position to develop the land and bring progress to the province of Bukidnon through its proposed multi-billion projects.

He added that SMC as the buyer did not veer away from the original plan of the Quisumbings to develop the land into an agro-industrial and institutional area. “The development of the property into a commercial and modern hog farm is consistent with such use since the High Court and even the Department of Agriculture has ruled that commercial swine-raising is an agro-industrial use,” Carandang said.

He cited reports that SMC had already poured billions of pesos in developing the area, whose estimated project cost is P2.4 billion.

Carandang claimed the protesting farmers are not even tenants of Quisumbing before the land was sold to San Miguel Foods Inc.

“In fact, it was clearly stated in the High Court decision that these farmers ‘are merely recommendee farmer beneficiaries, that their interest over the land in question is a mere expectancy, and therefore, they are not real parties in interest’,” he said.

“When the NQSRMDC sold the said 144-hectares of land in Sumilao to San Miguel Foods, Inc. not a single soul was even tilling the land or even living there ... and besides, it is also proven that those leading these alleged farmers are not landless as they present themselves to be,” he said.

SMC, on the other hand, said they will wait for the directive from Malacañang before commenting on the issue.

“We will give our response in due time after we receive a copy of the EO,” said the corporate affairs office of SMC.

This developed as President Arroyo signed an executive order placing the Sumilao estate under CARP coverage, in effect nullifying SMC’s claim over the disputed land.

The EO is expected to overturn the earlier order issued by then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres classifying the Sumilao estate as agro-industrial land.

The new executive order was issued after Mrs. Arroyo promised leaders of the protesting farmers that she will award the property to them during a meeting in Malacañang the other day.

Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Sergio Apostol said the would-be farmer-beneficiaries of the contested Sumilao estate will have to pay the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) for the property, while SMC would have to be paid by the government.

The farmers staged a two-month protest march from Bukidnon to Metro Manila to petition the government to hand over to them the property which was purchased by SMC from the Quisumbing family in 2002.

Before the purchase, the Supreme Court had ruled in 1999 that the farmers are not entitled to the claim since they are not “parties of interest” and the contested property is not covered by CARP.

Carandang, on the other hand, pointed out the Quisumbings had already given a total of 65,473 hectares of land of the former Salvador P. Carlos Estate which is adjacent to their property.

“The present Mapalad chairman Samuel Merida and all its directors are listed as co-owners of the big tract of the land.

“Even the chair of San Vicente Landless Farmers Association, Napoleon Merida and Mapalad representatives Peter Tuminhay and Quirico Ligmon, are also Carlos Estate agrarian reform beneficiaries. So, they are not landless as they claiming to be.”

Carandang also claimed reports of the real motive of the protest march staged by the farmers was to embarrass the Arroyo administration.

“The protest and the noise they are creating on the streets also mean that they want to destabilize the government once again and ruin the economic gains of the administration,” he said.

“We also heard that this is another propaganda to extend the CARP Law which many legislators have reportedly commented as a failure,” Medina added.

Medina, on the other hand, revealed the Quisumbings had already lost big tracts of land to the land reform program of the government without being properly compensated.

He said more than 1,000 hectares of pasture land and more than 400 hectares of cogonal land also in Bukidnon were lost, while the family matriarch, Lourdes Buencamino, also lost inherited lands in Nueva Ecija.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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