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Agrarian reforms policy is failing the people it was meant to help

Philippine farmers who can't go on their own land

Agrarian reforms policy is failing the people it was meant to help
Disputed land on Samal Island, Davao del Norte
Kerima Bulan T. Navales, Davao City

November 20, 2012

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Since February, Carmen Omambac has been prohibited from entering the land she and her family tilled for 30 years in the village of Santa Cruz on Talicud Island of Samal in Davao del Norte province. Her neighbors were sent to jail for allegedly stealing coconuts from the trees they themselves planted.

Omambac's situation is different from other land cases in the Philippines. While other tenants and farmers fight landlords, Omambac and her neighbors are up against a group of individuals who were made beneficiaries of the government's ongoing agrarian reform program.

"We have rights over the land. We have been here for decades. These people who claim that the land is theirs are outsiders and not farmers," Omambac said.

In 1998, the government distributed the land to members of the Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association, which is composed of teachers, policemen, and even politicians.

The "new landowners" then fenced the land and hired armed guards who drove the farmers from the land. "No Trespassing" signs were posted around the area.

Fighting her tears back, Omambac denied claims by agrarian reform officials who said her family refused to be included in the reform program.

Mae Fe Templa, head of the Assumption College of Davao Social Work Program, said the experience of farmers on Talicud Island shows the loopholes in the government's agrarian reforms. She said it was not designed to work to the advantage of actual farmers.

"The peaceful action of the actual tillers illustrates their assertion coupled by strong values and faith in God," Templa said.

As for the landowners in this, they say they have taken the side of the farmers.

"We are not against land redistribution," said Karl Reta, the representative of the landowners. "What makes our case unique is we are not against our tenants. We are siding with them against outsiders coming in on our land."

They do not want to be known as bitter landowners who refused to give up their land for those “who deserve it,” the farmers, adds Reta.

"How can you justify the situation of more than 163 families in an area they planted for coconuts and now all of a sudden they are being forced out because of the greed of some people who are not even workers or residents of the area?" he said.

Task Force Mapalad (TFM), a group that represents the interests of the poor, has taken the government's agrarian reform department to task for its failure to redistribute land to farmers.

A study by the group showed that the government's accomplishment rate for land distribution in areas covered by agrarian reforms between January and the end of October this year was only 18 percent. In June, thousands of dismayed farmers went to Manila to protest over the slow progress.

TFM said the government's recent performance has shattered the chance that President Benigno Aquino could redeem his promise to angry farmers that the government would raise the intensity of land redistribution by dismantling large estates before the program is due to end in 2014.

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