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Archbishop Says All Sides Worked To Resolve Sumilao Land Dispute

Updated: April 03, 2008 05:00 PM GMT
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The archbishop in an area of conflict credits the solution of a 15-year-old land dispute in the southern Philippines to collaboration and the farmers´ initiative for a peaceful settlement of their problem.

Jesuit Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro told UCA News from his base that "many people working together for a peaceful settlement" account for the settlement of the conflict between 137 farmers and San Miguel Foods Inc. (SMFI) over 144 hectares of agricultural land in Sumilao town, Bukidnon province. Sumilao, 835 kilometers southeast of Manila, is in Malaybalay diocese, a suffragan of Cagayan de Oro archdiocese to its north.

On March 29, Sumilao farmer leaders Samuel Merida, Larry Carejo, Mercy Serona and Napoleon Merida Jr. signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Ramon Ang, president of San Miguel Corporation (SMC), and Francisco Alejo of SMFI at San Carlos Seminary in Makati City, southeast of Manila. SMFI is a subsidiary of San Miguel Corporation.

Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales of Manila, Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo of Manila, Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) Secretary Nasser Pangandaman and Secretary Conrado Limcaoco of the Office of the President signed as witnesses.

The agreement gives the farmers 50 hectares in the contested area through a deed of donation by SMC. They will be given another 94 hectares from land outside the property in question, but "within the vicinity of the contested area," the agreement also states.

The initial 50 hectares will be issued to 19 landless Sumilao farmers, while the other farmers will be listed for screening as beneficiaries.

At the signing ceremony, Cardinal Rosales lauded the farmers for not resorting to violence in their quest for their land. He also thanked Ang for his willingness to help the farmers.

The cardinal addressed farmers who chose to march peacefully to Malacanang presidential office, DAR and other places in past months, and said, "You were rewarded by God because of that." Church leaders "accompanied" their struggle for their land, he said, because "you showed us your trust and goodwill."

Even before marching to Manila to protest SMFI´s construction of a piggery on agricultural land they claimed as part of their ancestral domain, the farmers, including indigenous Higaonon people, had worked since 1993 with the South East Asia Rural Social Leadership Institute in Cagayan de Oro.

They sought the Church-based institute´s help to recover land that was given them in the government´s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program but later authorized by the Supreme Court to be made into an agro-industrial complex.

The authorized developer failed to comply with the terms of conversion and sold the land to SMFI, which began building a piggery on 94 hectares of land.

Last Oct. 7, 55 farmers marched hundreds of kilometers from Sumilao to Manila. With support from diocesan centers, parishes, seminarians, bishops, Religious and lay Church workers, they drew a declaration from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo that returned the land to agrarian reform.

After San Miguel fought the decision, Cardinal Rosales and other Church officials and groups appealed to the corporation and the farmers´ leaders to negotiate a settlement.

Archbishop Ledesma told UCA News by phone, "This was not just a Church victory. The agreement came about because of the farmers´ determination and solidarity to obtain justice." He credited "media intervention, and the quiet support of many NGOs and volunteer lawyers," and praised San Miguel officials for settling the dispute.

Rene Penas, a farmer from Sumilao, expressed a hope at the signing ceremony that "this agreement will finally give us peaceful possession of our land."

Even after "suffering all sorts of injustice," he told reporters, farmers "chose non-violent action to press our legal claim and rights under the law."

SMC´s Ang said his corporation is willing to continue helping the farmers. "Rest assured, we will help you make your lives better and whatever you still need," the San Miguel official said in a speech after the signing.


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