I, myself, can’t believe it: That I was able to drag my feet into what is considered the noblest of places: Malacañang Palace. Even as I was already inside the place, impressed at the kaleidoscopic artwork on the ceiling atop the stairways of the Aguinaldo Hall, the dim motif, together with the yellowish lights emitted by the chandeliers, did not excite me at all. Was I in a museum or in a funeral yet being built? That was my feeling, actually.
That was yesterday for a dialogue with the President. Yes, it happened right inside the hall where she convenes her cabinet for business meetings. We knew for a fact that it was very difficult to corral her, so to speak, because of the very hectic schedule and priorities that she has. But we never gave up; good thing a few Roman Catholic Bishops were there to help us out. Archbishop Ledesma personally committed to back-channel for us. In our belief that the President looks to the church leaders, we were partly confident that the dialogue would push through. The other part of our minds was “hopelessly hopeful” for the possibility of that engagement.
Thank God, it happened at last. In three years or so, the President would sit down again with representatives of agrarian reform and rural development community to tackle issues that have been hardly addressed by her concerned Secretaries:
- Extension of the funding for agrarian reform program coupled with reforms. Continuing the funding without significant reforms in the program will just reinforce the vicious cycle of the program’s problematic implementation.
- Agrarian justice. A total of 40 farmers were killed just because they actively worked for CARP implementation. And more than 2,000 farmers face life threats from entities that evade agrarian reform. This has continued in the absence of concrete and lasting protection from government.
- Anti-CARP and anti-environment RP-China agreements. More than 1.2 million hectares of agricultural land are targetted to be subjected to large-scale food production for export to China. CARP lands will be affected as well as the environment because of the massive mono-crop production. This is not to mention the anomalies in the agreements and the fact that the farmers appear to be mere recipients or the objects, not the subjects of the projects being hatched.
There were 18 of us from the civil society groups. I think that the government side was able to muster similar strength. No less than DA Secretary Arthur Yap and DAR Secretary Nasser Pangandaman came to help the President respond to our issues. (To our surprise, former DAR Secretary Hernani Braganza, now a Mayor in Alaminos City, Pangasinan, was also present. What was his business?) But we didn’t need them; we expected the President to respond herself.
It was frustrating that she looked and sounded apathetic to all our issues compared to the great interest she manifested during a dialogue three years ago. Nevertheless, all three direct responses from her are enough to be considered our palpable gains:
- She asked for a copy of the Unity Bill (civil society groups’ CARP extension version) which she said would be considered. (There’s a little opening here that signifies the possibility for her to study it herself.)
- She asked the DAR to operationalize the “Agrarian Reform Battalion”, which is a mechanism that provides security to the agrarian reform beneficiaries amidst systematic harassment from the landlords through deployment of police forces for such task.
- She asked DA Secretary Yap to publish the list of areas that will be affected by the agribusiness program of government.
As it was my first time to meet her personally, I was kind of irked at some points and entertained at the other on her actuations during the dialogue. She would walk out of the table from time to time while one of the Secretaries was speaking (I think that there were three instances of this). At the instance of the information from us regarding the anomalies in the RP-China Agreements, she appeared to have reprimanded Sec. Yap in a hushed voice with the latter sadly nodding his head in response. She was unsteady in her seat, with occasional scratching of her fingers. Few of my colleagues who had already known the President said that these were signs of disinterest or other urgent personal concerns at the time of the dialogue.
The dialog participants had a reflection session in Chow King near Malacanang right after the dialogue. It was a great meeting as it boosted our confidence in pushing through with the Unity Bill. At the same time, the dialogue somewhat affirmed some participants’ view that the President should not be expected to be interested in agrarian reform and rural development, which is one of the reasons why she is unpopular with the farmers, if not the entire masses.
The last words uttered by the President were not very accommodating. To paraphrase, she said : “Since your concerns are already brought to the attention of the concerned Secretaries, I’m not expecting another dialogue like this in the future.” There sure are many ways to read this statement. But to me, that sounded like agrarian reform is not her cup of tea.
I’d chalk it up to my experience. Sadly enough, my participation in the dialogue left a footprint and photograph of mine in the hall. A paranoid social activist in me suspects that I’m already in the dossiers of Malacanang. I better watch out from now on.
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