It must be a year ago when I overheard a comment that the CBCP is too conservative to support even a seemingly radical cause. This comment was made in reaction to an opinion that the Roman Catholic Church’s identification with the peasant sector would soon be revived. There was during the Marcos dictatorial regime. And now, there is a level of certainty that there will be at this age of globalization and digital technology, which unfortunately continues to marginalize the country’s poor and powerless.
The optimism developed in January this year when the CBCP leadership issued a pastoral statement entitled “The Dignity of the Rural Poor – A Gospel Concern”. The statement analyzes the agrarian reform situation from which it took the government into account for the sorry implementation of the agrarian reform program. In a belief that the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) remains a legitimate tool that empowers the marginalized land tillers, the statement calls for the extension of CARP with the necessary improvements.
Beyond the Pastoral Statement
Jubilant are organized farmers over that move by the Bishops. But they (the farmers) wonder in what more ways can the Bishops support the cause, which is basically to protect and defend the interests of the farmers in agrarian reform. The thought had its louder voice after over 1,000 combined members of UNORKA and TFM, two major peasant federations in the Philippines, were subjected to repressive treatment by the leadership of Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) during the first and second weeks of September. Leaders of both feds mustered all their guts to seek audience with the CBCP leaders about their sad experience with the DAR. The Church leaders didn’t fail them.
Last September 13, a forum with the Bishops took place inside the Office for Women, CBCP, Intramuros. It was a breakthrough activity just because the top leader was there–Archbishop Angel N. Lagdameo, D.D., President of the CBCP. Other leaders present were Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma, SJ, D.D., Bishop Broderick Pabillo, Auxiliary Bishop of Manila; Bishop Antonio P. Palang, SVD, D.D. of Mindoro; Bishop Vicente M. Navarra, D.D. of Bacolod; and Bishop Paciano B. Aniceto, D.D. of Pampanga. Five of the present Bishops are members of the Permanent Council of the CBCP. Abp. Ledesma presided over the meeting.
Unfortunately, my group, with UNORKA, was an hour late for the 3 pm meeting with the Bishops. We underestimated the factors that contributed to the tardiness. It was a such a shame, to think that the leaders are known for time efficiency. We were not also able to listen to the presentation of TFM, whose leader representatives spoke first while we were on our way to the venue.
When we arrived, the discussion on the TFM cases was already winding up. So in a matter of minutes, it was UNORKA’s turn to present its own issues through Ka Vangie Mendoza. Before she could start her presentation, I had already unfolded my Palm 515 and keyboard, a gadget pair I used to document the forum.
Ka Vangie ably presented UNORKA’s take on the CARP situation, starting off with the 773 land cases which have barely moved since they were filed with the DAR since 2001. She then raised several issues pertaining to CARP implementation, including, among others, decisions made by the DAR reversing earlier ones that were in favor of the affected farmers. (For those of you want to have a copy of the presentation, which is in Tagalog, just let me know.)
Encouraging responses from the Bishops
How did the Bishops react to the farmer groups’ presentations?
- Abp. Ledesma asked whether the groups also have success stories to tell. The groups responded positively, saying that they are ready to document and share all of these. UNORKA shared the story of a commercial farm in Panabo, Davao del Norte, in which the agrarian reform beneficiaries have the direct say in their banana produce, from production to marketing, without any intervention from their previous management-landowners.
- Bp. Pabillo asked two things. First, what are the plans of the groups after the recent sad experience at the DAR? TFM responded that Negros leaders are still hopelessly waiting for the DAR’s decision, while it is seeking the help of the Bishops to intervene. UNORKA said that it has (temporarily) stopped mounting camp-outs at the DAR but it has already started to reach out to Congresspersons and Senators to support them in their current struggle against the DAR leadership. Second, why is there excruciating delay in the resolution of cases? TFM answered that the DAR doesn’t have the political will. UNORKA, in turn, claimed that it is because of the many layers at the DAR Central Office that perform similar functions, like analyzing the cases. The final say resides in the legal team of the Office of the Secretary, which has all the discretion to render decision to each case, whether that negates the recommendations of the previous layer.
- Abp. Ledesma informed the group that the CBCP is already organizing for the 2nd National Rural Congress that will take place in January 2008. The processes leading towards the Congress may be maximized to raise the issues just presented at today’s forum. He further said that the website that the CBCP Media Office has set out to create is home to all researches, publications, and the like related to agrarian reform and rural development. All statements and related documents that the POs would like to publish can be featured in that web site.
- Abp. Ledesma further opined that CBCP can hold seminars, syposiums, etc. pertaining to ARRD.
- Abp. Lagdameo said that the CBCP Pastoral Statement issued in January this year is enough response by the organization to the hapless situation of the farmers. He also asked TFM and UNORKA whether they were able to do to the DAR, that is, explaining what the DAR should be doing, what they are trying to do now to the CBCP. As sure as they were seated, they answered “Yes.” And then the Abp. quipped: “There’s something wrong.”
- Bp. Navarra of Bacolod informed the group that all four Bishops in the province of Negros Occidental have been concerned about the fate of the TFM. He spoke mostly in Ilonggo, so I couldn’t make out the entire response. But as far as I understood it, he said that the Negros Bishops have met more than once and tried to extend any help they could. He also advised that the farmers should not resort to any violence and never tire of looking for creative ways to resolve their problems.
- Bp. Paciano of Pampanga admitted that the Bishops are like students learning from the experiences of the teachers–the farmers. He further asked the groups to be active in the subregional consultations in the run-up to the National Rural Congress.
- Bp. Palang of Mindoro then said that unity among the farmers is very important. It is similar to a “walis tingting” (broom made from coconut midribs) which can be used for sweeping off dirt, at the same time, for hitting those who did wrong. (This evoked laughter from the audience.) The Bishops then encouraged the farmers to continue to do what they are doing, and the Bishops will be there to support them. (This evoked the only applause during the meeting.)
- Finally, Bp. Lagdameo pushed for the dialogue as the only means to identify loose points and lapses and bridge misunderstanding between the farmers and the DAR.
What the farmers want
Sec. Ricardo Saludo of the Office of the President came when UNORKA was about to finish its presentation. (I learned that he would not have come had Abp. Lagdameo not been present.) When it was his turn to give his response, he recommended a solution that stirred a negative reaction from the farmers: Creation of a Task Force to process all land cases that the two groups allege to have been sat on by the DAR. Another layer, another delay, it will not solve, instead, will contribute to the problem. These were the stock responses from the groups. What they wanted is dialogue at the Malacanang and President Arroyo’s intervention to resolve the “deadlock” between the DAR leadership and the farmers groups.
Sec. Saludo warned that the farmer groups’ demand to immediately sack DAR Sec. Pangandaman is impossible to be granted, as it will just result in unmanageable conflicts within the Department. Atty. Christian Monsod, who attended the forum for the side of the farmers, argued that there already was a similar case before with another government agency, whose corrupt leader was immediately sacked by the President. But still, Saludo did not buy the idea.
The Secretary was at first reluctant to approve of the dialogue at the Malacanang, insisting that the Task Force was a better solution. After learning about the previous dialogues held with the President, he finally said that he will try to convince the President for a dialogue with TFM and UNORKA, one concrete result would be the creation of the Task Force. He committed to report back to the Bishops after Tuesday (when the Cabinet will meet) next week.
Wasn’t that Forum a success? You had the CBCP President and Malacanang representative attending and listening to you, with concrete actions to be taken. I think that has helped ease the yoke that the farmers have been carrying since the second week of September.
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