Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 2 (Spring 2000): Litigating Human Rights: Promise v. Perils: Articles: Caught in the Claws of the Rich: The Struggle of the Mapalad Farmers

Apr 6, 2000

Most of the members of the Mapalad farming cooperative in San Vicente, Bukidnon, belong to the indigenous Higaonon tribe of the Philippines. They are poor, seasonal laborers who make brooms during the summer months to augment their income. They dream of their own piece of land to ensure food on their tables, education for their children, a roof over their heads, and clothing to wear.

Their dream was nearly realized when the government named the 137 Mapalad farmers beneficiaries to the 144-hectare Quisumbing family farm. This was determined by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law of 1988, which distributes to the landless poor vast amounts of the country’s agricultural land that has historically been concentrated in the hands of a few influential landlord families. The Mapalad members participate in the paralegal assistance program we started in order to help the poor to access their rights under this law.

When the Quisumbings were due to relinquish their farm to the Mapalad cooperative in 1994, they instead sought to hold onto their land by gaining permission to convert it to industrial and commercial use, which would render it ineligible for redistribution. To the surprise of the prolandlord municipal and provincial governments, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) rejected the Quisumbing’s application.

In response, Governor Carlos Fortich of Bukidnon, a landlord himself, went straight to the top and wrote a letter to the Office of the President. Upon receiving this letter in March 1996, Executive-Secretary Ruben Torres promptly reversed the DAR decision in the name of the president. Just when the Quisumbings thought they had won, to their surprise they discovered that they no longer owned the farm. DAR had transferred the ownership of the land to the Mapalad farmers back in October 1995. The Quisumbings filed a case in the Regional Trial Court of Bukidnon in April 1997, claiming ownership on the basis of the executive-secretary’s pronouncement. It was upon receiving the court petition that the cooperative members learned that the land had been legally theirs. The Mapalad paralegals we had trained discussed the case with their leaders and others in their cooperative. Together with us, their lawyers, they decided to mount a legal defense against the Quisumbings.

So began the battle in the courts. However, as part of their legal education, we trained the Mapalad farmers not to rely on litigation alone in their struggle. They decided to enter their property and start cultivation, and in July 1997, with the support of the local church and neighboring farmers, they occupied the land. Three days later, armed goons descended upon them, firing shots in the air, letting farm animals loose, burning tents, and confiscating farm implements. Escorted by thugs, Norberto Quisumbing Jr. accosted Peter Tuminhay, the Mapalad leader, and threatened to kill the farmers if they did not vacate the premises. Although they would have gladly shed blood for their land, the farmers decided to leave and try other strategies.

The farmers’ next step was to make known the injustice through a peaceful yet powerful act: they decided to go on a hunger strike. Nineteen of the farmers picketed the DAR office in Manila, refusing to eat or drink anything but water until the president reversed the executive-secretary’s decision. Their plight made headlines in the national and local media, capturing the imagination of the Filipino public, which is unaccustomed to such measures. The groundswell of public support forced then-president Ramos to take action on their case after 28 days of hunger. He announced a compromise: 100 hectares for the Mapalad farmers and 44 hectares for the Quisumbings.

But the Quisumbings would not accept this. Drawing from their inexhaustible sources of influence, they brought a case to the Supreme Court. When the attention of the Filipino public was focused on elections in May 1998, the court quietly voted 5-0 in favor of the Quisumbings, voiding the Ramos compromise and converting the land to industrial and commercial use. The justices, large landowners themselves, did not address the fact that the land was designated for redistribution as per agrarian reform laws, and that it is illegal for the government to reclassify it. Moreover, according to a 1992 Presidential Administrative Order, prime agricultural land with irrigation facilities, such as the property in question, may not be converted to commercial and industrial use.

Together with the Mapalad paralegals, we filed a motion for reconsideration, timing this with demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court as well as signature and letter-writing campaigns. Sadly, not only did the court maintain its position, it also issued a ban on gatherings in its vicinity and took an even harder line against the farmers. In violation of the Agrarian Reform Law, the court added that the farmers do not have the right to own the land because they are merely seasonal workers.

Today, the Mapalad farmers are tired, angry, and disappointed with the legal system, but their spirit is not defeated. They remain convinced that the land is legally theirs and resolve to make the government accountable to deliver social justice.

Armed with knowledge of the law and given the opportunity to use their paralegal skills, the farmers developed a powerful voice in their own campaign. Because they clearly understand their rights and are able to articulate them, they are emboldened to face various government agencies and demand what is due them. The farmers also learned that legal action can open avenues for the state to respond to extralegal modes of struggle: Having their case in the Office of the President set the stage for Ramos to act, but it was their hunger strike and the public outcry it produced that forced him to rule in their favor.

But the Mapalad case shows that it is not enough to have laws on your side, even with the possession of legal knowledge and support combined with successful mobilization and public-relations strategies. The law is a double-edged sword: It protects and advances the interests of the poor and implements reforms, but it also preserves the status quo and perpetuates the interests of the elite. How can the interests of the poor be advanced if the legal system is caught in the claws of the rich?

The Mapalad farmers’ struggle reveals the corruption and bias of the entire Philippines justice system. The Supreme Court bent over backwards to accommodate the interests of rich landowners such as the Bukidnon governor and the Quisumbings but, in an obvious cover-up, became a stickler for rules and technicalities when deciding against the farmers. In the Philippines, it is more expedient to sacrifice the rights of the poor than to trample on the claims of the powerful. Traditional and elite politics permeate every corner of the government and legal system, threatening social justice measures like agrarian reform. The struggles of the Mapalad farmers and other marginalized groups cannot be separated from the larger effort to reform the legal system to better safeguard the delivery of justice in the Phillipines.

* PAKISAMA-Northern Mindnao is a national peasent federation to which the Malapad cooperative belongs. Attorneys Kaka Bag-ao and Azon Gaite-Llanderal are both counsels of the Malapad farmers.

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