“Pesante Pilipinas took advantage of the impoverished and desperate conditions of the affected peasants. They were recruited and deceived by this pseudo-peasant group who extorted money through annual renewal of membership fees, monthly dues and collections for operational expenses. Nothing, however, materialized from their promises.” Coron-Busuanga Fact-finding Report
Second of two parts
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
CORON, Palawan — After Typhoon Pedring struck the country in 2011, Leonardo Merculio, 64, and his family were at a loss on how to survive. Their crops were destroyed, their farm covered with sand and stones while the rest of the community was nearly washed out when the typhoon battered their hometown in Sta. Cruz, Mindoro Occidental.
A certain Mamerto Dimayas, who hailed from San Jose, Negros Occidental, offered them a “vacant” land in Coron, Palawan. He promised the residents that there was a big chance the land would be given to them in time.
The recruited families had to pay only $5.60, a seemingly small amount of money. But for families who lost everything to the typhoon, it was all they had. Merculio’s family was among the 10 families who took the leap of faith, hoping to start a better life.
How wrong he was.
“We were first brought to San Nicolas village (in Coron) and lived as if we were NPAs (New People’s Army). We were told to hide in the mountains so that the guards would not see us and send us back,” Merculio said.
From 10 families, they increased to 20 in the following days. Soon, soldiers in the area discovered them and took them to a police station. They were told to return to where they came from.
“If the land is up for distribution, then you can return,” a police was quoted as saying. Merculio, however, refused to leave Coron.
“I am already old. And all my life, I have never seen a landlord willingly hand over even a small parcel of land to farmers. If one wants to own it, then one would have to till it,” he said, “A farmer would only survive if there is a land to till.”
Merculio was one of the farmers interviewed by a national fact-finding mission organized by the Katipunan ng mga Samahan ng Magbubukid sa Timog Katagalugan (KASAMA-TK) and Anakpawis Southern Tagalog in Coron and Busuanga in June.
Merculio’s family is now among the hundreds of peasant families who live in the so-called “floating sitios” in nearly 40,000 hectares of disputed land of the Yulo King Ranch (YKR).
Pesante Pilipinas, led by a certain Evangeline “Vangie” Mendoza, recruited peasant families, mostly from Mindoro, to move to Yulo King Ranch. They coughed up money for their membership fees and “voluntary” contributions for the legal services and transportation costs of their leaders who supposedly processed their documents so the land would be given to them through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), which expired last June 30.
Mendoza, according to residents of Sitio Dimanyang in Guadalupe village, falsely introduced herself as member of the progressive women’s group Gabriela to gain the trust of the people.
“The poverty and landlessness have made peasants in other provinces vulnerable to deception such as that of Pesante Pilipinas, ran by Evangeline “Vangi” G. Mendoza and clique,” said the fact-finding mission report.
“Pesante Pilipinas took advantage of the impoverished and desperate conditions of the affected peasants. They were recruited and deceived by this pseudo-peasant group who extorted money through annual renewal of membership fees, monthly dues and collections for operational expenses of their organization. Nothing materialized from their promises,” the report added.
In Merculio’s case, he said Pesante leaders left them on their own as they bat against state security forces who wanted to demolish their homes and destroy their crops.
After they were brought to the police station, there were some who agreed to go back to Mindoro. But others, including Merculio’s family, chose to stay because they did not have money for their fare. They asked helped from Pesante leaders who shrugged off their concerns and merely told them to return to San Nicolas village.
Families built makeshift homes but it was soon discovered and demolished by the Marines. They were brought to the office of the town mayor, who told them to return to Mindoro. Pesante leaders, Peter Cabino and Arnel Figuerroa, were quoted as saying that they could not do anything about it. But their recruiter Dumayas said they could go to Decalachao village instead.
Dumayas hired Merculio in construction work but they were never paid. “He would add up the expected income we earned from the homes we built but did not give a centavo. We thought ‘it was okay’ as long as we get the land,” he said, adding that the most they got was free food.
In Sitio Dimanyang in Guadalupe village, most residents recruited by Pesante Pilipinas were also from other villages of Coron, like Merculio.
Susan Bacoli, one of the residents in Sitio Dimanyang and a Pesante recruit, agreed to move to the community as their former house was being threatened to be demolished.
Residents of Sitio Dimanyang told the fact-finding mission they paid $10 registration fee to become a member of Pesante. They also paid various contributions ranging from $0.70 to $2.5.
“We paid $1.12 for our ID for Pesante. We are no longer members of the group and we never received it,” Bacoli said.
Villareal said security guards tried to stop Pesante-Pilipinas recruits from constructing their homes, but “there were those brave enough to resist and continue cultivating the land.”
Efforts of residents to assert their right to remain in the land was met with harassment from state security forces.
Merculio said soldiers belonging to the Marines deployed in their village once cocked their guns at him while he was trying to persuade them not to demolish the house of a neighbor.
“You do not understand the hard work this person poured out when he built his home,” he told the soldiers.
Merculio said soldiers were in uniform but did not have nameplates.
For a time, soldiers also tried to forbid them from passing along the village road, forcing them to take a longer route.
Merculio said they refrained from asking help from village officials who were “friends” with the soldiers. “They (village officials) were even among those who initially threatened us to leave the area,” he said.
Private security guards involved in the demolition of homes of residents, according to Decalachao village official Roger Gacayan, were hired by the Bureau of Animal Industries.
Gacayan, a former security guard of Yulo King Ranch for eight years, told the fact-finding mission that “we only demolish homes that were not yet fully constructed.”
He added that the Philippine Forest Corporation requested for the deployment of Marines in the community “because they wanted to get rid of squatters,” referring to the residents recruited and victimized by Pesante Pilipinas from various provinces.
On top of this, soldiers demolished their homes.
“Go back to where you came from. This land is for cows not humans,” a soldier was quoted as saying. Residents were also told not to pull out the grass, which reportedly came from Australia.
One time, Merculio said armed guards hired by BAI threatened to take his carabao, forcing him to scare them off with his sickle.
Merculio said there were families who were eventually discouraged and decided to return to Mindoro. But not him.
He said, “I told them, we have nowhere else to go, we lost our livelihood back in Mindoro.”
Most if not all members of Pesante members have already left the organization as soon as it became clear that its recruiters and leaders took advantage of them, residents said.
They formed another organization, the Federation of Coron-Busuanga Farmers Association in January to collectively continue their struggle to remain in the land they are tilling.
Bacoli said from time to time, they give financial contribution to the new organization. “At least we can see for ourselves where the money is going to. Our community now has its own chapel, a basketball court and hopefully, a day care school in the near future,” she added.
For Merculio, he said his family would continue to resist and fight for the land they are tilling. “We are not doing anything illegal. We only want to survive.”
The fact-finding mission said that farmers who migrated from other provinces and settled in “floating sitios” were deprived of basic social services from the government.
Jose Suyod, 70, was busy constructing a makeshift door for his house when this reporter stumbled into his home. Suyod’s house was destroyed by Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013, along with his crops. It has been months, but he and his wife Trining, 66, were hardly halfway to recovery.
Suyod believes moving on from the havoc wreaked by the typhoon may be relatively easier, if only they were not facing, among other things – landlessness, threats of eviction, being branded as New People’s Army members, and, consequently the lack of government social services.
Suyod is among the residents of Sitio Pandan in Decalachao village.
A week after Typhoon Yolanda, residents of Decalachao village received three kilos of rice, six canned goods and four packs of instant noodles from the government. It was all they received from the government, according to farmer Leonardo Merculio, also from Decalachao village.
The succeeding relief packs, he added, came from non-government groups such as the Southern Tagalog People’s Response Center (STPRC) and Anakpawis Partylist.
In Sitio Dimanyang of Guadalupe village, Bobby Rigudo, chairperson of the local chapter of Federation of Coron-Busuanga Farmers Association, said their community still does not have electricity because of their struggle to remain in the disputed land.
Many other communities do not have electricity either.
In the health centers in various villages, there are midwives but not doctors. Medicine is available, but only paracetamol and treatment for diarrhea.
Melody Dela Cruz, a community health worker in Decalachao village, said residents who flock to the village from other provinces were not included in their statistics. “But they are free to visit here and ask for medicine,” Dela Cruz said, adding that the most common sickness among children is diarrhea because of the poor quality of drinking water.
In Sitio Dimanyang, residents said there is no doctor in the village health center. They have to go straight to Coron General Hospital in the town proper and about an hour’s ride away. Even then, Geraldyn Salvado said there were only a few doctors in the said hospital. She told the fact-finding mission that her sister once gave birth without an attending doctor.
“If it is a “50-50 (life-threatening)” situation, one is most likely to die given the health services we have in the island,” Salvado said.
In Sitio Pandan in Decalachao, children walk nearly three kilometers each day to go to school. Students in Sitio Dimanyang walk for 15 minutes to go to Sta. Monica Elementary School. They pay a $5 annual contribution to the public school. Those in high school pay $7 monthly.
Rigudo said they were supposed to apply for a grant from an international non-government organization, which was willing to finance the construction of their day care center. This, he said, would spare young students from possible road mishaps when they walk to school every day.
Village officials, however, refused to issue a village government certification that there is really a community in the area.
Emilia Gadian, wife of farmer Merculio, said that their produce is only good for their family’s consumption. “My husband sometimes works as a carpenter, earning $5.70 a day,” Gadian said, “But it is not regular work.”
In Sitio Dimanyang, residents deplore the same lack of sources of livelihood.
Salvado said her husband works as a construction worker and gets paid $7 to $10 a day. But since it is a seasonal job, “his salary is only enough to pay for the debts we incurred and, at times, to buy a kilo of rice,” she added.
Their lack of income sources, they said, is worsened by the high prices of staple goods in the market. Residents speculated that the presence of local and foreign tourists could be jacking up prices.
The Suyod couple said they are hoping that the land they are tilling would soon be given to them. They said a hectare of land would be enough to make a living on.
The fact-finding team was composed of the Federation of Coron, Busuanga Farmers Association, KASAMA-TK, Anakpawis-TK, PAMALAKAYA-TK, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), Anakpawis-National, Bayan Muna partylist, Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), Ibon International, People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS), and Justice and Peace for the Integrity of God’s Creation – Baclaran, Permanent Commission on Social Mission Apostolate Redemptorists – Vice Province of Manila.
The mission was conducted from June 14 to 20, and interviewed residents from the eight villages of Decalachao, Guadalupe, San Jose and San Nicolas in Coron municipality, and the villages of Quezon, New Busuanga, Cheey and Sto. Nino in Busuanga municipality.