Food for the people or high-end houses for the rich? The conflict over 1,645 hectares of land in Rodriguez (formerly Montalban), Rizal boils down to land use, and the conflicting laws that cover it.
By DEE AYROSO
RODRIGUEZ, Rizal – To get to her home, Roslyn Chua, 30, crosses a hanging bridge over Wawa river, walks on a narrow cemented path built high along the river, then goes up, up a muddy trail of rocks, with a bubbling creek on the side. Finally, a riff-raff of stones – it is her doorstep, her home is a hut ensconced among fruit-bearing and forest trees.
Chua’s home is in San Rafael village, Rodriguez (formerly Montalban), near the Wawa dam, in Rizal province, a tourist spot just an hour away from Cubao, Quezon city.It is called by some as “the cheapest nature trip” for Metro Manila’s working class weary of the city smoke and traffic.
It won’t be cheap for long, if the Aranetas – one of Forbes Magazine’s 50 richest in the Philippines – have their way.
At the Peasant Women International Fact-finding Mission (IFFM) on Oct. 19, Chua, the secretary-general of Amihan-Rodriguez, told foreign delegates that she and other residents are now fighting an uphill battle against the Aranetas who have laid claim on their upland farms and homes. This includes Chua’s main source of income, the orchard developed by her late father Francisco, a businessman and nature lover.
Called “Lot 23” by the Montalban cadastre, the disputed land covers 1,645-hectares in the villages of Mascap and San Rafael. Up to 1,266 has. have been distributed to the farmer-residents under the Marcos-era Land Reform Act or Presidential Decree 27, and the succeeding Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (Carl).
On Sept. 3, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Aranetas, and cancelled the Emancipation Patents (EPs) of 912 farmer-beneficiaries, including Chua’s, despite her father’s full-payment of amortization.
The disputed land is characterized by rolling hills to upland terrain, abundant with fruit-bearing trees as well as vegetable farms that are watered all year round from the numerous spring and creeks. It produces 30 per cent of the fruit supply of Metro Manila, and is a flowing fruit basket of bananas and coconut, mango, avocado, langka, dalandan, chesa, rambutan, passion fruit, you name it. Vegetable farms produce eggplant, ampalaya, stringbeans, camote, patola, cassava among others. Some even started to grow cacao, the ingredient for chocolate.
“Why does government favour the very rich, instead of helping those who are poor?” said a woman farmer to the IFFM.
The Peasant Women IFFM Mission was organized by the AMIHAN (Federation of Peasant Women) and UMA (Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura or Federation of Agricultural Workers), and was held from Oct. 15 to 21. Aside from going to Montalban, the mission also visited Hacienda Luisita and lobbied at the House of Representatives. Among the delegates were peasant, women and labor-rights advocates from Australia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Sept. 3 Supreme Court decision was the latest rejection received by the farmer-residents from the court. The decision denied the Omnibus Motion filed by the farmers asking to nullify an earlier SC decision in February this year, which, in turn, affirmed the September 2003 decision of the Court of Appeals that ruled in favour of the Aranetas, and cancelled the 912 EPs.
In its 2003 ruling, the CA said that Lot 23 has been “reclassified for residential use” because it is within the boundaries of the declared townsite reservation. This was in spite of the fact that it had already been distributed under Carl and fully-paid for by the farmer-beneficiaries.
“They ceased to be agricultural lands upon approval of their inclusion in the reservation,” the CA decision said.
In 1977, President Marcos issued Proclamation 1637, which reclassified the area as residential, and part of the “Lunsod Silangan (Eastern City) townsite” to be developed by the government to accommodate the overspill of population from Metro Manila. The proclamation amended Proclamation 1283, which carved out a portion of the watershed reservation in Antipolo, Rizal for townsite reservation in 1974.
Proclamation 1637 covers 20,000-hectares in Montalban, Antipolo and San Mateo, on which relocation sites for informal settlers from Metro Manila now stand, interspersed with private subdivisions catering to middle-class income earners.
Proclamation 1637 vs. Carp
Alfonso Doronila, a native of Aklan in Panay island, was the original title holder of the 1,645 has. He was an employee at the land surveyor’s office and among the first settlers in the area.
Ludovico Zausa, 74, said that his family used to give 10 sacks per 100 cavans of palay, or 10 per cent of their harvest, as land rent to Doronila.
In 1972, a portion of Doronila’s property was put under Presidential Decree 27, which covered rice and corn lands. Seventy-five farmer-beneficiaries were given Certificates of Land Titles (CLTs), covering 75 has. Another batch of 30 farmers were later also given CLTs.
In 1978, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) – which was tasked to expropriate the private lands covered by Proclamation 1637 – filed an expropriation complaint against Doronila, who responded by submitting certification that the property was covered by the land reform program. The case was dismissed in 1987, when the OSG moved for its dismissal.
The residents said that in the 80s, Doronila reportedly sold the land to Amado Araneta, who paid a downpayment of P 40,000 on the condition that its occupants are out of the area in eight months. The residents resisted, and Araneta sued Doronila for breach of contract.
According to the SC decision, on March 15, 1983, Araneta “acquired ownership of the subject Doronilla property by virtue of court litigation.” More than a week later, Araneta was able to have Doronila’s Original Certificate of Title cancelled, and secured a Transfer Certificate of Title in his name.
One of the eldest resident-farmers, Zausa, recalled that Doronila died while the case was still in court, and Araneta took this opportunity to grab the land.
Zausa said the Aranetas can only claim 300 has. of Lot 23, the area they called “white mountain” for the money he paid Doronila. The rest belong to the farmers.
In July 1989, Amado’s heir Jorge L. Araneta wrote to the Department of Agrarian Reform asking to convert Lot 23 into commercial, industrial and other non-agricultural uses, but the agency did not act on the request.
In 1990, the Cory Aquino regime implemented the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (Carl), which continued the implementation of Marcos’ PD 27, and also covered farms planted to other crops. By September 1990, 1,200 EPs were issued to 912 farmer-beneficiaries, covering 1,266 has. Araneta, all the while, protested the processing of the EPs.
In 1992, the Land Bank notified Araneta that it is entitled to P3.3 million as just compensation for the land. In response, Araneta asked the Dar Adjudication Board (Darab) to cancel the agrarian reform coverage of Lot 23. The case was brought before the Regional Agrarian Reform Adjudicator (Rarad), who dismissed Araneta’s case, for lack of merit, and ordered the release of compensation for the land.
Araneta appealed to the Darab, which affirmed the Rarad ruling in 2001. Then, Araneta went to the Court of Appeals, which overturned the Darab decision in 2003.
The farmers and residents learned of the decision only in 2007. They said that they were not able to receive the summons. Nelia Zonio, the former village chair, said she discovered the undelivered letters from the court compiled in sacks, stashed under the stairs of the barangay hall. They filed a belated petition to the SC in 2012, which were denied in 2014.
The SC upheld only the 75 CLT holders who received their titles in 1972, before Proclamation 1637 was issued in 1977.
Interestingly, both the CA and the SC cited Proclamation 1637 to favour the Aranetas’ private claim to Lot 23, but the original vision of the proclamation is to have the areas under the townsite reservation site acquired and developed publicly, or by government.
The farmers have 15 days, or up to Oct. 29, to respond to the latest SC decision, which they received Oct. 14.
Zen Soriano, national chair of Amihan, condemned the latest SC decision. “This case shows the failure of the agrarian reform. There is a need to change the laws,” she said. “This is legal land grabbing.”
She said the Aranetas are reportedly planning to develop the area for a high-end subdivision. But the farmers have a moral basis to remain in the land because of their production.
“All over the world, the people’s right to food is respected, it is recognized by the United Nations. When this right is violated, it is tantamount to killing the people, and that’s why we have to fight for our rights,” said Soriano, who helps organize women farmers in Montalban.
If only the court could see how productive the land is, because the farmers and their families have nurtured it for decades. The earliest settlers arrived in the 50s and 60s, most of them from Aklan and other parts of the Visayas.
Nelia Navarro, 57, whose family came from Aklan, recalled that deer and wild boar abound in the area when she first settled in Mascap with her parents and siblings in 1972. They cleared a portion on which they built their house and plant fruit-bearing trees, vegetables and rice. Navarro gets most of her income from selling her harvest of bananas and other fruits. She plants rice only for household consumption, but she complained it usually gets eaten by rats.
“The only thing you need here is rice. All the rest of your meals, you can get from the land,” she said.
Aurora Barcelona, 61, was among the agrarian reform beneficiaries who settled in the area in 1987. A member of the Banal na Dambana, which has built a chapel in San Rafael, Barcelona said she felt a spiritual connection to the place, which was peaceful and serene. She said the land is so fertile and productive. A retired teacher, she gets all her income from her upland farm.
Some of the original EP holders have passed away, but their children and heirs continue to maintain the farms, like Mary Jane Francisco and her husband Rodolfo who were left to maintain the parcel of land of her late uncle-in-law in Mascap. She said the land had been fully paid for, and they religiously pay its real estate tax.
Most of the farmers with cancelled EPs had paid their amortization, worth an average of P2,600 per hectare. They showed the IFFM delegates their Transfer Certificate of Title (TCTs) and Certificate of Full Payment from the Land Bank.
Juliana Villar, 73, of San Rafael, said she paid her amortization by doing laundry. Two of her children now work outside the country, but she has grandchildren who will continue to develop the land.
It was by dint of hard work that the farmers saved up to pay for their land because the prices of fruits are not always good, they said.
“The fee for a kargador (porter) to bring down bananas to the village center is at P400 per sack. A sack contains 400 bananas, and when the financier buys it for one peso a piece, the farmer gets only P50,” explained one woman.
Aside from their produce, the farmers also gather bamboo which they make into barbecue sticks. They also make charcoal, pruning branches of ipil-ipil, and occasionally also fruit trees. Some of the village residents also engage in gold-panning, indicating that there are gold reserves in the area.
Zonio said although they have yet to receive a notice of eviction from the Aranetas, many farmers are already affected.
“Some of us no longer want to improve their farm, they think that everything will just be taken away by the Aranetas. Many are worried because they have nowhere to go,” Zonio said.
There are also rumours spreading to discourage the farmers and residents from asserting their rights through their organization. “They said that when the Aranetas pay those who will be evicted, they will not include those who are with Amihan,” Zonio said.
“Many want to join (Amihan), but they are afraid,” said Zonio. “They have to take courage, they must know the truth.”
The Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-Saf) had set up a barracks and a checkpoint at the entry of Mascap village.
Soriano said the police and military maintain presence in the villages, patrolling the area, and monitoring the ingress and egress of the people.
Zonio said there were incidents that suspected military informers from the village inquire about the Amihan leader Soriano.
In sitio Sto. Niño, San Rafael, a peasant woman reported that armed men came to their farm in 2013, and attempted to build a fence “upon orders from the Aranetas.” Her father however stopped the men, telling them they have no right to put up fences. The armed men just left.
As the IFFM delegates were about to leave Mascap, a drunken man whom Soriano said was not a village resident, rudely shouted: “Just leave, we don’t want you here.”
“Who are you? You’re not from here, you’re a soldier, aren’t you?” Soriano responded. The man continued drinking beer at a store.
Like the other farmer-beneficiaries, Chua said she wants to continue taking care of the land, her father’s legacy of his love of nature. She still has fond memories of planting some of the trees with her father during summer.
“I’m here out of respect for my father, who worked hard for this,” she said, adding that all of it will be gone if she doesn’t make a stand.
For most of the women members of Amihan, their upland farms are all they have.
One of the women farmers said “If we can’t fight in the legal battle, we can use our own strength, through our organization. The most important thing is to produce our own food. How can we do that if we lose our land?”