If JusticeMaker Rosselynn Jae Garcia de la Cruz had to name other agrarian reform lawyers in the Philippines, she would be stumped after listing a few names. Not because there doesn’t exist a network amongst agrarian reform lawyers but rather, there is a frightening scarcity of lawyers who specialize in this field.
More than twenty years after the government had mandated the redistribution of land to farmers living under a feudal system, almost 1.5 million hectares of land has yet to be reallocated. That roughly equates to 5% of the country’s land area. Yet, there are only a handful of agrarian reform lawyers who represent the farmers.
Even though the Department of Agrarian reform (DAR) has lawyers to represent the farmers, they seem to be lacking either in knowledge or motivation. Rolando Zaño, a farmer leader explains, “the DAR lawyers, I don’t know what they are doing. They just sit there and sometimes, smile. But they don’t do much.”
Expectantly, agrarian reform lawyers are stretched thin throughout the country. JusticeMaker Jae, herself, represents 15 cases. Within each case, she deals with several farmers, who face a multitude of charges ranging from qualified theft to attempted murder. The difficulty of Jae’s situation became quite clear as we accompanied her on some of her visits to her clients. Each trip takes the whole day with several bus and tricycle transfers.
The farmers, tucked away in their rural communities, face continual harassments from powerful landowners who employ private armies. These armed goons carry out a wide range of harassments such as verbal attacks, arson, and, in some cases, murder. Previous to this legal struggle, these farmers were largely unacquainted with the legal system, and thus, are unaware of their rights and the proper course of legal action in the face of these harassments. In many instances, their lawyers are belatedly informed about the incidents, and the evidence necessary to pursue a case had already been lost.
Throughout her career as an agrarian reform lawyer, Jae has been frustrated with these obstacles that have impeded many cases. It is with that in mind that she designed the WARRIOR (women advocates for rural reform and the institutionalization of rights) program.
The WARRIOR program aims to arm women with basic paralegal knowledge, so that when there are crimes against the farmers, the women farmers, who undergo this training, will be able to give advice about the right course of legal action. Additionally, they will learn how to write affidavits and help conserve the evidence.
For Jae, women farmers, instead of men, were the obvious choice for the program. She explains, “In my experience, women are more capable than men when it comes to keeping records. They are more rational.”
There is also a lack of empowerment amongst the women in these communities who are, in some instances, relegated to the background in the agrarian reform dispute as well as in other aspects of their lives. In this sense, this program is twofold as it hopes to create a sense of empowerment in the women and endow their communities with another weapon in this seemingly unending struggle.