As the sun slowly makes its way towards the horizon, all is quiet in the village of Nilantagan. The pervading atmosphere is one of defeat and frustration as the farmers here face yet another hurdle in a land dispute struggle that has dragged on for many years.
Nilantagan, a small coastal village in the Bondoc peninsula, is made up of the farmers’ houses, thatched huts, one store and no public facilities such as a clinic or a police station. This village is particularly difficult to access since it is inconveniently located between the landowner’s property, hacienda Matias, and the sea. If one tries to cut across the hacienda, there is a risk of incurring a trespassing charge, as is the case with many farmers and even some military personnel who were seen on the property. Thus, the only secure means to reach Nilantagan is by small ferryboats.
In 2006, fresh out of law school, JusticeMaker Rosselynn Jae Garcia de la Cruz was assigned her first agrarian reform case representing farmers from Nilantagan, who were charged with ‘qualified theft’of coconuts. Back then, her knowledge about agrarian reform law was limited at best, but she soon became adept at navigating the maze that is agrarian reform law. It has been about four years since ‘attorney Jae’ (as the farmers refer to her) took on the case and while there has been some progress, the fight is far from over.
Before the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, the farmers in Nilantagan were obliged to give 70% of their harvest to the landowner. When, in 2003, the farmers belatedly began their petition for land ownership, the landlord, Mr. Matias, responded by evicting many farmers from their home. Despite years of legal battle, many farmers are still faced with criminal charges for harvesting coconuts, and in 2009, out of 25 evicted families, only nine were allowed to move back to their farms. These families didn’t become landowners but instead, were given a lease agreement that improved the share system with the landlord. Unfortunately, even after the farmers received the lease, they’re affronted with continual harassment from the landlord’s hired workers, which the farmers collectively refer to as goons.
When we arrived in Nilantagan, we met with one of the farmer leaders, Rolando Zaño, who was in the middle of changing his bullet-hole riddled windows. He explains, “This happened a few years back. Armed goons, hired by the landowner, came and shot at my house. But I am only able to change the windows now.”
Rolando, an energetic man with a penchant for jokes, even at the most inopportune times, was distracted that day because the goons were harvesting the coconuts from the land that the farmers were legally leasing. Yet, even as this crime was ongoing, there were no police present.
Above: A goon harvests Maria Laracas’ land
We soon learned that the absence of police in agrarian reform incidents is rather common because, by nature, they occur in rural areas, and are quite isolated. Therefore, when crimes such as the incineration of a farmer’s house occur, it can take a few days to report that crime. For years, offenses against the farmers have gone on without arrests. By the time the farmers go to the police, it proves to be too late as the farmers are left with only their word as evidence.
This incident, however, was different. The farmers had the opportunity to involve the police directly and catch the goons while they were harvesting the coconuts. Several hours after the farmers arrived at the police station to report the crime, the police agreed to accompany them back to Nilantagan on ferryboats, which the farmers themselves had rented.
Above: Son of a Farmer waits in the police station
The police raid resulted in two arrests and as the goons were hauled off to jail, there was a sense of triumph amongst the farmers. After years of being the accused, they were finally the accusers and for the first time, they felt they were on the other side of the law.
Jansept Geronimo, a community organizer for Nilantagan exclaimed, “This is a very good case! This is the first time that they [the goons] have been caught in the act. They will surely face criminal charges.”
Above: Police conduct raid on goons
This jubilation was short-lived, however, as the prosecutor dismissed the case by using a recently passed legislation designed to protect farmers. Under the new law, if any farmer,who is a tenant, is accused of criminal charges, the courts must dismiss charges and refer the case to the Agrarian reform offices. Yet, even though the arrested goons were clearly not tenants, the prosecutor took their word for it and released them promptly. The sense of triumph was quickly replaced by one of outrage and the farmers, who made the four-hour trip to the provincial court, seemed bewildered by the prosecutor’s dismissal of a blatant crime.
Outside the courts, the agrarian reform officials promise the farmers that they will appeal the dismissal. But as the goons walk away without any repercussions, the farmers know that, at best, it will take months, or even years, before the goons face criminal charges again. Sometime in the unforeseen future, they might be held accountable for their actions, but for today, the farmers know that justice has failed them.
Yet, in the face of this defeat, Rolando remains hopeful, “We will just keep coming back with the police, and they will keep arresting these goons. We will not stop.”
Victory for farmers in agrarian reform cases are few and far in between. Everyday, they continue their battle to own a small patch of land, which is their only source of income. Even when the justice system seems to be against them, the farmers keep fighting within the confines of the law. Four years after she started this case, attorney Jae remains one of their best fighters.
Above: Police raid
Above: Soldier disembarks at Nilantagan
Above: Police confiscate Machete from the goons
Above:Police light up after the arrest
Photos by Ayda Wondemu