A few days ago, I received a phone call from Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon informing me that one of my farmer-clients, Yoli Abrenica, was attacked by bolo-wielding goons of the landlord. His hand was completely severed from his body. I was horrified to hear the news, to hear about violence this savage and unthinkable, but I was floored to hear further that the Local Government flatly refused to provide him with an ambulance to take him to the hospital. The community organizers had to hire a jeepney at their own expense to transport him to a public facility in Lucena.
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The Bondoc Pen region is made up of vast landholdings. The families Uy, Matias and Reyes are just some of the big landlords in the area. They claim title to thousands upon thousands of hectares of farmlands. When their farmer-tenants decided to organize and petition for coverage in the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), the patterm of violence started. Goons of the landlords terrorized the villages — killing the leaders in broad daylight (in one case, even mutilating the corpse to “set an example”), setting fire to their nipa huts, stealing the copras, harassing and threatening the peasants.
As if these weren’t enough, the landlords then employed another strategy. They manipulated the law and the legal system. The farmers who petitioned for CARP coverage suddenly found themselves stalked and hunted down like common criminals. Warrants of arrests have been issued against them for cases of Qualified Theft (theft of coconuts),
Trespassing, Malicious Mischief, and the like. Bail for each farmer has been set at P30,000. In some instances, both husband and wife have been issued warrants of arrest and have been arrested.
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A trip to Bondoc Pen is a dificult one to make. From Lucena (a good four hours from Manila), one gets on a rickety, non-aircon bus and braces him/herself for six more hours of bumpy and dusty roads. For some reason, though, I like going there. There’s no way of saying it other than to say that it gives me an immense sense of… quiet. It gives me a powerful clarity that I don’t get in Manila — sitting in one forum after the other, attending countless dialogues, eating Goldilocks ensaymada in yet another inter-agency meeting.
Before going to Bondoc Pen, I thought I knew what warlordism was. I use the word all the time, working as I do in a party list organization that seeks to promote the rights of peasants, among others. When I went there, I realized that I only understood what it meant intellectually, academically. You dont understand warlordism until you meet the farmers of Bondoc. You dont understand warlordism until you see nipa huts razed to the ground, wives crying because their husbands are in jail and there is nothing to eat, goons taking your picture in court because you dared lawyer for the farmers.
But in a similar vein, you dont understand courage and faith until you meet the farmers of Bondoc. The witness who allowed his testimony to be taken by me in open court, did so after receiving several death threats warning him not to testify. The mass surrender of the peasant leaders — the only way to call attention to their plight — is not an act of surrender, it is an act of defiance, a way of telling the world that petitioning for CARP coverage is not
a crime. The boycott of the remittance of shares to protest an oppressive 80-20 share agreement despite landlord backlash demonstrates the kind of bravery that not a lot of us are capable of.
E verytime I say goodbye to the farmers there and head back to Manila, they always thank me profusely. They do not know that it is I who owe them. I provide them with a service any person who passed the bar can give them. They, however, have helped me find my way. In that godfosaken land, I have found myself.
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I hate to end with sloganeering (wala naman tayo sa labas ng DAR) but really, “Justice for Yoly Abrenica!”