At least 16 farmers have collapsed since a militant group began a hunger strike on Monday to press demands for the ouster of Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio delos Reyes for allegedly failing to carry out commitments made to them personally by President Aquino six months ago, organizers said Wednesday.
Since Monday, 56 farmers, mostly members of Task Force Mapalad (TFM) based in Negros Occidental province, have holed up on the fourth floor of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) building, where Delos Reyes holds office, to demand his ouster or resignation.
They staged the hunger strike to dramatize the plight of the farmers, who secured a pledge from Mr. Aquino to speed up the acquisition and distribution of land, the issuance of notices of coverage on landholdings 25 hectares and lower, and the release of P1 billion in loan assistance to agrarian reform beneficiaries.
But after six months, TFM leaders said they were dissatisfied with how Delos Reyes, who was tasked to see through Mr. Aquino’s promise, was keeping the DAR chief’s end of that pledge. Delos Reyes, they said, is the worst-performing agrarian secretary in all administrations.
TFM deputy national coordinator Lanie Factor said her group wanted Mr. Aquino to take over the reins of the DAR himself.
She said the striking farmers were not there to seek a dialogue with Delos Reyes, but to try to get Mr. Aquino’s attention and to appeal to him to listen to their demands.
“We’re no longer interested in hearing what Secretary Delos Reyes has to say. We know what he will say even before he says it,” Factor told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Delos Reyes, in an earlier interview, said he had no immediate plans of meeting with the protesters. “They do not want to meet me. They just want me to resign,” he said.
In the meantime, he said, communication lines will remain open for a negotiation with the protesters “provided they do not turn violent and destroy property.”
Weak and inefficient
TFM president Alberto Jayme, in a statement, said the hunger strike would continue indefinitely until Mr. Aquino responded to the appeal.
He sought the removal of “all bottlenecks in the completion of Carper (Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program extension with reforms), including the weak and inefficient leadership of Secretary Delos Reyes.”
Nearly 1 million hectares remain to be distributed under the program, which was launched by the President’s mother, the democracy icon Corazon Aquino, in 1988.
On the third day of the hunger strike, nine farmers were rushed to hospital due to weakness and difficulty in breathing, bringing to 12 the number of the hospitalized, Factor said. She said the protesters were taking only water.
TFM identified them as Marlyn Diaz, 53; Adelita Tranghia, 54; Anthony Tranghia, 23; Velmora Segura, 40; Ryan Hechanova, 26; Gaspar Pancho, 44; Rommel Ramila, 35; Julius Landeza, 26; and Mario Espanola, 32.
The day before, the following were also hospitalized after experiencing chest pains and fainting: Dorita Vargas, 63; Aileen Suspene, 35; Marlyn Gordon, 50; Regino Quizada, 41; Mark Balderas, 24; Joel Pertes, 46; and Monico Alonsabi, 60, TFM said.
A personal promise
One of those who became ill, Dorita Vargas received in June a personal promise from Mr. Aquino that she would receive a certificate of landownership award for Hacienda Canticbil Manalo before year’s end. But the case is still far from being resolved, TFM said.
The farmers said that out of the original aim of distributing 260,000 ha of land for 2012, Delos Reyes lowered the DAR’s target to 180,000 ha.
But “out of this target, only 49,349 hectares of land have been distributed as of Dec. 13,” the group said, citing DAR records.
Delos Reyes, however, said he expected the DAR to have covered between 140,000 and 160,000 ha of land by the end of 2012.
In June 1988, President Corazon Aquino enacted the program as the centerpiece of a social justice promise to lift Filipinos from poverty and remove one of the major causes of a simmering communist insurgency.
But due to concerns about the DAR’s low land distribution output, a bill had been filed in the House of Representatives to extend the Carp by another five years. Delos Reyes said he welcomed the proposal but did not think it was necessary.