Farmers demanding the ouster of Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes have lifted a weeklong hunger strike following a dialogue with Cabinet officials over the weekend.
But the Church-backed Task Force Mapalad (TFM) working with the farmers said the lifting of the fast was a temporary “ceasefire” for the holidays.
“If the farmers had their way, they will not stop their hunger strike, even if it is Christmas,” said Lanie Factor, deputy national coordinator of the advocacy group.
Alberto Jayme, TFM-Negros president, announced yesterday the temporary lifting of the hunger strike following the meeting with Budget Secretary Florencio Abad and Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman Saturday night.
Jayme said in a statement this would allow President Aquino “to hasten” the completion of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) “and provide solutions to the problems we have raised.”
He said that foremost of the strikers’ complaint was the alleged dismal performance of De los Reyes, a charge the secretary has denied.
The hunger strike by 56 farmers, who claim to represent 20,000 TFM members mostly from Negros Occidental, began on Dec. 16 at the main office of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) in Quezon City. A dozen of them were on the fourth floor, outside the office of De los Reyes. The rest were encamped outside the compound.
At least 39 of them had collapsed because of chest pains, dizziness and weakness and were hospitalized, but they went back to fast after their recovery.
“They have now eaten. We plan to hold a simple noche buena of pancit and bread for them. It’s so hard to be in their shoes, to be far away from home and family during Christmas,” Factor said Sunday.
Jayme said the farmers agreed to suspend their action but would remain at the DAR building.
“This is a ceasefire, and in any ceasefire, both parties are not obliged to stop maintaining their vigilance and abandon their struggle. On our part, the struggle for land goes on and we shall persist in asking that a new steward be placed at the DAR,” he said.
Factor added that by the second week of January, more farmers would be at the DAR building to support the resumption of the hunger strike and in urging the sacking of De los Reyes.
In June, the group met with Abad and later with President Aquino, who pledged to speed up the acquisition and distribution of land under the CARP, 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.
The farmers accused De los Reyes of deceiving the public when he said the DAR would be able to distribute 160,000 hectares of land by the end of 2012.
Jayme previously noted that out of the original aim of distributing 260,000 hectares of land for 2012, De los Reyes lowered the DAR’s target to 180,000 hectares
Out of this target, only 49,349 hectares of land have been distributed as of Dec. 13, Jayme said, citing DAR records.
During Saturday’s meeting, the farmers’ representatives issued a five-point demand to Abad, who reportedly promised to work on all, except the firing of De los Reyes.
“All we could commit was to bring this to the attention of the President, who has the first say on the fate of the Cabinet,” Abad said in a text message to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Soliman said she and Abad asked the farmers to lift their hunger strike.
“When we finished the meeting, it was not clear they would do so. We requested that in the spirit of Christmas, let us allow ourselves to celebrate the season in peace,” Soliman said.
De los Reyes has said he is prepared to step aside if the President wants him out.