(First of four parts)
The few minutes she was allowed to talk to President Aquino in Malacañang’s stately Maharlika Hall on June 14 gave her a new lease on life.
Dorita Vargas, 63, did not miss the chance to reveal how she raised her six children—all girls—after her husband abandoned her and she took over his job in a sugar hacienda in Negros.
When she heard about the government’s land-to-the-tiller program, she filed a claim in the office of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) in Bacolod City for a piece of the plantation.
The effort has yet to take the sunburned, wrinkled woman to her vision of Shangri-la.
“When you won as President, we were so happy because we voted for you,” Vargas told Mr. Aquino. “We all voted for you because you came from a good family… Beloved President, you are our only hope of getting our own land.”
The President listened intently as he faced Dorita and representatives of 300 peasants from as far as Bukidnon who had been on a 10-day march to dramatize demands for the full implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
The program, initiated by the President’s mother, democracy icon Corazon Aquino, was launched 24 years ago. It ends in June 2014.
“Hayaan mo, nay, tutulungan ko kayo (Don’t worry, mom, I will help you),” the President said.
To the assembled group, Mr. Aquino, flanked by Cabinet officials, promised to fully implement the program before its expiration, renewing a vow he made when he ran for president.
It was the first time since the balloting that the President, whose family owns the sprawling Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac, definitively spoke publicly about the explosive land redistribution program.
The Palace issued a press statement on the President’s remarks during the two-hour meeting behind closed doors, which came seven months after the Supreme Court ordered the dismantling of his family’s plantation for distribution to its workers. The court held that a stock ownership option in the estate’s corporation, allowed by the CARP law in lieu of land distribution, had not improved the lives of the farmers.
Dorita recalled that the President said she would have the land she wanted before yearend. She said in a phone interview last week from her ramshackle hut in La Castellana outside Bacolod that Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes still had to carry out Mr. Aquino’s commitment to her.
“It is not the President’s fault,” she told the Inquirer, as the farmers, under the auspices of the Church-backed Task Force Mapalad (TFM), took to the streets again this month to voice their concerns about the continued slow implementation of the CARP.
On Dec. 14, she joined 56 farmers who went on a hunger strike to press their demands. The fasting ended after yet another meeting at the Palace with the President’s aides last night and yet another promise of compliance.
Last chance for dream
In a letter prepared by Church leaders in June, the farmers complained that De los Reyes had been “consistently underperforming” in carrying out the CARP, which was extended for another five years in 2009 and is now called the CARP extension with reforms, or Carper.
“These farmers risked their lives for Cory and believed her promise that CARP would liberate them from the bondage of serfdom. They voted for P-Noy because he represented their last chance at realizing their dream of having their own land. These are the mainstream peasants who have patiently abided by the cumbersome ways of democracy and have resisted the calls for violent revolution,” the letter said.
Fifty-two of the 100 members of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines endorsed the letter.
The program still has to distribute nearly 1 million hectares of the nation’s most productive estates, whose owners have evaded coverage for a quarter century. A large part of the 4.3 million ha distributed during the period comprised “nonprivate” lands.
On Dec. 11, the President motored to Ateneo de Manila University to hear the peasants, at the close of a 17-day, 340 kilometer march, complain that an ecozone project in Aurora’s remote coastal town of Casiguran is illegally depriving them of their land and their livelihood. He promised a review of the project.
Women lead battle
In her tearful narrative at the Palace meeting in June, Dorita Vargas summed up the plight of millions of Filipino women in different difficult climes and circumstances.
She is pinning her hopes on land reform, which Cory Aquino, the country’s first woman President, initiated to extricate Filipinos from poverty. Land reform was the centerpiece of Mrs. Aquino’s social justice program.
Ironically, women are now at the forefront of that struggle—whether as Carper campaigners or as simple wage earners. To eke out a living, some go to extremes as prostitutes and drug mules. Large numbers work as domestic helpers in affluent homes in the West, or besieged households in strife-torn countries such as Syria and Yemen.
It had been 29 years since her husband left her, Dorita told the President.
To support the family, she worked as a farmhand at Hacienda Cantikbil Manalo in La Castellana in Negros Occidental, planting sugarcane, fertilizing the fields, picking weeds, harvesting—for a measly P85 a day. The poverty threshold is a dollar a day, or roughly P40, but the amount she earned was certainly way below that level with six other mouths to feed.
After she joined a clamor to bring the plantation under CARP in 1995, disaster struck. She was fired and her thatched hut was put to the torch—a fate that often befell many peasants seeking to own a piece of the land they were tilling, according to civil society organizations in the reform movement.
More sorrow than joy
A program meant to ease pain wrought more suffering.
“When they destroyed my house, life became even more difficult,” Dorita said.
She raised chickens, goats and pigs to supplement her meager farm salary.
Two daughters who never went beyond elementary school married early and left home at a squatter colony beside a creek in La Castellana, where she had moved. They were the first casualties, she sadly narrated, of her broken family.
The four others were able to finish high school but likewise got married to men too destitute themselves to give them and their children a decent life. Two of these girls recently went abroad to work as house helps—one to Malaysia and the other to Dubai, leaving their four children with the grandmother.
Dorita cares for the grandchildren in her clapboard shack the size of a ping-pong table beside St. Vincent Parish, where she sells coffee. The OFW women chip in whatever money they could raise to educate their children. Dorita takes care of their daily needs from the squalid version of Starbucks. She could barely make both ends meet.
The daughter in Malaysia sent her P5,000 for this year’s schooling of two children now in college—a girl, 18, studying computer programming, and a boy, 16, taking up civil engineering. The other daughter in Dubai hasn’t yet sent home money. She still has to pay the expenses she had borrowed to get to the Gulf state.
On a recent stop in Dubai, I was told by a Filipino woman working at a hamburger restaurant that she was earning $200 a month—half of which went to repay expenses that brought her recent employment in the emirate and the other half barely enough for her bread and board.
Of the 22 workers who, along with Dorita Vargas, petitioned the dismantling of the 127-ha Hacienda Cantikbil Manalo 17 years ago, five have died. In February, a notice of valuation for the estate was handed down, but the potential beneficiaries were told that the land registration papers were missing and distribution could not be done.
“We’re being given the runaround,” Dorita told the President, who forthwith called Romulo Gonzaga, the register of deeds in Bacolod. With the speakerphone on, Mr. Aquino drew a pledge from Gonzaga that the missing papers would be produced within a week.
The papers have not surfaced six months later.
Armando Jarilla, the TFM national coordinator, blames the President for the underwhelming performance of De los Reyes.
“Mr. De los Reyes can explain things in terms of what to do systems-wise, cost-benefit analysis, but in terms of actual operational implementation, it’s problematic,” Jarilla said. “On the whole, it is a P-Noy (Pres. Aquino’s moniker) problem. There are indications that agrarian reform is not close to P-Noy.”
The program is underfunded. Beneficiaries do not get the required support mechanisms—credit mainly to follow their dreams.
Still, Dorita remains upbeat.
“I believe the President is sincere,” she told the Inquirer last week. “If he will keep his word, we will all get our land.”
And what would she do with the land?
In an interview in the TFM headquarters in an apartment in Quezon City, the slight woman with dyed jet black hair and missing teeth recalled that DAR officials taunted her in meetings in Bacolod.
“You are an old woman, they tell me. How will you work in the field? I tell them, yes, it is true, I’m a woman. But I have brains. If I can no longer work, I have my grandchildren with me. I will raise pigs, raise money to pay workers who will work in the land. I tell my children, you will soon have land, you take care of it. If you work hard, know how to handle a shovel, you will do well.”
She may be down now, but she’s far from being out. (Next: Jimmy only wanted a piece of land, got Muntinlupa instead.)