MANILA, Philippines -- Malacañang on Tuesday revoked a conversion order on a disputed 144-hectare property in Sumilao, Bukidnon, paving the way for the return of the land to the ownership of farmers who marched 1,700 kilometers for two months from Mindanao to Metro Manila to dramatize their demand.
But Marlon Manuel, a lawyer of the farmers, members of the Higaonon tribe, while acknowledging the order as an "initial victory," said it left many questions hanging.
"That's why the farmers are not rejoicing, we still have a long way to go," he told reporters in an interview.
The order, signed by Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, was personally delivered at around 1:30 p.m. by Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye to the 55 members of the Higaonon tribe who had camped out at the College of the Holy Spirit in Mendiola since Monday, when their representatives met with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in Malacañang.
Bunye described the order as "a significant first step" to the resolution of the Sumilao land row.
"I think we have to solve this problem, which has been there for several years one step at a time," Bunye said. "The revocation order is a significant first step and it gives teeth to the intention of the President to really help the farmers."
?Simula ngayon, asahan niyo na saan man makarating ang kaso na ito, ay kasama niyo na kami kahit sa korte [From now on, rest assured that wherever this case reaches, you will have us with you, even in court],? Bunye told the farmers after handing over the order.
But Manuel said the decision can even be seen as favoring San Miguel "because they can use this to elevate the case in court and to continue with the development of the hog farm."
The order said Arroyo ?agrees with the findings and recommendations? of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to cancel the conversion order for the property, once owned by the Quisumbing family but since sold to San Miguel Foods Inc., which planned to convert it into a hog farm.
?Wherefore premises considered and as recommended by DAR, the petition for cancellation and/or revocation of the conversion order covering 144 hectares of land?is hereby granted,? the Palace order said.
The DAR recommendation, also dated December 18, said the ?unilateral development of the landholding into a hog farm? by San Miguel Foods violated the original conversion order for the land because it ?is not one of the purposes for which the conversion had been issued.?
?This clearly deviates from and constitutes a violation of the conversion order issued to? the development corporation set up by the Quisumbings, the DAR said.
After handing the farmers the order, Bunye held a dialogue with them.
One of the farmers' leaders, Napoleon Merida, said the decision should have incorporated a cease-and-desist order to stop the ongoing construction of buildings for the hog farm.
He also expressed apprehension about whether the Department of Agrarian Reform would act swiftly and in the farmers? favor on the disposition of the land.
Manuel said the decision was "silent" on crucial issues such as the farmers' demand to stop the development by San Miguel Foods and on what to do with the land after the revocation order.
Earlier in the day, chief presidential legal counsel Sergio Apostol, who first confirmed that the order would be issued, said the land would still be subjected to a ?process? before it can be finally distributed to the farmers.
Apostol was among the officials who drafted the decision.
Bunye claimed with the revocation order, ownership and possession of the land are no longer with San Miguel Foods.
In a brief statement from San Miguel Corp.'s corporate affairs office Tuesday, the firm said "we will respond as soon as we finally receive a copy of the executive order? from Malacañang.
But Manuel said earlier that the decision would mean San Miguel Foods will be treated as a landowner and will need to be paid the current value of the property before the land can be distributed to the farmers.
"There are reasons why it was issued and the principal reason was that there were violations of the conditions when the conversion was issued, so with the revocation of the conversion, it becomes an agricultural land, what happens to agricultural land, this is subject to disposal again by the DAR," Bunye explained.
Manuel said the farmers will discuss their next move, including deciding whether or not to return to Sumilao before Christmas.
The farmers had been awarded the land under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) but then executive secretary Ruben Torres had approved the property?s conversion into agro-industrial use, sparking the years-long agrarian conflict that grabbed the limelight recently when the farmers embarked on their long march.