Caught on video: Coron farmer leader killed
A security guard armed with a shotgun killed a peasant leader in a rice field in Coron, a popular resort town in the tourist famous Busuanga island group in Palawan province.
Arnel Figueroa, 44, was hit in the stomach by a single round fired by Dan Nelson Mayo, a member of the “Blue Guards” of the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI), on Tuesday at Yulo King Ranch (YKR).
Figueroa was a local leader of Pesante, an organization of farmers seeking the distribution of land under the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). He was the latest fatality in the decades-long battle by impoverished farmers for freedom from bondage to the soil that has taken an ugly turn.
“Before, the fight was against landlords, now it is against the government,” said Libertine Amor, a lawyer for the Catholic Church-backed Climate Change Congress of the Philippines (CCCP), the umbrella group for peasant organizations.
Figueroa, whose wife is pregnant with his fourth child, had been at the forefront of a six-year clamor for the distribution of part of the Yulo ranch they had planted with rice, sweet potatoes, bananas and coconut on the island paradise of white sand beaches and luxury hotels.
On Tuesday, under a light rain, Mayo and several government personnel escorted by four Marines started uprooting crops. Figueroa attempted to talk to them, but Mayo shot him at pointblank range. Figueroa slumped dead, his lower torso covered with blood.
The killing was captured on a cell phone video by Maria Maaya L. Thind, 36, general secretary of the 10,000-strong Pesante. Another farmer was wounded.
Mayo is under police custody. Fearing he would be spirited out, farmers had picketed the police station where he was detained.
Figueroa was with a peasant group that met with then President Benigno Aquino III in June 2014.
Aquino had promised to extend the CARP for two years to enable the distribution of 620,000 hectares of the nation’s prime agricultural land that had so far eluded coverage.
His mother, President Corazon Aquino, launched the program in 1988 as the centerpiece of a social justice program to eliminate one of the major causes of a pestering communist insurgency.
Implementation has been slow. The program was riddled with loopholes. The Aquino family’s sprawling Hacienda Luisita, was first to escape coverage, through a stock dividend option that the Supreme Court later knocked down because it did not improve the lives of the farmers.
The son’s promise remained unfulfilled.
Figueroa had raised the YKR issue in the 2014 meeting. He had moved to Coron in 2009, to escape harassment by landowners in Mindoro that hounded his father, Patricio, a former Huk, the people’s army formed to fight the Japanese during World War II that later became a Marxist movement.
The elder Figueroa disappeared after he was kidnapped while campaigning for the distribution of land owned by a crony of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Figueroa had been cultivating a portion of the 40,000-hectare estate, which was declared by Marcos in 1975 as pasture land. Upon the ouster of Marcos in 1986, the rolling forested hills and verdant fields, owned by his cronies Jose Yulo and Peter Sabido, were sequestered as ill-gotten wealth.
In March 2010, the Supreme Court lifted the sequestration and transferred it to Philippine Forest Corp., at one time headed by Rodolfo Lozada, a whistle-blower in the NBN-ZTE scandal that hit the Arroyo administration. He was recently convicted of graft for distributing land to his relatives, including a part of the Yulo ranch.
In May 2010, before President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stepped aside, she issued lease contracts to businesses and generals who had supported her when she was facing coup attempts, authorizing “other development intervention” in the area that had become a favored tourist destination and subject of land speculation.
These contracts, covering two-thirds of the estate, were later rescinded by the Aquino administration, giving hope to the farmers.
In 2013, Aquino transferred the administration of the YKR estate to the Forest Management Bureau. By then the ranch, once touted as the biggest in Asia, had only around 1,000 head of cattle, a far cry from its robust operation as a cattle breeding and livestock quarantine station.
Around 12,000 ha of the estate had been declared as “alienable and disposable.” Figueroa’s group farmed a portion of this land; BAI wanted 2,000 ha for pasture.
Farmers claim BAI personnel send cattle rampaging through land planted with rice, uprooted crops and destroyed huts. Cases have been filed against farmers by BAI, whose lawyers came from the Office of the Solicitor General.
“We cry for justice,” the CCCP said in a statement signed by Archbishop Antonio J. Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, and former Election Commissioner Christian Monsod. “The farmers are not pigs, they are human beings.”
Evangeline Silva, Pesante president, said Figueroa had been so happy he and several hundred farmers recently received certificates of ownership of the land they had been cultivating.
“We are not rebels. He had given us hope that we can dream on and get the land we seek peacefully,” said Silva, 43, a mother of seven children who went to Coron after her husband, also an agrarian reform activist, was killed by policemen, who claimed he was a drug pusher.
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