Farmers cultivating 154-hectare agricultural estate are threatened by landgrabbing by an investment firm connected to a popular food chain. The lands are located at Bgy. Balingcanaway in Tarlac City, adjacent to Bgy. Cutcut which is inside Hacienda Luisita. They are also near the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEx) interchange and the Sta. Rosa-Tarlac Road. More than 52 farmers are cultivating the lands since 1997 and farmworkers from nearby barangays such as Cutcut benefit from working on the lands as they are irrigated and highly productive producing about 100 to 120 cavans per hectare.
According to farmers, the lands used to be sugarlands administered by a certain Teresita Cruz dubbed as Valdez Estate. But when it was covered by CARP in 1990, Cruz used her power and influence to buy off rights from farmers awarded with Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs) without the knowledge of the Dept. of Agrarian Reform (DAR) office. Thus, farmers who continued cultivating the lands paying P5,000 per hectare to Cruz. Through the years it increased to P7,000 then to P10,000 on 2008.
In 2009, a certain Janette Pena and Bob Guinto surfaced and claiming they are the legal owners of the lands. Farmers said that the claims of Pena and Guinto are very suspicious as they have not been an entity on the land issue through decades. In addition, the city, provincial and regional DAR offices said that the lands are registered under the government.
But on July 2010, about 50 armed guards under an agency headed by a retired colonel Ronie Bonifacio, accompanied by local police led by Commander Leonardo Taberdo set-up barbed-wire fence around the 60-hectare lands. The farmers remained watchful as they are firm that the lands are not owned by Pena and Guinto. Thus, they continued to consolidate themselves as their lands are threatened to be snatch away from them by intruders. Since then, farmers are always questioned when going to their farms even those not covered by the fence.
Weeks after, the guards began to block the irrigation system that dried up their crops. The farmers complained the harassments of the guards to the barangay council but the barangay captain did nothing, thus, they believe he is siding with the landgrabbers.
On August 17, 2010, the farmers petitioned DAR to re-allocate the CARP-covered lands to their names and on October 11, 2010, they requested the provincial DAR office to investigate the dispute.
As the farmers continue to see the effects of blocking of irrigation on their crops, they filed lawsuits of Forcible Entry with Damages to the Municipal Trial Court against Pena and Guinto. The court judge decided of a status quo that means farmers should be allowed to cultivate their lands.
To uphold their cultivate the lands freely, the farmers dismantled the barbed-wire fence on November 29, 2010, witnessed by barangay officials and local police. As they brought the materials at the barangay office, two of them were arrested. Commander Taberdo said that it was ordered by "General Bonifacio", thus, the farmers threatened him of Grave Coercion and Illegal Detention charges. The farmers were released after an hour.
At present, 25 armed guards continue to maintain their outposts day and night, and question every farmers who till the lands. Farmers are only able to work on their lands on their assertion of their rights. Hand tractors and other equipments are always blocked by the guards. Thus, the farmers free movement is restricted by the guards.
On December 1, 2010, a letters were sent to the farmers by St. Tropez Holdings Corp., representing Pena and Guinto. The letter looked illegitimate, without any logo or seals. Some of the farmers refused to accept the letters. The letters said that they are being informed to leave the lands that "they own."
With this landgrabbing by Pena and Guinto, the farmers heightened their cooperation by holding discussion groups. In the following days, the farmers are planning to prepare the lands to be planted with vegetables. They are planning to mobilize many farmers for them to be able to bring the hand tractor pass the outpost.
Based on the research made by Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson (AMGL), Pena and Guinto belonged to St. Tropez Holdings Corp, headed by Gabriel Singson, Jr. as president and Martin Lorenzo as Chairman of the Board. They are also connected as investors of Pancake House Group. Pena is a bar topnotcher in 1986, Guinto is a corporate lawyer from UP Law, who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures, foreign and domestic investments, real estate projects such as hotel and property development and management and real estate transfers, corporate organization and restructuring, government infrastructure projects, business process outsourcing projects, and project finance and loan syndication. Singson is a former finance undersecretary on privatization and son of former Central Bank governor (1993-1999) Gabriel Singson. He is also connected to Macondray, a firm owned by the Lorenzos.
Thus, AMGL believed that this is a case of landgrabbing and speculation, anticipating the construction of Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway (TPLEx), connecting the SCTEx. As market value of lands around the superhighways are expected to skyrocket, business firms are grabbing lands at the expense of displacing many farmers.
The group also believed that this is not isolated, as farmers from nearby barangays are also facing the same threat. Thus, farmers around Hacienda Luisita are fronted with the challenge of upholding their rights and struggle for genuine land reform. #