As the Philippines marks its 33rd year of implementing agrarian reform this month, 36 rights-based organizations across the globe have joined the fight of Sariaya, Quezon farmers to reclaim a vast landholding long awarded to them by the government but was returned by the Supreme Court (SC) to its former owner – an old, wealthy elite family in the province – based on an obscure and outdated municipal ordinance.
“(T)he undersigned organizations call on the Government of the Philippines to ensure the right to food and nutrition of Sariaya peasants by guaranteeing their right to the land they till,” said the organizations headquartered in 22 countries spread in Europe, Latin America, North America, Asia, and Africa, which are mostly members of the Global Network for the Right to Food and Nutrition.
Court anchors ruling on old local ordinance declared vague, insufficient by municipal gov't
In a ruling that it made final on Sept. 28, 2020, the high tribunal voided the ownership rights of 255 Sariaya farmers to a 295.5-hectare farmland in the town’s Barangays Concepcion I, Pinagbakuran, and Manggalang Kiling, which the latter secured in 1994 as beneficiaries of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) that the government started to implement in 1988.
The same ruling of the SC, returned the land to its former owner, the Gala family, who became among the most politically and economically powerful clans in Quezon while the Philippines was under Spanish colonial rule and was known in the province as coconut tycoons during the said era.
The high tribunal hinged its decision on Sariaya’s 1982 zoning ordinance that blanketly reclassified most farmlands in the town as “non-agricultural” and thus excluded from CARP coverage.
However, the zoning supposedly no longer applies. On June 23, 2008, Sariaya’s municipal council approved a resolution stating that the 1982 ordinance had no clear boundary delineations and was insufficient to be used as basis for ascertaining the classification of landholdings in Sariaya.
The same resolution further noted that because of the said insufficiency, the ordinance should not also be used as basis to exempt lands from agrarian reform.
The 2008 resolution was strengthened by the municipal council when it enacted an ordinance in 2018 stating that “agricultural lands distributed to agrarian reform beneficiaries” of the CARP “shall not be affected by the reclassification” of Sariaya landholdings to non-agricultural lands done through the 1982 ordinance. The provincial council of Quezon approved the 2018 municipal ordinance through a resolution it issued on April 2, 2020.
Court ruling: A 'regressive measure' jeopardizing farmers and people's right to food, nutrition
The 36 groups said the Philippine high court’s anti-peasant decision based on the obscure and outdated 1982 zoning ordinance “not only…constitutes a breach of the state obligation under international human rights law” but also "embodies a regressive measure, which jeopardizes the realization of Sariaya peasants’ right to food and nutrition and the millions of Filipinos, who benefit from Sariaya’s agricultural production.”
“This decision is also ill-timed, considering that more than 5.2 million or 20.9 percent of Filipinos suffered starvation due to the Covid-19 pandemic,” the groups said.
The Sariaya farmers are among the top producers and suppliers of affordable vegetables in the regions of Southern Tagalog, Bicol, and Metro Manila. Even amid the threats of eviction, hunger, and poverty, following the high court’s ruling, the farmers still manage to regularly give away portions of their produce to hungry Filipinos via community pantries that sprouted in the Philippines amid the pandemic.
Land redistribution and the provision of government support services and infrastructure such as farm-to-market roads, warehouses, solar dryers, a trading post, and agricultural trainings via the CARP has transformed Sariaya into one of the country’s food baskets, catering to the diversified and nutritious food requirements of millions of Filipinos.
Within 10 years of redistribution, the poverty rate in the town drastically dropped, and Sariaya became a success story, giving hope and encouragement to many who continued to struggle for their access to land.
Philippine gov't urged: Respect right to land, uphold int'l human rights obligations
Finally, the 36 groups called on the Philippine government “to respect” the farmers’ “right to land,” which is recognized in Articles 5 and 17 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP).
The groups said the Philippines, which voted for and signed the UNDROP in 2018 along with 120 other countries, is duty-bound to uphold the said U.N. General Assembly resolution on human rights, particularly, Article 17 (6).
The said UNDROP provision reaffirms the importance of states to carry out agrarian reform to “facilitate broad and equitable access to land and other natural resources necessary to ensure that peasants and other people working in rural areas enjoy adequate living conditions, and to limit excessive concentration and control of land taking into account its social function.” -30-
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