ROUGH CUTS | This mini-war of attrition

SOMETIME middle of last year a conflict between a cooperative of agrarian reform beneficiaries and the former owners of the land that was covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) of the government in sitio Banarao, Talandang, Tugbok District brewed out into the open.

Until today, about a year since, the conflict appears to have fallen into some kind of a “guarded lull.” There is still so much distrust among the people involved. If not properly and expertly handled by the appropriate authorities concerned, the enmity could explode anytime into open clashes that may result to injuries or even deaths.

We are actually referring to the protracted squabble between the Banarao Multi-purpose Cooperative (BMC) and the heirs of Herminio Suarez estate located in the earlier-mentioned village.The Suarez land which used to be a family hacienda with an area of roughly over a hundred hectares was previously leased to the Philippine Cocoa Estate Corp. or Philcoeco, a subsidiary of a British agriculture firm with interests in rubber and cacao plantations in Malaysia, a former British colony.

Despite the lease agreement which effectively converted the land into a corporate farm, the government still succeeded in putting the property under the coverage of CARP. As a consequence, other than the few original farm workers of the Suarez land, employees of Philcoeco were included among the beneficiaries when the land was subdivided to supposedly qualified CARP beneficiaries.

And the sad thing about the coverage is that even those who were not entitled because of the high position they occupy in the cacao company were able to get a share of the Suarez land.

Of course, the CARP beneficiaries did not get the Suarez land for free. The acquisition cost though, as determined by the Department of Agrarian Reform or DAR, was only a little over a “donation” price. The beneficiaries did not even have any initial cash-out as the payment of the entire covered property was made by Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) under the so-called Voluntary Offer to Sell (VOS) scheme, and subsequently converted as a loan to the CARP beneficiaries.

Unfortunately, the new owners were not able to gainfully develop their land which was a major condition set by the DAR for the award. Almost, if not all, defaulted in their amortization to Land Bank and the apportioned land were about to be foreclosed.

Luckily for the CARP beneficiaries of the Suarez land, a messiah came along in the multi-national export banana grower Dole Philippines. After a thorough study of the land, the banana firm found the same highly suitable for Cavendish variety. So Dole Philippines offered to pay off the beneficiaries’ loan with Land Bank and proposed that the land be leased to the company for plantation purposes

So in only a few months’ time what used to be individually cultivated CARP land was already leased to Dole under the umbrella of the BMC, the beneficiaries’ coop. As part of the concession given by Dole, each CARP beneficiary family was entitled to one member getting employed in the banana farm.

Later though, the Suarez heirs discovered that several lots supposedly given to beneficiaries remained undeveloped which is in violation of the land award agreement. Thus, according to our sources, the Suarez heirs decided to have their people develop the lots concerned. This, according to our sources, angered the coop members. In retaliation, the coop management reportedly blocked the road leading to Davao River where one of the Suarez heirs was developing a sand and gravel quarry operation. The road from the Suarez property leading to the quarry site traverses the area that is already part of the CARP beneficiares’ control which is under lease to Dole Philippines.

This action, our sources said, has resulted to the Suarez heir’s failure to operate the quarry site. But to the misfortune of the cooperative and its members, the land where the road passes to the Dole-leased CARP beneficiary land is still a privately owned property by the Suarezes. It has not been donated to the barangay or the city, and there is no record of any attempt on the part of government to acquire the same for a road right of way.

Thus, the Suarez heirs’ response to the BMC “blockade” was to set up their own checkpoint where BMC member farm workers or any of the cooperative’s vehicles or hired by it, are also flagged down and stopped from entering the Suarez private property.

In this conflict between the two groups the operation of the Dole banana plantation is being compromised. In fact, we were told, there were days when the banana company has to declare a “no work” because the coop member workers whose residences are located outside of the Suarez property could not report because they are being stopped at the road block site.

Of late, we have received information that the coop members are organizing themselves possibly to force entry into the plantation site. But our sources also said that the Suarez group is bent on protecting its interest and rights. Hence, if the situation is not given proper attention it is most likely to erupt into confrontation that could even be bloody.

On the other hand, while the conflict remains unsettled the Dole Philippines operation will definitely be badly affected. And there is no doubt that this will impact adversely on the company’s bottomlines.

Now, if the banana company will decide to abandon its lease who will suffer the most of its consequence? Of course it is not the Suarez heirs. Perhaps, for some time Dole will. But the company is a giant and has very deep pockets.

So, the biggest losers in the conflict are the cooperative and its CARP beneficiary members as well as the barangay coffers. Are they ready for this perdition? We believe they are not; far from it.

We are hoping that the right agency of government will come out and intervene in the conflict. This has dragged on for so long already and it looks like it is developing into a mini-war of attrition.

Matira and matibay.

Posted in Opinion