Last week, Dorita Vargas was finally granted ownership of the farm lot in La Castellana, Negros Occidental, that she had been tilling for 29 years. The other day, in a twist of fate that was both proof and symbol of the essential difficulty of agrarian reform, she went to claim the property, but was turned away. The previous owners’ security guards adamantly refused her entry.
The 63-year-old farmer and single mother of six was in reasonably good spirits and clear-minded about the rebuff. “We tried to enter the hacienda this morning and we showed them the CLOA (certificate of land ownership award), but the blue guards would not let us enter. They said we should respect the Manalos (the family that owns Hacienda Manalo),” Vargas said last Wednesday.
The conduct of the guards, who have more in common with Vargas and the other new agrarian reform beneficiaries than with their landlords, is not a surprise; whether they were merely following orders or were responding out of a sense of genuine employee loyalty, their action should have been expected. What is a surprise is the failure of the provincial and municipal staff of the Department of Agrarian Reform to anticipate the rebuff.
At the very least, DAR staff should have arranged for a police escort, and accompanied Vargas and the 12 others with her in force.
After Vargas received her CLOA on Feb. 13, Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes greeted her with somewhat condescending advice: “I pray that Aling Dorita will take good care of the land awarded to her under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. The land is hers and she is free to use it in whatever way she wishes to.” (Surely, after half a lifetime fighting for her ownership rights, Vargas did not need a reminder about taking good care of the very land she had tilled for three decades.)
After she was turned away by the security guards, Vargas directed an appeal to De los Reyes, quoting his words back to him. “Since he said that the land is now ours and we can do what we want with it, then we are asking the secretary to personally install us in the land,” she said. She added, good-naturedly: “Why don’t they buy a helicopter and fly us directly to the property so we don’t have to encounter any resistance from the blue guards?”
Vargas’ serene confidence that she will be “installed” in her own property, in due time, must stem in part from her conviction that President Aquino, the man she voted into office, keeps his promises, including his personal promise to her.
At a “dialogue” last June in Malacañang between the President and farmers pushing for faster implementation of the extended CARP , Vargas’ plight moved Mr. Aquino to give a categorical answer: “Hayaan mo, ’Nay, tutulungan ko kayo.”
It was a promise that encouraged Vargas, and saw her through the next eight months. Despite her continuing travails, she said she continues to be grateful for the President’s personal attention. His promise has certainly made an impact on her, in part because of his choice of words. His promise has been translated thus: “Don’t worry, I will help you.” But Mr. Aquino used the (very Filipino) plural form of you (“kayo”), indicating respect. He called her “’Nay.” And his use of “hayaan,” to mean “let” or “leave” (that is, let it be or leave it to me)—instead of, say, the more literal forms of “don’t worry” in Filipino—made the promise more emphatic: “You leave it be, Mom, I will help you.”
All this should have been a signal to De los Reyes and his staff to see to it that when ownership was awarded to Vargas, she can claim her property without incident. The President, after all, would be watching.
The problem is: The President cannot attend to every single agrarian reform beneficiary. Indeed, even if he could, he should not intervene in every case—because the law is supposed to take its own course. Vargas’ experience proves that agrarian reform continues to be a tedious, strength-sapping struggle; it also symbolizes a system that remains biased in favor of the wealthy and the landed, despite advances in law.
At least Vargas has managed to see the silver lining even in her moment of not-quite-triumph. “In the meantime that we’re not being allowed to enter our own land, why don’t they (the former owners) rent the land from us?” she said. She should start drawing up the contract.