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Hailed as heroes, treated as villains

/ 01:45 AM February 15, 2016

I WITNESSED the outrage of many farmers in the northern Luzon province of Cagayan when I was invited to attend a forum several weeks ago.

The farmers had received demand letters from private lawyers hired by the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) threatening them with court cases and foreclosure of their farmlands if they failed to settle alleged unpaid irrigation fees. The amounts being collected are in the hundreds of thousands of pesos—and, in some instances, even more than P1 million—for relatively small agricultural lands. However, some of the farmers are holding documents showing that they had made payments every year. Many others complained about the questionable, to the point of obscene, computations.

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The farmers invited lawyers Cristina “Tin” Antonio and Harry Roque as resource speakers to help them deal with what they consider threats to confiscate the only source and means to sustain their lives. They had enlisted strategic allies because Antonio, with her grassroots approach to politics, is well poised to become the next governor of Cagayan, while Roque is running as Kabayan party-list representative and his “kabuhayan” (livelihood) advocacy fits the farmers’ need for assistance.

During the forum, a number of aging farmers spoke about their wrenching heartaches. (When elderly farmers speak, each word carries the weight of solid lessons harvested from their many hard struggles in life.) They bewailed the empty praise hailing them as heroes of the motherland, and painfully complained that in reality they are treated as villains of society.

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It came out during the forum that while the NIA had been demanding and collecting payment of irrigation fees from the farmers, the agency itself had been illegally squatting on the farm lots since as far back as the martial law years. In the 1970s, Ferdinand Marcos bulldozed his way into the construction of irrigation canals across farmlands without paying expropriation compensation.

In a random inquiry involving farm owners in other provinces, it was shown that the Marcos regime had not compensated the expropriation of agricultural lands for the construction of irrigation canals all over the country.

The succeeding administrations after the 1986 Edsa revolution, including the incumbent, cannot offer as excuse their nonparticipation in the wrongful acts of Marcos. By embracing ownership of the irrigation canals and continuing the collection of irrigation fees—but doing nothing to proactively address the uncompensated expropriation for 30 years since the overthrow of the dictatorship—all the post-Marcos administrations are no less guilty of perpetuating acts of injustice against the farmers.

And before anyone sneers at the right of these farmers to expropriation compensation on irrigation canals that they themselves use, imagine the government bulldozing your own land to build a highway and then hearing the same government adamantly refusing to pay expropriation compensation on grounds that you yourself will use the highway, anyway. Or imagine the government building a giant power transmission tower in the middle of your residential property, and then learning of the government’s refusal to pay expropriation compensation because you yourself will use electricity, anyway.

Besides, the farmers do not use the irrigation canals for free; they are made to pay for such use.

During the forum, Antonio pointed out that the farmers’ right to collect expropriation compensation for their confiscated land does not prescribe. She cited a decided case (Republic vs. Court of Appeals and Diaz, G.R. 147245), in which the Supreme Court stated “that where private property is taken by the government for public use without first acquiring title thereto either through expropriation or negotiated sale, the owner’s action to recover the land or the value thereof does not prescribe.” Hence, even if the irrigation canals were constructed more than 40 years ago, the farmers can still demand expropriation compensation from the government. Antonio also said the farmers must be paid rent for the NIA’s illegal possession of their properties for the past 40 years.

On the other hand, Roque lamented that farmers had been continuously paying realty taxes yearly even on the lands illegally occupied by NIA irrigation canals because the government had not deducted these areas from the farmers’ recorded landholdings.

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According to him, since irrigation fees are computed based on the recorded landholding, farmers are paying irrigation fees even on the portions occupied by NIA irrigation canals even if they can no longer farm these areas. The irrigation canals occupy thousands of square meters of a farmer’s land in numerous instances.

In many other countries, farmers receive a subsidy and other proactive assistance from their governments. But Filipino farmers do not receive a comparable subsidy from their government, and this is one reason Philippine agricultural products are more expensive compared to imported ones. The plight of the Cagayan farmers reveal that Filipino farmers are not only deprived of subsidy, they also subsidize their government with the uncompensated expropriation of their farmlands and with their overpayment of realty taxes and irrigation fees.

In every election, presidential and congressional candidates make all the rosy promises in the world to ease the sad plight of our farmers, only to throw these away like used placards once they win their coveted posts. There is no prescription on the farmers’ right to collect on these promises.

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TAGS: Farm, farmers, Farming, irrigation agriculture, National Irrigation Administration, NIA, opinion
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