By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
CALAMBA, Laguna – Francesca Mangubat, 71, would always remember May 21, 2010 because on that day she almost lost not only the land her family has been tilling for years but also her husband Quirino.
The night before that fateful day, the residents of Sitio Buntod, Barangay Canlubang inside Hacienda Yulo in Calamba, Laguna, were already informed of the danger that is bound to happen the following day. News were circulating that people working for the Yulo family would be coming to continue cutting the coconut trees in the upper land of their village.
Francesca said these coconut trees were planted not only by their grandparents but also by the people currently residing in Sitio Buntod when they evacuated from Talisay, Batangas, after the Taal Volcano erupted in 1910. “They said that this place used to be a deserted forest. They pulled the weeds, planted trees and made the land productive.”
But unknown to the peasant families, 100 hectares of the land that they were tilling was originally owned by the Madrigal family, a well-known landed family in the Philippines. In a report provided by the Katipunan ng mga Samahang Magbubukid sa Timog Katagalugan (KASAMA-TK) and ang Samahan ng Mamamayang Nagkakaisa (SAMANA-Buntog), the peasants were allowed to stay and till the land in exchange for clearing the forest and making the land productive.
In the early 1920′s, the land owned by the Madrigals were occupied by the Americans. A certain Milney drove out the peasant families in Sitio Mahada to give way to a sugar cane plantation. The Canlubang Sugar Estate was thus, established in 1928. But the upper part of the land was not occupied by the sugar estate. Francesca said that aside from the coconut trees, her grandparents also planted root crops, corn and rice. At that time, their family was tilling roughly three hectares of land.
In the 1940′s, Milney left the country, leaving Jose Yulo as the caretaker of the land. Yulo exacted taxes from the agricultural products that the peasants were harvesting even if Milney no longer asserted his claim to the land.
In 1959, peasants started paying realty taxes in the hope that the land would be transferred to them. During the Diosdado Macapagal government, Yulo allegedly paid some farmers to conduct a “protest action” to support his own claim to the land. Residents of Sitio Buntod said they were easily persuaded to accept the money in exchange for participating in the “protest action” because the Yulos were still very kind to them back then. They were given a regular supply of rice and groceries. “They argued then that the peasants do not want to place the land under agrarian reform. In fact, they do not even want to have their own lands,” the reports read.
The Yulo family then claimed that the “protest action” indicated that the peasants were not interested in their land. Thus, the Yulo family was able to expand its landholdings from the original 100 hectares of the Madrigal family to the current 7,100 hectares.
Under the Yulos, the tenants were forced to work as agricultural workers. They were also discouraged from planting rice and corn because the Yulos were buying their products at a very cheap price. In the 1980s, the peasants reunited to stake their claim to the land.
In 1991, peasant families in Sitio Buntod formed the SAMANA-Buntod. Its current president Laurencio Caranay, 62, said the relative improvements in the conditions of the residents in Buntod could be attributed to its small victories since SANAMA was formed.
“Before we were not allowed to harvest from the coconut trees that our ancestors had planted. But now, we could even sell what we harvested,” Caranay said in Filipino. Through SAMANA, Caranay added, the members are able to discuss and plot out their responses to the decisions of the Yulo family that affects them.
Caranay said they were able to resist the first attempts of the Yulo family to have the coconut trees cut last March 22 and 23. Of the target 1,000 coconut trees to be cut, the men hired by Yulo were only successful with 53 trees. Thus, when the men hired by Yulo returned last May 21, they were accompanied by a big contingent of policemen, including its elite unit the Regional Mobile Group.