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September 25, 2008

CASTELLANA, Negros Occidental—It is already past noon and yet Edelyn Pineda is still lazing around Sitio Odiong here along with her little friends.

The 16-year-old lass, who is physically small compared with other girls her age—apparently shrunk by malnutrition and heavy work at a young age—has no plans of going home to join her parents and her six siblings for lunch.

The girl, who barely reached fifth grade in a public elementary school, later admits why: they have nothing for the table, and the last time she and her family “feasted” on cooked rice was two days ago.

’Pag walang bigas, walang bigas [If there is no rice, there is no rice],” she hesitantly mutters in the Pilipino vernacular, as she bows her head.

Later we learn that a similar situation exists for some of the families and children in the village.

Pineda knows poverty but she cannot understand why she has to skip a regular meal, when her family is an agrarian-reform beneficiary (ARB), meaning, farmers who have already been awarded one hectare of land by the government.

Why, Pineda asks, does she have to suffer from the effects of an improperly implemented Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), instead of enjoying its supposed benefits?

At her early age, Pineda has gone through unimaginable hunger. “Kumakain lang kami ng kanin tatlong araw sa isang linggo [We only eat cooked rice three days in a week],” she says, as tears begin to fall from her eyes.

She says she and her siblings, including their youngest, who is just one year old, are constantly hungry, but that they can do nothing. “Umiiyak na lang po siya hanggang makatulog na lang [She just cries until she falls asleep],” the young girl says of her baby sister.

In those four days in one week that they have no staple, Pineda says they would usually content themselves with root crops and vegetables.

Like some of the luckier girls in the village, she, too, wanted to go to school and pursue her dream, but again, she needs to work. In short, a cruel trade­off between studying and surviving. “’Pag nag-aral kami, wala kaming kakainin [If we go to school, we will have nothing to eat],” she elaborates, wiping tears that by now have completely drenched an innocent face.

Nenita Parafina, who lives in the same village and whose family is also an ARB, says Pineda’s story is not new, but rather, is a common tale among residents in Sitio Odiong.

Kung kakain kami sa umaga at tanghali, sa gabi, hindi na kami kakain [If we eat in the morning and afternoon, we will no longer eat in the evening],” she says matter-of-factly, underlining more of the bizarre, bitter choices that families like the Pinedas and the Parafinas have been forced to make each day.

Like Pineda’s family, Parafina says she and her family also work in an hacienda, earning from P60 to P80 a day—a pittance for a backbreaking job, but even that is rare. These days, seldom does the hacienda have available work for them. Yes, even if they’ll take anything, anything at all, she stresses.

Sitio Odiong and its residents, who are all ARBs, are living testaments to the failure of the agrarian-reform program. Or, at least, its checkered record.

The village, which forms part of barangay Camandag, bears no resemblance to normal life, to say the least. It has no electricity and the residents have to walk more than a kilometer to a “nearby” hacienda just to get potable water for household needs.

As CARP has failed in many areas, so has the delivery of the social service programs from the local government.

ARBs, land owners, nongovernment organizations, international organizations and even provincial and municipal governments that are hosts to CARP are all lamenting that the agrarian program failed, “because of the absence of support services from the government.”

Sitio Odiong, which is more or less 7 km away from La Castellana town proper, is forsaken in terms of government projects.

The condition of its unpaved and narrow road is unbearable, offering only tricycles as a means of public transportation.

Gusto namin farm-to-market road, tubig din na maiinom at iba pang project na pangako ng CARP. Gusto naming makapag-aral ang aming mga anak [We want farm-to-market roads, a potable water system and other projects promised under the CARP. We want our children to go to school and finish their education],” says Parafina, who is “privileged” among the elders in the village enough to speak Tagalog.

The agrarian-reform program was supposed to bring projects to areas that it covered as a form of assistance to beneficiaries, but local governments in this province say they could not afford to deliver the social support infrastructure as the money that was supposed to finance them would partly come from CARP in the form of taxes collected.

As it is, some land owners, who have not been properly paid by the government for the acquisition of their lands, have not been able to pay their various taxes along with the incapable beneficiaries.

Under the law, 40 percent of real-property tax revenues are supposed to go to the local governments’ Special Education Fund for public schools. A recent government study has indicated up to P 1.2 billion in real-property taxes in the province have remained unpaid.

Most villagers in Sitio Odiong agree that they were even better off when they were still tillers (dumaan) in large haciendas than as CARP beneficiaries.

Then, the education of their children was supported by their landlords; they were covered by the Social Security System as regular workers, and they could easily go to their landlords when they needed money. Now, they are on their own.

The villagers also revealed an alarming trend:  some municipal agrarian-reform officers have even become virtual landlords; they “buy” the rights from ARBs by convincing the hapless folk to “mortgage” their rights for four or more years until they are able to repay the “loans,” which are extended to them at 5 percent of the value of the land. At the moment, agricultural land in Negros is valued at anywhere from P150,000 to P200,000 per hectare.

At a rate of about 5 percent of the land value, ARBs are able to “loan” anywhere from P36,000 to P40,000 for their landholding, with the money going to off-season family expenses and for preparing for the next planting season. Ultimately, they fall into deeper and deeper debt and are left with no choice but to work again as farmhands in their own land, along with their children, being paid daily wages. The child laborers clear the land of weeds, being paid pakyaw (package) rates per hectare!

Like the Pineda and the Parafina families, Marcelita Fernando, 52, and her family have pawned their certificate of land ownership agreement (CLOA) to a financier, executing only handwritten documents which are not notarized, as CLOAs are not recognized as negotiable financial instruments under the CARP law that expires in June 2008.

“We could do nothing, we could not touch the land, as we have no money,” she says in the vernacular, with a volunteer who has been working with the villagers translating for her. Fernando says their land has been pawned for 12 years.

They need money, she says, to rent a carabao (water buffalo) or a tractor to plow their land, to buy seeds and other farm inputs. They also need fertilizers and insecticides to maintain their crops, and they only harvest once in a year, especially in the case of sugar cane.

“So the best option for us is just to pawn our lands,” Fernando concludes.

For the villagers, the CARP itself is a problem, according to her, as it classifies beneficiaries into first, second and third priorities.

Yet, at the end of the day, the “priority” tag becomes a meaningless classification for people who feel neither a sense of urgency nor empathy from the experts who craft policy and the bureaucrats supposed to translate lofty ideals like “emancipation” into concrete improvements in quality of life.

No, there’s no emancipation in their lives, just a relentless series of tough choices and shattered dreams. Their aspirations are simple and little, but even that can’t be fulfilled because those above them have failed, big time. (Emphasis supplied)

(This article originally appeared in ‘Perspective’ of the Business Mirror on November 17, 2007)

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