A group of farmers go on a protest march in hopes of reclaiming their land.
|WELCOMING THE FARMERS
by Verne Ahyong
“Okay, everybody stand up and go to your positions,” Brother Javy said through his megaphone. “The Sumilao Farmers are arriving in five minutes.”
The Atenean students, faculty, and staff that were seated along the sidewalk near the Cubao Expo slowly began to get back on their feet. After just two hours of waiting we were already tired— our feet aching, our throats parched.
I was especially slow to stand up because I had spent the last hour or so buying Strepsils in the Mercury Drug store nearby. The farmers have been shouting and yelling for their land back every day for the past two months as they marched. Now they could barely even speak.
It was in silence that they marched towards us. Their lips were sealed, their banners were raised. “Land for the Sumilao Farmers” the banners read “Land is a right, not a privilege.” As they passed us, we raised a banner of our own: “Ateneo supports the Sumilao Farmers.” We greeted them with a thundering round of applause. They had journeyed all the way from their homes in Bukidnon, Mindanao until they reached Metro Manila. They left behind their livelihood and their families.
Their pace quickened when they heard and saw us cheering. As they passed us I looked into their eyes, and saw a mixture of desperation and hope. Their eyes were glazed over with tears yet focused with a steeled determination. All the male farmers had their heads shaved bald. Clumps of hair littered their white t-shirts.
They passed by the area in front of the San Miguel Foods Incorporated (SMFI) building in Ortigas Avenue earlier that day. Building security and nearby policemen blocked their path. As a sign of desperation, the farmers shaved the hair off their heads. Everything had been taken from them. They had nothing more to lose.
We marched with them from Cubao to Ateneo, where they would be spending the night. The sight must have looked hilarious to passers-by. Here was a group of college students marching with the farmers yet sandwiched within two lines of Jesuit brothers. Each line of brothers held a long rope for the protection of the students— so we would not get lost and so non-Ateneans could not infiltrate us.
Instead of a slow walk the farmers marched like they were in a marathon. MMDA police officers were stopping traffic for the farmers who were respectful enough to cross intersections as quickly as possible. It was difficult for us to keep up with them. After a few series of sprints my legs already began to ache. But my pain was nothing like what these farmers were experiencing. I had no reason to complain.
* * *
How much money have you collected for the Sumilao Farmers?” the editor-in-chief of our school newspaper asked me during an interview.
“Around thirty-eight thousand as of last week’s count,” I replied. I searched for a spark in her eyes, a slight smile of recognition on her face. A hint of a smile did appear, but my focus was drawn towards a scrutinizing look in her eyes.
“You’re still twelve thousand pesos short,” she said. “Doesn’t your project end this week?”
“Since the farmers are still on their way we have decided to extend the project for two more weeks,” I informed her. “Hopefully, we can reach our quota by then. My chairperson recently resigned, and I have just taken over for her. I am new at this, but I am doing my best.”
“Well good luck with that,” she told me. “We’ll schedule another interview when you have a final count.”
I had to begin counting the remittances, and doubling my efforts in distributing donation cans in every class I could. I skipped lunch when I had to.
* * *
As a member of the Ateneo student council, better known as the Sanggunian, and the head of Project 50-50, a fundraiser for the Sumilao Farmers, I was tasked with collecting at least fifty thousand pesos for the needs of the farmers when they reached the Ateneo. The excess money would be given to their families in Bukidnon who were living on stockpiled crops, and donations from their local parishes. One would think that with all the coin banks littering the desks of photocopiers and food concessionaires it would be easy to collect money from Ateneans.
But it was not that simple. Propaganda against the farmers ran rampant in the local media. SMFI had spent a huge sum of money on full-page advertisements in major broadsheets such as the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Philippine Star. These advertisements stated that that the farmers were not the real owners of the one hundred and forty-four hectares of land, and that they only wanted the land so they could sell it for a large sum of money.
These allegations were baseless because the farmers had official certificates of land ownership as proof of their ownership. The land was also their ancestral home. They would never sell it to anyone and for any price.
Nevertheless, the ads looked professional and convincing. They were published in the newspapers; they must be true. How can the farmers who cannot even provide for their own families combat the billions of pesos in the hands of such a huge company?
* * *
Even we officers in the Sanggunian were not left unscathed when SMFI offered to sponsor one of our major events. We were having one of our regular meetings when the matter was raised.
“We have a problem,” the chairperson of the School of Social Sciences said. “We are in desperate need of money for our event and San Miguel has just offered us the bay area of SM Mall of Asia for free. They will also pay for the band setup, the bands themselves …everything.”
“Did you accept?” I almost yelled. I could not believe that this was even being brought into discussion. “You cannot accept because San Miguel is the one trying to steal the land of the Sumilao Farmers.”
“It cannot be coincidence that San Miguel will just sponsor your whole event just like that. That’s around fifty thousand pesos, just for the
renting of the venue.” another officer added. “And besides, you’re the School of Social Sciences. You’re school is the most supportive of the farmers.”
“We already approached them for sponsorship even before the Sumilao issue came up,” the chairperson tried to explain.
“The Development Studies majors belong to your school,” I mentioned. “I am sure they will not support tying-up with San Miguel.”
The Development Studies majors were the ones who spearheaded the movement in the Ateneo to aid the Sumilao Farmers. It was because of them that the Sanggunian decided to help as well.
The rest of the officers turned to the chairperson for an answer. I could sense that majority of them were with me regarding this issue.
“I am aware of that,” he replied with a raised voice. His voice lowered to almost its normal tone as continued speaking. “Some of my fellow officers said they would resign if we accepted the sponsorship.”
A tension-filled silence pervaded the room before the chairperson continued. “And because we do not want any fighting between the Sanggunian officers, and because we understand the need for us to show a united stand in support of the farmers, my marketing team and I have discussed the matter and decided not to accept the offer from San Miguel. But my marketing team worked very hard to get this sponsorship. This was not a decision we made lightly.”
* * *
The collection of money was an uphill effort. From just collecting pledges from students and student groups, we diversified into passing donation cans in Theology and Philosophy classes. Every time an officer would enter the class, he or she would give a summary on the plight of the farmers in order to debunk the lies most Ateneans believed. Many questions were asked. Some classes donated plenty while others gave almost nothing.
In the end, the combination of both efforts enabled us to collect over sixty thousand pesos for the farmers, ten thousand more than our original goal. But it was not only individual Ateneans who showed support for the farmers. There were parents and teachers who pledged thousands of pesos to the cause. Even students from the De La Salle University (arch-rival of the Ateneo de Manila University) contributed donations. In fact, the two universities even designed and wore t-shirts that read “Ateneo La-Salle Champions the Sumilao Farmers’ Walk for Land.”
* * *
Father Ben Nebres, university president of the Ateneo, was waiting for the farmers when they arrived at the campus gates. He gave their leader a big hug, before leading the farmers and their supporters to the Church of the Gesu for a mass in celebration of their arrival.
While everyone else was attending the mass, I was outside doing errands for the farmers. I carried a money envelope which contained ten thousand pesos worth of collections to be used as emergency funds should the need arise.
Earlier that day, I handed funds to one of my fellow officers so he could buy some supplies the farmers would need for their overnight stay. He spent the afternoon buying new pairs of slippers, packets of laundry detergent, blankets, and merienda (Jollibee Yumburgers) for the farmers. We had to buy around fifty pieces of each item, which cost us around three thousand pesos all-in-all.
The two-month long march of the farmers took its toll on their health. Some were suffering from coughs and colds. Others needed to recover from fainting spells due to fatigue and dehydration. All of them were physically exhausted. Thus, a medical team of volunteer doctors and nurses was stationed in the dormitory the farmers would be staying overnight in.
After the initial checkups, the doctors diagnosed that around a dozen farmers were suffering from high blood pressure. They needed to be treated right away, but the medicine was not included in their supplies. Thus, I accompanied the head doctor to the nearest Mercury Drug store in order to purchase the supplies they needed. We bought medicines for coughs and colds, a dozen medicine vials and giant syringes for those suffering from high blood pressure.
“Under normal circumstances, these farmers should already be admitted into a hospital for treatment,” the doctor explained. “That’s how bad of a state their health is in right now.”
I was worried about how effective the generic branded medicine we purchased would be. Before that day, I did not even know there was such a thing as unbranded medicine being sold legally. The “cheap” medicines already cost us almost ten thousand pesos; we could not afford the more expensive ones. The rest of the money was already sent to the families of the farmers in Bukidnon because they had run out of food supplies. Hopefully, their march the next day would indeed be their final one, and they would get their land back once and for all.
When we got back, the special program for the farmers had already begun in Belarmine Field. It began to drizzle at around that time, so seven of my fellow officers and I carried tents from SEC Field to Belarmine Field, around three football fields away. We could have easily carried the tents two at a time, four people to a tent, and each person holding one pole. However, the others refused to walk back and forth twice. So we brought all the tents in one trip: two people to a tent.
The other pairs carried their tents easily, their gym-and-sports muscles put to good use. My partner and I, on the other hand, rested every few meters. I was holding him back. I was physically exhausted from all the marching and trips to the drug store. But I remembered the Sumilao Farmers and the look of hope and desperation in their eyes, and I summoned up all the strength I had left. Somehow my partner and I were able to cover the remaining one-fourth of the way without rest.
By the end of the evening, my whole body was aching. I leaned against one of the tent legs in order to give my feet some rest. I tried my best to help the Sumilao Farmers— I raised money for them, marched with them, bought them basic supplies and medicine— yet it dawned on me that they did not know me. In the past, I would have felt ignored and under-appreciated. But this time, merely standing behind the scenes and watching the smiling faces of the farmers as they enjoyed the program was good enough for me.