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The journey of the Sumilao farmers

Dennis Gorecho - Kuwentong Peyups

My first encounter with the farmers from Brgy. San Vicente, Sumilao, Bukidnon, popularly known as “Sumilao farmers,” was during their well-publicized hunger strike staged in front of the Department of Agrarian Reform compound in Quezon City on October 9, 1997.

I was then a reporter for a major newspaper while finishing my law studies at the UP College of Law.

Their hunger strike attracted national attention that even church leaders and some presidential candidates tried to intervene for the strikers’ cause.

The strikers protested the March 29, 1996 decision of the Office of the President, issued through then Executive Secretary Ruben D. Torres, which approved the conversion of a 144-hectare land from agricultural to agro-industrial/institutional area.

This led the Office of the President, through then Deputy Executive Secretary Renato C. Corona, to issue the so-called “Win-Win” Resolution on November 7, 1997.

The resolution modified the approval of the land conversion to agro-industrial area only to the extent of 44 hectares, and ordered the remaining 100 hectares to be distributed to qualified farmer-beneficiaries.

However, their victory was short-lived when the Supreme Court reinstated in 1998 the Torres decision on the land conversion.

In 2004, the Sumilao farmers filed a petition to cancel the conversion order, and to award the land to them on the grounds that the conditions for land conversion remained unfulfilled in violation of rules.

On December 18, 2007, the Office of the President issued an order granting the petition to cancel the land conversion order.

When Vice President Leni Robredo was still a practicing lawyer, she was connected with a non-government organization, the Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panlegal (SALIGAN), which helped the Sumilao farmers reclaim their ownership of the land in Bukidnon.

As a form of gratitude to Robredo’s help, the farmers walked 4,400 kilometers from Sumilao, Bukidnon to Manila in support of her vice presidential bid in 2016. They decided to march anew this year for her candidacy for president.

SALIGAN is a legal resource NGO doing developmental legal work for the marginalized, disadvantaged, and exploited sectors in the Philippines. Founded in 1987, it responded to the need of the sectors for legal empowerment and legal representation.

From 1998 to 2008, Robredo was the SALIGAN coordinator before becoming a member of the House of Representatives and vice president.

After passing the bar exams, there will be those who will join the law offices for private practice while others will go to government, judiciary, politics or the academe.

And there’s alternative lawyering.

Many alternative lawyers are guided by the words of former President Ramon Magsaysay: “Those who have less in life should have more in law.”

Alternative lawyering is legal practice either individually or through legal resource organizations that work with the poor and marginalized groups, identities and communities toward their empowerment, greater access to justice, and building peace.

Alternative lawyers do often take on careers outside of the mainstream, but what differentiates their work is their commitment to a different route to, and conception of, justice. The poor, who have less resource in relation to the rich, will often have to bank on the law to safeguard their rights.

In building a more accessible, inclusive and dynamic justice system, all remedies allowed by law should be completely exhausted for their protection.

The semblance of being given “more” in law is imperative to equip them the chance of equality, which they do not enjoy.

I was exposed to alternative lawyering as a volunteer law student for Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) led by Chel Diokno.

SALIGAN is part of the Alternative Law Groups Network.

“Only a grounded non-governmental worker who has walked alongside farmers on a march to claim their rights could have found those words to anchor her presidential run on. Only someone who has consistently taken up the causes of women could have mustered the strength to step up to the plate and attempt to reverse almost six years of misogyny,” the AlterLaw said in a statement.

Lawyers, as professionals, are expected to uphold the ethical and moral values that are said to be essential to the fabric that holds society together.

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.

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