Sumilao farmers: marching protesters of the past; today’s agri-entrepreneurs

SAN VICENTE, Sumilao, Bukidnon (Bukidnon News Dispatch/10 October) Every day, Sumilao farmer Wenefrido San-ajan, 39, wakes up at 4a.m. and goes straight to his farm. Jun-jun as he is called by neighbors, tills almost a hectare of corn farm. But he said since he started learning about vegetable gardening in 2008, he has changed his attitude towards farming.

Jun-jun, father of three, earns at least P300 per day from sales of produce from his garden of pechay, eggplant, string beans, ampalaya, cabbage, and bell onions. This income from the 1,000-square meter plot beside his corn farm is a far cry from his meager income in previous years relying only to income from corn “just enough to pay loans.”

“With this I am confident I can send at least a child to college,” he told Bukidnon News after he was asked to speak Monday of his experience as a farmer who shifted from corn-only to diversified plants farming in the 4th anniversary of their famous 1,700-“walk for land, walk for justice” to Manila.

From squabbles over their lack of land to till, Sumilao farmers of the Panaw Sumilao Multi-purpose Cooperative now talk about pushing for diversified organic farming.
“We want to tell the world that we are not only good in marching. We can also do well in farming. We should not only be bright in protesting but also in tilling the land,” he added.
Before, they cried for land and justice; now the farmers’ new fight is how to make the land distributed to them through agrarian reform become more productive, Napoleon Merida Jr, the group’s chairperson said.

Four years after their 69-day walk to Manila, Merida recalled that their problems before were mostly on fighting for their land. But now he said they face new problems like who should dry their corn grains first amidst limited solar dryers.

Merida announced during the commemoration held in a warehouse they built using government funds that the farmers have already planted corn and cassava to 41 hectares of the 50-hectare area first turned over to them as part of the 144-hectare land distributed to them through agrarian reform.

The Sumilao farmers hogged the headlines in 2007 when they marched from Sumilao town in Bukidnon to Manila to press their claim on a 144-hectare estate in their place under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. Eventually, the farmers received a total of 147 hectares.

The farmers planned to use the 50-hectare area in San Vicente into family-operated organic farms using the Natural Farming Technology. The 97 hectares from other villages in Sumilao will be used for industrial crops.

Merida, who cited that his gaining weight was one sign of progress, cited that a lot has changed among their members.
“Sa una galakaw-lakaw ra mi nga marag walay tumong (We used to walk around aimlessly). Now about 50 of our members already have motorcycles,” he added to the applause of about 200 people including coop members and guests from groups who have been supporting the farmers over the years.

About 70 percent of the farmers, Merida added, have paid up their amortization of the P2-million soft loan the Department of Agrarian Reform extended to them. Other government and non-government donors also extended support to the farmers, he added.

He also cited that the Department of Budget and Management has approved their request for a P5-million building project for their products.

The farmers have envisioned a professionally managed cooperative, computerized business operations, sustainable diversification of family-operated farms; productive, diversified, and profitable communal farms run by the cooperative; value-added products and access to market networks; improved access to social services including housing, education, and potable water.

But Merida said they needed the stakeholders’ continuing support to sustain their gains. He said they have identified a total of 56 hectares that is suitable for farming that they could not till because they have no funds yet especially for land preparation.
They also needed additional farm equipment like a tractor and dryers, he said.

Merida said they, too, needed not just help in production but also in access to the market.

He urged the members to do their best in order that they can show the stakeholders that they deserved to receive the land distributed to them.

We want to work out that we can develop the area even without the help of the big companies, through our hard work,” he added. In the entrance to the hall where the commemoration was held, the women of the village served snacks from root crops planted in their gardens. They have also displayed some of their products like soft brooms and the famous Sumilao corn coffee.

Merida thanked the stakeholders who helped them including government agencies like the Department of Agrarian Reform and the Department of Agriculture , civil society organizations like Akbayan, Kaanib Foundation, the Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (Pakisama)-Palambu and Balaod Mindanaw, the Catholic Relief Services, Xavier University and other organizations.

He said they used to quarrel with DAR, “now they are our partners,” he added.

Archbishop Antonio Ledesma, who celebrated the mass Monday with Malaybalay bishop Jose Cabantan and Sumilao Christ the King parish priest Danilo Paciente, said the Sumilao farmers gains in farming could be a model in the country. He said other agrarian reform beneficiaries should learn from the model of development employed in the experience of Sumilao farmers.

“The others should know about their experience,” he said. He added in program after the mass that he welcomed the plans of the farmers because it really came from them.
Bishop Cabantan said the farmers’ journey has never ended yet.

“After getting the land, the struggle continues to make good use of God’s gift,” he added.

Akbayan Rep. Arlene Bag-ao, who was the group’s lawyer from Balaod Mindanao, said the new campaign has began for the farmers to work out their plans.

She cited that the farmers and the support groups who helped them went through very difficult times.

But she said now that they have achieved their goals the farmers must be mindful of their big responsibility as models to other farm groups who were inspired by their struggle and victory.

“Wala sa gawas ang kalambuan, naa sa sulod ang gahum nga mulampos (Development is not from outside. The power to succeed is from within),” she added in her emotional speech where she relayed her joy in the success of the farmers. Farmer Jun-jun San-ajan, the first among the Sumilao farmers to work fully on his diversified farm said the ball is in their hands now.

He said he never expected that landless farmers like him who earned just enough to pay debts from financiers could ever reach this far. After receiving training from agricultural technicians, Jun-jun vows to become a trainer among his fellow farmers. (Walter I. Balane/Bukidnon News)

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