Rafael ‘Ka Paeng’ Mariano aims to bring
true agrarian reform to his fellow farmers
WHEN Rafael Vitriolo Mariano took office as Agrarian Reform Secretary, his first order of business was the immediate removal of the chains and locks that held the main gates of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). Those chains and locks were not only literal barriers; they also symbolized the barriers that prevented landless working farmers known as kasama from seeking help and defense from the government. Five days later, with the help of bolt cutters and an acetylene burner, the locks and chains were removed, and the gates were open, much to the delight and celebration of the farmers that camped outside the office along Elliptical Road in Quezon City.
“Kapag may nakita tayong mga magsasakang paparating, atin na silang salubungin at iparamdam sa kanila ang mainit na pagbati at pag-aasikaso sa anumang nais nating iparating sa atin (If we see the farmers coming, let us welcome them and make them feel our warm greetings and take care of what they seek to tell us),” he said when he himself led the symbolic unchaining of the gates in front of DAR employees.
For the first time, a son of peasant farmers and a tiller in the fields is at the helm of the controversial agency that has, for the longest time, been perceived as insensitive to the plight of farmers seeking to own the fields that were owned by landed rich families and industries. He was, after all, one of those activists who once banged the gates to demand dialogue with officials. As a founding member of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), the militant group of farmers, Mariano or more popularly known as Ka Paeng to his comrades, clamored for a genuine agrarian reform program that truly benefited the farmers.
Ka Paeng was born anakpawis (which literally translates to “born to those who toil”), as his farmer parents, Narciso Mariano and Herminigilda Vitriolo, were impoverished farmers from Quezon, Nueva Ecija. According to Antonio Flores, secretary-general of KMP and a longtime friend of Ka Paeng, “Ang mga magulang niya ay tenante. Maliit na lupa lang ang kanilang binubungkal sa Nueva Ecija (His parents were tenants. They only had a small piece of land to till in Nueva Ecija).”
Early in life, he already started helping his parents in farming. At his young age, he witnessed the kind of treatment that the landlords gave to their kasamà. “Kaunti na lamang ang natitirang bahagi ng ani ang napupunta sa pamilya niya, kaya lalo silang nabaon sa utang (His family only got a small portion of the proceeds of the harvest, that is why they got deeper and deeper into debt),” Flores added.
Because of this, Ka Paeng was not able to finish college at Wesleyan University and Liwag Colleges (now Christian Colleges of the Philippines) where he took up agriculture and agri-cooperatives. His father got sick and ended up assuming the role of breadwinner and in order to fulfill his family’s needs, he worked in the fields. It was later, as a peasant leader and mover that he understood the plight of his fellow farmers. Flores explained, “Hindi nawawala ang diwa niya bilang magsasaka… at ang pagtulong niya sa mga magsasaka (He recognized his roots as a farmer… and why he helped them).”
His growing awareness of the problems between landlord and tenant he started to address when he started joining labor and peasant groups, first with the Bisig ng Kabataan, and later he became regional vice chairman of the Central Luzon Farmer’s Alliance, and eventually founding secretary-general of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) in 1985. He also became leader of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) in 1998 and eventually gained a seat in the House of Representatives as party-list nominee of Anakpawis from 2004 to 2013. When Rodrigo Duterte was elected President, he named Ka Paeng, along with Judy Taguiwalo, to assume posts in the Cabinet as nominees by the National Democratic Front (NDF).
Pushing for Genuine Agrarian Reform
Ka Paeng treated agriculture as the backbone of any developed country. “Walang bansang maunlad ang di nagkaroon ng maunlad na agrikultura (No progressive country did not have a progressive agriculture),” he explained. For him, farmers are one of those that helped strengthen the market with their produce. “Kung mananatiling mahirap ang mga magsasaka, hindi makakaangat ang ating ekonomiya, at tanging kakaunti ang uunlad (If our farmers remained poor, our economy will not lift off, and only a few will progress).”
One of the first things that Ka Paeng did when he assumed as DAR secretary was convene the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) which has not convened for a decade. “Dahil sa tagal na di nag-convene [ng PARC], matagal ding naghintay ang marami sa ating mga magsasaka para mapasakamay ang mga lupang ipinagkakait sa kanila ng mga landlord (Because it took time [for PARC] to convene, many farmers also waited long for them to claim lands denied to them by landlords),” he said. Since he took office, PARC already held three meetings (two of them early this year) where the decided on several initiatives, including stopping several landowning companies from activities detrimental to farmers’ interests. He is also leading initiatives to help agrarian reform beneficiaries by helping them.
He also instituted an “open-door” policy that instituted a record number of dialogues/consultations with dispossessed farmer-tenants that benefited more than 11,000 farmers in 10 months, resulting with a surge of reported cases of more than 20,000 that the DAR Legal Office has decided or acted on.
He also issued several significant DAR administrative orders including: AO No. 08-Series of 2016 which instituted guidelines on the completion of distribution and titling of landed estates; AO No. 1-Series of 2017 that suspended or amended previous administrative orders that required farmers to sign promissory notes or application to purchase and farmer’s undertaking (APFU) documents in order for them qualify as beneficiaries of the agrarian reform program; and AO No. 3-Series of 2017,creating rules for agrarian law implementation (ALI) cases.
As a result, more than 22,000 farmers were finally granted their Certificates of Land Ownership Award (CLOAs), which meant that they now legally own the land they till, and it covered more than 21,000 hectares of land distributed.
As the original author of the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill, which he first filed as a congressman, he is now supporting for the passage of House Bill No. 555 or the present GARB version authored by his Anakpawis partymates. “Ang [House Bill No. 555] ay hindi lang pagpapalawig o pagpapatuloy ng Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) kundi ang tunay na pagpapalaya sa ating mga magsasaka sa pyudal na sistema na kumakadena sa kanila sa kahirapan (The bill should not be an extension or continuation of CARP, but a true emancipation of our farmers from a system that chains them to poverty),” he explained.
A Life of Commitment
For the many years as an activist and later an opposition lawmaker, he was subjected to oppression and persecution by previous administrations and became the object of ire of many politicians. In 2005, he and four opposition congressmen were detained at the Batasang Pambansa complex for charges of mutiny against the government of former president (now Pampanga congresswoman) Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
This has not deterred him even as he is facing scrutiny the powerful Commission on Appointments, where some lawmakers from both houses belong to landowning clans or families. More recently, an agribusiness firm sued him and his undersecretary, Luis Pangulayan, in connection with the takeover by agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) of a portion of a banana farm that it occupies in Tagum City.
“Ang tunay na repormang pansakahan ay parang [pagpapatakbo ng] isang sasakyan. Upang tumakbo dapat ay tanggalin natin ang mga kalsong pumipigil sa mga gulong nito para tumakbo Nagawa na nating matanggal ang ilan sa mga ito. Pero hindi rito nagtatapos [ang ating misyon]. Dahil nga kinalawang at natulog nang matagal, kailangang lagyan ng langis para maayos na tumakbo. Nagsisimula pa lang tayo, at malayo pa ang ating tatakbuhin (Genuine agrarian reform is like [driving] a vehicle. For it to run, we have to remove the stumbling blocks that prevent it from moving forward. We have removed some of these obstacles. However, [our mission] does not stop here. As [CARP] had rusted and lay dormant for a long time, it needed lubrication for it to work properly. We are just beginning, and we still have a long way to go),” Ka Paeng concluded, with his hands clasped, as if in prayer, hoping that his tenure as DAR secretary will truly bring genuine reforms and new lives for our farmers.