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FOCUS December 2007 Volume 50

Sumilao Land Struggle


*PAKISAMA is a national confederation of peasant organizations in the Philippines.

The Higaonons are indigenous people of southern Philippines. Their ancestral land stretches across the valley of Sayawan and Palaopao mountains in Bukidnon province. But people who did not belong to their community obtained the legal ownership of the land. In the 1930s, there were forcibly evicted from their balaang yuta(holy land). They returned as farm workers to the land that had become a cattle ranch.

The legally registered owners of the cattle ranch changed through the years, and subsequent owners divided the land into smaller pieces. In 1984, one hundred forty-four hectares of the land owned by the Quisumbing family and located in Sumilao town were leased to Del Monte Philippines, Inc. (DMPI) for ten years. The adjacent other portion of the land became the estate of the Carlos family.

With the advent of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law in 1988 (CARP), the one-hundred-forty- four-hectare ancestral land in Sumilao town was declared in 1990 as subject to the agrarian reform program. One hundred thirty-seven Mapadayonong Panaghiusa sa mga Lumad Alang sa Damlag (MAPALAD) farmers (later known as Sumilao farmers), all of Higaonon lineage, were declared beneficiaries of the program. The government issued in 1995 Certificates of Land Ownership Award (CLOAs) in their names. For the first time in decades, the Higaonons regained their lost ancestral land.

Struggle continues

The registered landowner (Norberto Quisumbing, Sr. Management and Development Corporation or NQS- RMDC) opposed the government move of putting the land under the agrarian reform program from the very beginning. With a series of legal actions, NQSRMDC was able to suspend the actual distribution of the land to the Sumilao farmers in 1992.

The municipal and provincial governments, on the other hand, approved in 1993 the conversion of the status of the land from agricultural to agro-industrial. Within the same year, NQSRMDC applied for the permission to convert the use of land into agro-industrial purpose, and thus exempt it from the agrarian reform program. NQSRMDC justified the land conversion application with promises of economic development consisting of the establishment of a Development Academy of Mindanao, a cultural center, Institute for Livelihood Science, a museum, a library, a golf course, a Mindanao Sports Development Complex, a Bukidnon Agro-Industrial Park, Forest Development and Support Facilities including the construction ofa 360-room hotel, restaurant and housing projects, among others.

But the Philippine Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) denied in 1994 the land conversion application on the ground that agrarian rules do not allow such conversion of prime agricultural land.[1] The land title of NQSRMDC was cancelled and DAR awarded to the Sumilao farmers their certificates of land ownership in 1995. NQSRMDC filed a court petition to nullify this decision of DAR. At the same time, it appealed the DAR decision to the Office of the President. The then Executive Secretary Ruben Torres issued in 1996 the infamous "Torres Decision" approving the application for conversion, and nullifying in effect the certificates of land ownership of the Sumilao farmers. The "Torres Decision" considered the Sumilao farmers as "outsiders" who have no right to the land. NQSRMDC then moved for the judicial cancellation of the certificates of landownership issued to them.

In response, the Sumilao farmers went into a hunger strike for twenty-eight days in 1997 in front of the DAR offices in the cities of Quezon and Cagayan de Oro. Their peaceful protest caught the interest of the public, including national personalities such as a Cardinal of the Catholic Church (Jaime Sin), and the then candidates for the election of the President, Senators, members of the House of Representatives and local legislative bodies.

Due to huge public pressure, then President Fidel V. Ramos overturned the "Torres Decision" and issued the so-called "Win-win Resolution" by providing for one hundred hectares of the land to the Sumilao farmers and forty-four hectares to NQSRMDC. It was a pleasant victory for the Sumilao farmers and the whole peasant sector. However, their victory was short lived.

NQSRMDC filed a petition against it before the Supreme Court. MAPALAD, representing the farmer-beneficiaries, filed an intervention to raise novel questions such as the validity of conversion of a prime agricultural land for other purposes, the power of local governments to reclassify lands in relation to DAR's authority to approve conversions, and the validity of the comprehensive agrarian reform law itself.

Unexpectedly, the Supreme Court decided against the Sumilao farmers. It refused to answer the constitution- al issues and focused its decision on DAR's failure to question the "Torres Resolution" on time.[2] It thus skirted the substantial issues of the case and limited its attention to technical questions. The "Torres Decision" was reinstated while the "Win-win Resolution" was invalidated.  Worst, it denied MAPALAD's intervention by equivocally saying that being merely "recommendee farmer-beneficiaries", the MAPALAD members have no real interest over the land. MAPALAD's dream of regaining the ancestral land vanished in an instant. That was in 1998.

Idle land and endless appeals

Several years passed and the land remained idle. Not one of the proposed projects of NQSRMDC ever materialized. The "promises" of economic vitality, employment and increased income remained promises. NQSRMDC sold the land instead in 2002 to San Miguel Foods, Inc. (SMFI), the biggest conglomerate in the country, which planned to put up a piggery farm.

Meanwhile, in 2003, the adjacent Carlos estate was distributed to some of the Sumilao farmers under the agrarian reform program with the full agreement of the registered landowner, the Carlos family. The farmers received their land ownership certificates.

With the conditions for land conversion remaining unfulfilled in violation of rules,[3] the Sumilao farmers filed a petition in 2004 to cancel the conversion order, and to award the land to them. They also argued that the planned piggery farm was not one of the agro- industries proposed by NQSRMDC in its land conversion application. In 2006, the DAR dismissed their petition.

The Sumilao farmers appealed to the Office of the President to reverse the DAR decision. On 18 December 2007, the Office of the President issued an order granting the petition to cancel the land conversion order.[4] Now a new process of legally distributing the land to the Sumilao farmers has to begin.

Ending of funding for CARP

The agrarian reform program continues until its "original scope and mandate" has been completed.[5] But by 2008, the law that allotted funds for its implementation will expire.[6] Without a new law providing the funds, the implementation of the program will virtually stop. In this case, while private agricultural lands will still be subject to agrarian reform, a more tedious process of judicial expropriation will have to be employed.

But there is much to be done under the agrarian reform program. One report states the following unfinished tasks under the program:[7]

According to DAR estimates, there will still be some 1,077,538 hectares of private agricultural lands and 581,813 hectares of public alienable and disposable lands that will still have to be distributed after 2008. These do not include the areas also still to be covered under leasehold and the differential between the DAR targets from 10.3M hectares in 1988 to 8.1M hectares in 1996.

The DAR also estimates that there will still be some 132,620 agrarian cases pending after 2008.

The recent moves of the government under President Gloria M. Arroyo and the Philippine legislature (House of Representatives) indicate that the implementation of CARP may come to a halt. The lumping of agrarian reform with other "asset reform programs" of the government such as on urban land and ancestral domain instead of the usual separate chapter in therecent Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan (MTPDP), the reduction of target for land acquisition and distribution (LAD) of private agricultural lands to only 100,000 hectares per year, the legislative proposals to exempt big prawn farms, fish ponds and aquaculture areas from CARP coverage, foreign investors' leasing of private lands for up to seventy-five years, and the proposed twenty-five-year moratorium on CARP implementation in theMindanao region are all veering away from the duty of the government to fully implement the constitutional mandate on agrarian reform (Section 4, Article XII of the 1987 Constitution). 

No clear land use policy

Massive land conversions all over the country led to establishment of industrial zones and residential areas on agricultural lands. Such land conversions pose a serious problem in light of growing population, perennial problem of food security, and threat to the ecology.

The absence of national land use policy complemented by inconsistent land reform policies, inefficient land administration bureaucracy, a highly politicized land tax system, and inefficient agrarian reform and housing development programs affect the efficiency of land markets, and thus the country's economic growth potential and equity.

The future of the Sumilao farmers

The Sumilao farmers were robbed of their ancestral land through the current system of land ownership. They tried various ways to recover it. They suffered forced eviction, violent actions by the police, and harassment by security staff of the landowners. Some of them died in the process.

They marched during October-December 2007 period from Mindanao to Manila (1,700 kilometer distance) to make their plea to the government once more. They demanded that their right to land be respected. The government finally cancelled its own decision allowing the conversion of their land for agro-industrial purpose. But the legal process of distributing the land to them is still to be undertaken.

The one-hundred-forty-four-hectare ancestral land in Sumilao remains fertile.  Its rich soil awaits cultivation. Mt. Sayawan and Mt. Palaopao still protect the land from unwanted weather conditions and the Culaman river runs through the land providing water. The Sumilao farmers may finally return to their ancestral land.

For further information, please contact: PAKISAMA, Room 201, 2nd floor, Partnership Center, 59 C. Salvador Street, Loyola Heights, Quezon City. Metro Manila, Philippines; ph (632) 4342079; e-mail:;


1. The rules provide that lands already covered by the agrarian reform program, or with irrigation facilities, among others, are prime agricultural lands that cannot be converted to other uses. The Sumilao land has been certified in 1994 as having irrigation system by Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC), the Provincial Agricultural Officer and the National Irrigation Authority (NIA).

2. Carlos O. Fortich, et al. vs. Renato C. Corona, et al., G.R. No. 131457, April 24, 1998, 289 SCRA 624 in

3. DAR Administrative Order No. 1, series of 1990 in relation to DAR Administrative Order No. 2, series of 1990, DAR Administrative Order No. 12, series of 1994 (Consolidated and Revised Rules and Regulations Governing Conversion of Agricultural Lands to Non-Agricultural Uses), and DAR Administrative Order No. 1, series of 2002.

4. Lira Dalangin-Fernandez, "Palace restores Sumilao land to agricultural use," Philippine Daily Inquirer, 18 December 2007,

5. See Department of Justice Opinion No. 9, series of 1997.

6. Republic Act 8532, which amended Republic Act 6657, or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), provided additional 50 billion Philippine pesos (roughly 1.2 billion US dollars) to the Agrarian Reform Fund (ARF).

7. Why CARP "Extension With Reforms" in 2008?, primer of the AR Now!, PESANTech and PhilDHRRA, 2007, in