Teofilo Melloria, 72. (Zea Io Ming C. Capistrano/davaotoday.com)

Teofilo Melloria, 72. (Zea Io Ming C. Capistrano/davaotoday.com)

TAGUM CITY, Philippines – More than six years ago, Teofilo Melloria, 72 would work in someone else’s farm earning him P200 a day.

His work in another’s farm is not regular leaving his family cash-strapped.

“It was so difficult during those times. What we earn is only enough to put food on the table,” he told Davao Today in an interview, Monday.

Out of his five children, only one was able to finish schooling. But it will be better Christmas this year for Melloria and his family.

Melloria found hope that he will be able to till his own land now that the Department of Agrarian Reform upheld a cease and desist order issued by Secretary Rafael Mariano in favor of the agrarian reform beneficiaries.

The government decided in favor of the agrarian reform beneficiaries who are members of the Madaum Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association after they forcibly occupied the disputed San Isidro farm area nearly two weeks ago.

Melloria is among the members of the “No Group” under their previous cooperative, the Hijo Employees Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative 1, who wanted to break ties with Lapanday Foods Corporation. The “No Group” have organized themselves into Marbai, who now has 159 members.

Since October 18, 1999, the Hearbco 1 is obliged to sell its bananas to Lapanday under the Banana Sales and Marketing Agreement (BSMA) for the Class A bananas and Banana Purchase Agreement (BPA) for the Class B bananas. The contract was good for 10 years and was extended for 10 more years.

However, in its open letter to the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association on December 18, Mely Yu, chairperson of Marbai’s Board of Trustees, said the contract was “unfavourable”.

“It was through Lapanday Foods Corporation’s contract implementation of the unfavourable 10 year Banana Sales Agreement and General Framework Farm Rehabilitation that ARBs experienced worst living condition. Contracts with banana buyers ideally are supposed to alleviate economic condition and credits given are meant to grant temporary fiscal relief to us poor farmers. Yet our then contract with Lapanday Foods Corporation did not serve this purpose,” Yu said.

Melloria also said: “We do not understand their ways. We earn a gross of P20,000, but they would only give us P1,000 as a cash advance.”

He said the gross income is collected by Lapanday to pay for the cash advances by the farmers.

Yu said the contracts brokered by Lapanday is “an Agri-Business Ventures Agreement Scheme meant to extract excessive profits from farmers and leaves them in abysmal debt.”

She said through the contract, Lapanday deducts the amount of “P4,500 twice monthly for farm inputs or production cost” from the farmers.

Yu added that the company “downgraded” their banana products, costing them a lot of their earnings.

Artemio Serot, a farmer who was interviewed by Davao Today on Friday, Dec. 16 said there were instances when the Class B bananas bought from them would be reclassified to Class A in a packing house.

Serot said they had witnesses that the Class B bananas were reclassified. Serot served as a treasurer of the Hearbco-1 from 1998 to 2006.

Farmers’ struggle

In 2010, during the general assembly, the new set of the Board of Directs led by Yu refused to honor the existing contracts with Lapanday.

Serot said during a board meeting on May 2010, the officers reacted after finding out that the cooperative owes Lapanday some “P93 million”.

“The auditor found out that each agrarian reform beneficiary owes P200,000 and we do not know where the debt came from,” he said.

“Dili makatuo ang new set of officers nga ingon ana kadako ang utang kay naa may produksyon (The new sets of officers could not believe that the debt ballooned to such huge amount because there was production),” he said.

According to Marbai, Lapanday also collected 9 percent and 12 percent interest rates, “a reason why for 12 years of transacting with Lapanday, the cooperative was only able to pay the interest and not the principal (debt).”

On June 7, 2010, a dialogue between the cooperative and Lapanday took place in Tagum City which was attended by Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer II Nicasio Lemente. Marbai said they submitted a position paper to the Lapanday during the dialogue expressing their intent to sell their Class A bananas to Lapanday and that they would get the rejects to sell it to other buyers “effective Week 25.”

Marbai said a representative of Lapanday said their legal counsel will reply to the cooperative before “week 25.” But no reply came.

On June 21 the cooperative only sold Class A bananas to Lapanday. Marbai said the cooperative wanted to get the rejects but Lapanday refused and instead deployed security guards in the packing house.

The following day, the road was blocked and the agrarian reform beneficiaries could not enter to harvest their bananas.

Lapanday filed a case against the cooperative for “Specific Performance, Damages, and Attorney’s Fees with Application for a Writ of Preliminary Injunction” against the cooperative and Yu’s groups.

The Regional Trial Court Branch 14 of Davao City issued a temporary restraining order and writ of preliminary injunction in favor of LFC and referred the case to mediation for possible amicable settlement.

On February 2011, negotiations for a possible compromise agreement commenced. The agreement was signed on September 9, 2011.

Good areas, poor areas

A major provision of the Compromise Agreement is the classification of the areas into “Good Areas” and “Poor Areas”.

In a letter to DAR Regional Director John Maruhom date February 16, 2015, Atty. Leilanie Espejo, legal counsel for Lapanday, explained: “the good areas consisting of 274.5 hectares are managed by the growers-agraraian reform beneficiaries, while the poor areas consisting only of 157.5 hectares are managed by the LFC.” The 145-hectares claimed by members of the Marbai are part of the Poor Areas.

Espejo said the Hearbco-1 Board of Directors negotiated to charge most of the deductions to the poor areas “so that the good areas managed by the grower-ARBs would have higher net proceeds.”

Lapanday agreed.

Espejo also mentioned that Hearbco-1 is not yet even halfway through in the payment of its loans and advances from Lapanday.

She added that Lapanday’s collection is “mostly reliant on the managed areas as concessions were already given to the Good Areas.”

In a supplement to the Compromise Agreement between Hearbco-1 and Lapanday, it indicated that the account of Hearbco-1 is P892,629,827. Lapanday agreed to reduce it to P616,518,304 “to assist Hearbco-1 to continue its operations.”

Espejo also said “although LFC is open to an eventual turn-over of these areas to the ARB, now is not yet the proper time.”

It said the area has just been rehabilitated by Lapanday as it is prone to Panama disease.

“If this area will be turned over to the ARBs for them to manage on their own, there will be unobstructed entry and exit to these areas which will openly expose these areas again to PD,” Espejo told Maruhom in the letter.

She said this is detrimental to the adjacent areas as well.

No recognition

However, Marbai said Lapanday refused to recognize that their separation from Hearbco-1 in January 2011 “was by means of a referendum—one democratic procedure that all ARBs under Hearbco-1 agreed upon and voted for whether we choose to remain in continuance of an unfair contract with our buyer or not.”

Marbai asserted that they are not accountable for the contract they never agreed to.

Marbai filed a case against the Hearbco-1 before the DAR Adjudication Board for reinstatement in their former designated areas.

On December 15, 2015, the Marbai won their case against Hearbco-1. An agreement was also signed between the Hearbco 1 and the Marbai wherein because there are already some members of the “Yes” group cultivating their areas, the “No” group will instead be reinstated in the 145-hectare portion of the Sanid area.

However, Lapanday opposed the move because their reinstatement would affect Lapanday’s rights under the Compromise Agreement.

Lapanday also said it is not bound by the Provincial Agrarian Reform Adjudicator of Davao del Norte as it was not a party to the case between Marbai and Hearbco-1.

Marbai gets Sanid

In a dialogue between the ARBs and Lapanday on Monday, DAR Undersecretary for Legal Affairs Luis Pangulayan said by virtue of the compromise agreement between Hearbco 1 and Marbai, the San Isidro land area belongs to the agrarian reform beneficiaries.

In an interview with Davao Today, Pangulayan said the compromise agreement between the Hearbco-1 and Lapanday was made in court, which he said “has no jurisdiction” in implementing agrarian reform in the country.

“Only the DAR has the primary, exclusive, original jurisdiction in resolving agrarian dispute such as this, not the Regional Trial Court, not the Municipal Trial Court, not the Court of Appeals, not the Supreme Court,” he said.

DAR also ordered the Sheriff of the DAR Regional Office 11 to supervise the harvest of the banana products in the area “until such time that this case is finally decided on the merits.”

The farmers will get to benefit from the land until the case is resolved in court as Lapanday vowed to question DAR’s order.

For now, Melloria said they will wait for the time that they would truly be owners of the land they till.(davaotoday.com)

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