10/12/2004, 00.00
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Farmers' rights must be protected, Filipino bishops say

by Sonny Evangelista

Manila (AsiaNews) – As the Year of the Eucharist began last Sunday with the International Eucharistic Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, three bishops from the Negros Occidental Islands (central Philippines) issued a statement calling for "a Eucharistic sharing of our resources, particularly land which is not ours in the first place but is Yahweh's gift to us so that we may till it."

In their October 7 press release, Bishop Vicente Navarra of Bacolod, Bishop Patrick Buzon of Kabankalan, Bishop Jose Advincula of San Carlos of Negros Island and the directors of their respective Social Action Centers also condemned the recent upsurge in violence against landless poor. For them justice and peace can only be achieved if landowners respect the law, the Department of Agrarian Reform implement it more efficiently, courts administer if more fairly and local government and police enforce it.

The region is still dominated by larges-scale haciendas and landowners who enforce feudal-like control over their property and workers and refuse to give up lands that were in their families' possession for generations. The principle that might is right still reigns thanks to guns, goons, gold and politicians who are in landowners' pockets.

According to the Bishops land reform is the best way to improve the local economy; however, "its implementation is dismal in most cases, marred by violence and paralyzed by virtually endless court contests to the detriment of poor farmers," they said. "If the Department of Agrarian Reform does not act quickly and fairly, farmers might resort to violence to defend themselves, their families and properties," the Bishops added.

The latest violent episode took place on September 3 when armed men hired by a hacienda owner killed 60-year-old Teresa Mameng. The men stormed several houses in the woman's village at around midnight, causing villagers to flee into the darkness. Mameng was not so lucky. She was killed on the same land which she and the other agrarian reform beneficiaries had been fighting for. Last year, her 35-year-old son, Jimmy, was similarly killed by the landowner's security men.

According to a report, 39 farmers were illegally arrested, 57 wounded and 15 killed between June 2000 and September 2004. Fifty-eight criminal and civil cases have been filed against more than 3,000 farmers in 45 estates which are covered by the land reform law.

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