Saturday, April 10, 2010

Concentric Rings, Part II: land-grabbing, land conversion and the untold human cost

Note: Part I can be found here:

Ang buhay sa tumpok

"Hindi talaga ako papayag. Magbubuwis talaga ako ng dugo. Ipaglalaban ko talaga ang lugar na ito."

Pol had been a cheerful, voluble man, inordinately fond of teasing his wife and playing pranks on his three children. He had tried out all sorts of odd jobs in his time -- from painting buildings to driving tricycles -- but continued to struggle because of debilitating bouts of asthma. He and his wife Trining had always dreamed of owning their own home and living someplace idyllic away from the capital, which remained congested and polluted, as always, except in the most privileged enclaves.

The new neighbourhood was called Paradise Park Village -- 7.2 hectares of barren lands situated in Barangay San Vicente in San Pedro, Laguna. As more settlers had streamed in from other provinces, the land tenants -- who had originally planted root crops and banana trees, and occasionally tended cattle -- eventually found work in an adjacent piggery farm. By 1984, the entire property had been bought by Maximino Argana, who, it later turned out, had been a Marcos crony.

Which explains why, in the heady aftermath of the EDSA revolution, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) chose to sequester the entire area altogether. What is more difficult to understand is how -- and on what grounds -- Crown Asia (a Vista Land company, the 2/3 supermajority of which belongs to the family of Manny Villar) was able to acquire the properties in 2002, using a title under the name of a certain Jose Nuñez. From that point onwards, guards began to monitor the movements of the residents in a 2.18-hectare zone in particular (Lot 157), which housed around 205 families. Almost overnight, it would seem, a giant wall had been erected around this perimeter, preventing the tenants from repairing their homes or building new structures. In the blink of an eye, they had suddenly been denied access to roads, which then made access to electricity and running water all the more scarce and difficult.

Pol, Jr. -- “Qurico” to his parents -- had no way of knowing that this is what would become of his new home. Neither did Trining, who had left her secluded life as a yaya to work in a factory in San Pedro. The de los Santoses were, at any rate, resourceful and happy, and had finally begun to enjoy the rustic existence they shared in Paradise Park with their three children. As Trining would fondly say of her husband, “Mabait, matulungin, concerned masyado sa amin, at napaka-sipag. Bago uminom, magbibigay muna ng pera. Alas quatro ng umaga, nagbi-byahe na iyan, at nag-gagarahe lang kapag alas singko na ng hapon.”

Sadly, life in Paradise Park had eventually become almost entirely untenable. According to Trining, Crown Asia wanted their land for luxury developments and was not above harassing the tenants on a regular basis. “
May problema talaga dito. Laging may gulo. Lagi siyang may katabi na itak. Baka daw kung gabi ay bigla nalang kaming i-harass. Pero ano naman ang magagawa ng itak? Baril ang hawak ng mga gwardiya nila. Nang magkagulo, itak lang ang dala niya. Sila ang unang nagpaputok, ang mga gwardiya.

That day, 29 September 2002 -- a Sunday, and therefore a day off for both parents -- Pol had been excited. He had planned to buy a DVD player for their second child, who was to celebrate his birthday the following week. Trining had not wanted to buy the player because she knew they couldn’t afford it, but Pol had been insistent, saying: “
malay mo, wala na ako bukas.

Their youngest child had wanted to eat at Jollibee afterwards but, having bought the player, they had no more money, so they settled on a lunch of rice and coffee. “
Pag-uwi namin, wala kaming ulam, wala na kaming pera. Bigas lang.”

But Pol didn’t mind: the only thing he wanted to do was play the DVD before a scheduled meeting with the Paradise Park Neighbourhood Association, where he was now the acting director. It was a regular meeting, so he wasn’t worried. What he
did mind was his eldest son not buying something for the tricycle as he had asked him to: “paano na kapag wala na ako?”

Pol was resting (and Trining singing on her videoke) when the commotion began. She didn’t notice Pol picking up his
itak and rushing outside. In an unblinking instant, Pol -- who had suddenly found himself at the centre of a swirling mêlée -- had been shot in the lung. A few hours later, he was dead.

One of the more poignant aspects of this story is the autopsy report itself, which reveals that Trini hadn’t been exaggerating about their diet that day after all: his stomach's contents, only partially digested, had consisted of little more than rice...

In an exclusive interview (downloadable here and here), one of Pol's neighbours, who had witnessed the shooting personally, shares her impressions of that fateful day with one of my sources, during which some light is shed on the motives of the shooters. Here's that interview:

As for the actual whodunit, the police blotter, like the witness herself, identifies the shooters -- security guards working for the Banahaw Security Agency -- fairly clearly. Equally noteworthy: a memo from Crown Asia regarding the hiring of security guards for the specific area (Lot 157) where the shootings had taken place (another victim had also been shot during the same incident), which included a list of licensed firearms. The memo identifies the owner of the property as Jose Nuñez, etc, which is the name under which Crown Asia had originally claimed the title of the land.

So how is it that, with all this evidence, there have been no prosecutions, even after 8 long years and repeated complaints to the authorities, both in Laguna and Manila? Why would Mayors Felicisimo Vierneza and Calixto Cataquiz of San Pedro have let the death of a human being under their respective jurisdictions go?

What weighs so heavily upon Trining even now is what has since become of her children. Their father had always dreamed of going abroad: had he not allowed his barkada to influence him unduly in his last two years of high school, she mourns wistfully, that dream might not have died. Which is why all he ever wanted was for his children to study hard and finish school. So that one day, perhaps, they might have the privilege of becoming OFWs, and Pol could vicariously live his dream of a better life through them. Sadly, his children failed miserably in school after their father’s death, and ended up having to work to help make ends meet. Today, like his father before him, the eldest is a tricycle driver, and the cycle Pol had tried so hard to break continues to remain unbroken.

The only other thing Pol ever wanted, besides the DVD player he never had the time to enjoy, was to one day see his own grandchildren grow. But that dream, too, would never be fulfilled: at 44, he had been severed from the flower of his youth in the most brazen and callous manner possible.

And Pol was, of course, not alone in the indignities he had to face on a daily basis. His may have been one of the more striking examples of life in Paradise Park – an ironic name if there ever was one, you will agree – but there were many others. Because the colloquial term for the area inside the wall where they were all congregated – a ghetto of sorts -- was “tumpok" (i.e., clump), as in “nakatumpok na basura.” As if, in fact, these human beings had been unceremoniously dumped together in the most humiliating manner possible, like trash. Indeed, the term itself is both raw and visceral, subliminally evoking the notion of garbage. So that, to get into their own homes, they needed to walk for hours to pass through a narrow entrance in an otherwise impenetrable wall; and to find potable water, they had to resort to buying bottled water outside the ghetto walls. Always and throughout, there were the security guards on patrol, who reminded them who was in charge and who would one day lay claim to their land.

But Trining and her children had no intention of ever leaving, because doing so would mean abandoning everything that Pol had lived and died for. That separation would be unspeakable. As Pol had once said: "Hindi talaga ako papayag. Magbubuwis talaga ako ng dugo. Ipaglalaban ko talaga ang lugar na ito." To this day, they remain determined to defend their land, the way an accidental hero had once taught them, almost a decade ago, at such terrible personal cost.

San Pedro is, of course, by no means an isolated case. Indeed, scattered all over the archipelago are a number of such examples, many of which are associated with properties belonging to Manny Villar. In San Pedro alone, the materials documenting harassment, intimidation and a life of indignity are legion. Interestingly, page 4 of a complaint recorded by the Department of Justice from the Paradise Park Neighborhood Association notes that the deed of the new "owner" had never been notarized. In fact, the certificate of transfer, like Mr Nuñez's certificate of title, could not even be located...


Elsewhere, Lito Banayo has written compellingly about the situation in Norzagaray, Bulacan. Nixon Kua's film also provides a useful backdrop. In fact, a number of protests against land-grabbing in the region have already been staged.

But all this ultimately evokes a social reality that remains both grim and
disturbing. According to one reliable source (who has spent years on the ground doing humanitarian and environmental work but who has also been the unfortunate recipient of repeated death threats in recent months), there were at least three deaths related to land-grabbing between 2000 and 2005: the one in 2000 was the Secretary of the Kamadulnais (Katutubong Samahan ng Mga Dumagat sa Lourdes Neighbourhood Association, Inc.) in Barangay San Isidro, San Jose del Monte, Bulacan (please see scrapbook below); however, as it is taboo among the Dumagats to name the dead, there is no record of his name in their literature. And, since many IPs still do not have birth certificates, he was also not issued a death certificate, and it appears that he was immediately buried with little fanfare. At any rate, the Dumagats point the finger in the direction of Palmera Security, which has also been associated with Mr Villar...

In 2001 and 2005 respectively, two barangay captains in San Isidro, Bulacan were killed. In 2010, a Genaro Aguirre was also killed, which the NPA ultimately took responsibility for. Of course, my source remains convinced that collusion exists between the NPA and Villar's security people, which he claims has been further buttressed by the recent alliance between Satur and Villar, not to mention Joma's exuberant pronouncements on the esteemed solon's platform for the poor. The source also maintains that there were several beatings prior to 2005 and one ambush very recently, all of which revolve around Dumagat resistance to encroachment upon their land. If true, then it is not altogether surprising that the Ombudsman recently put a hold on the Norzagaray/San Jose del Monte case petitioned by the farmers, since there appears to have been a miscarriage of justice all round...


Franklin Drilon has also broken the celebrated Savannah case in Oton and Pavia in Iloilo, where Villar has been accused of illegal land-conversion, while Boy Mejorada's short film powerfully captures its human face.


But there are other stories, some of which are still being investigated. In Amore at Portofino (Daang Hari, Barangay Salawag, Dasmariñas, Cavite), a land tenant (whom we shall call Mr. V for his own protection; it suffices to say that he was highly respected in his line of work) had been in the process of paying for a deed of conveyance (the amount that needs to be paid to the government to establish full ownership of the land) as a farmer-beneficiary, which had been approved by the DENR. But a new title under the name of a certain Pedro Reyes had suddenly materialized, and Mr. V, along with a number of other tenants, had been thrown out of the land, and was forced to resettle in an informal settler section for the urban poor in Bayanan, Muntinlupa.

The tenants/beneficiaries claim that there had, in fact, never been any sales between them and Pedro Reyes. Interestingly enough, the titles under this name appear to be those being used by
Amore at Portofino (, which is allegedly a development corporation belonging to Manny Villar (note the Brittany and Vista Land ownership). It appears that there are now security guards guarding the entire property development, depriving farmers and their families of the right of way. Like San Pedro, there is a sizable tumpok in Barangay Salawag, where farmer-tenants have no right of way, although this one is far more heavily guarded...


In Barangay San Vicente (Sto. Thomas, Batangas), Domingo Manlocloc was a tenant living on 3 hectares of land, which his family had been tilling since the early 1900s. They have been in conflict with Benjamin Maloles, their landlord, since well before 1967 because he allegedly failed to give them their fair share of produce. The regional trial court of Balayan finally confirmed the Manlocloc tenancy and a sharing system was established. But Manlocloc had difficulty selling his produce in the market for years because he claims that the landlord wanted access at unreasonably low prices. When he tried to transport the produce, he was blocked by policemen and accused of stealing. Strangely, the harassment suddenly stopped in 1997, and it was only in 2000 that Manlocloc discovered that Maloles had entered into an agreement with Camella Homes, which is also associated with Mr Villar. In 2005-2006, Wilhemina Tobias, a Camella representative, bought the neighboring properties at different prices (the better, it would appear, to divide the tenants). In 2007, Manlocloc's shanty was demolished, and he was no longer allowed to enter his own property. When he continued to resist, he was shot by an unidentified man on his way to the farm.

Although they remain unpaid, he and his siblings have never returned to the farm after the shooting. The entire Maloles property is now being developed by Camella Homes. The legal battle between Manlocloc and Maloles continues, with the former pushing for a revocation of the conversion order by DAR because he does not want to give up his right to the land. The only other legal recourse for him would be to receive disturbance compensation, but the amount remains negligible.
“Marami na kaming sakit ng ulo sa lupang ito. Mula pa sa tatay ko, nauubos na ang kaunting pera namin dahil sa kasong ito, at hanggang ngayon, naghihirap pa rin kami. Mas gusto naming makuha ang lupa kaysa ang bayad. Kung babayaran nila kami, sa halaga na tama at hindi kakarampot lang. Ipinagbilin ito ng tatay ko sa amin kaya, kahit hirap na hirap na kami, ayaw naming pabayaan na lang na makuha nila ito.”


And then there is the curious case of Purok 14 in South Daang Hari in Taguig, where several subdivisions (Presidio, Brittany and Marina) are allegedly owned by Mr. Villar. The property was mortgaged to Capitol Bank by an Aida Posadas, and the title fell under the jurisdiction of Muntinlupa. Purok 14, on the other hand, belongs to Taguig, and the two areas are separated by a towering wall.

But while it is not difficult to distinguish between the two sides, it appears that Purok 14 has now become a zone of contention, with mayors from both cities preferring not to get involved. The area is said to have no existing title, let alone owner, based on a cadastral map provided by the DENR, which means that the people living there can eventually apply for ownership of the land.

Regrettably, around 100 families have already been forced to vacate the land. In an effort to protect the remaining portion of Purok 14, a
brigada was set up against the guards, who were allegedly forcing their way into the area. Over a hundred homes were demolished, after which the police informed the residents that there was no point in resisting since they were already in possession of new titles. Joseta Suganob claims that Villar occupied a portion of Purok 14, and that the encroached portion is approximately one hectare. She further confirms that two residents (Isidro Barcelona and Leonardo Elorde) had already been shot and killed by guards in 1994.

There is already talk of a demolition after the elections. Crown Asia has apparently already sent a letter to the Barangay Captain stating its intent to develop the area, attached to which is a copy of a title.


So what is the point of these discrete vignettes I have gone to such lengths to document in scrupulous detail? Can it be said that there is an overarching framework that is both identifiable and premeditated? How does this relate to Villar's largest project to date, the C5 road extension? What is to happen to the 30,000 or so families that have been displaced by this massive DPWH project? Considering the increased market value of the Villar properties along C5, and the high payments for right of way that have already been paid out, why did the negotiations with the residents take over a year with so little apparent resolution? The crux of the matter, in fact, appears to have been a reluctance to pay dislocation or replacement costs to residents who were effectively being displaced and asked to relocate altogether. When the negotiations began to break down, the police were sent with notices "encouraging" the residents to leave. So the more pertinent question becomes: is the C5 case an "anomaly" or is it, in fact, a trend?

I, for one, observe the following trends:

Indeed, perhaps the single most objectionable aspect of the Villar empire is the fact that so much of it is ultimately at the expense of the poor. The rhetoric of "galing sa mahirap" notwithstanding (although that, too, has become questionable), one might have countenanced his modus operandi had he merely stolen from the rich.

But stripping marginalized groups of their most basic human rights -- the right to habitation and the right to live lives of dignity free of harassment and intimidation -- is unconscionable, whether they happen to be poor landowners, agricultural tenants, indigenous groups or farmers. As fake titles and illegal conversions are obtained, artificial walls erected, natural water flows and roads blocked, private security guards deployed to keep restive tenants in check, public funds used for private gain, and government officials bribed to tow the seamless "public-private partnership" Mr Villar appears to have elevated to a science, what is to become of the rule of law in our country? What, more importantly, is to become of the rights of the poor? Why not simply buy their land at fair market value and be done with it, one has to ask? Why, indeed, profit from their obvious powerlessness? Who will defend them when mayors, barangay captains, police officials, lawmakers and even ombudsmen -- our entire socio-legal continuum, in short -- all appear to have turned a blind eye to repeated harassment, land-grabbing, illegal land conversion and even murder?

Even more galling is the realization that these stories -- and the deeply humiliating situations these extraordinary human beings continue to encounter on a daily basis -- ultimately remain invisible to most because these victims have committed the one crime our class-conscious society can almost never forgive: they were born poor. Which is why Pol's deepest aspirations, Trining's quiet despair and the terrible sense of asphyxiation that unites all of Paradise Park within its implacable walls rarely bear much telling.

But these are not, after all, ordinary stories of human poverty. They depict, instead, a reality where injustice has become normalized, and violence towards the poor, sliding imperviously, fits into the natural grooves of our entire social system. We appear to have lost, indeed, our sense of outrage.

Perhaps if we were to remember that the poor are not trash on the street to be ignored and forgotten but human beings to whom we are all socially responsible in the end, we might find ourselves capable of resisting the economic and social injustices all around us. Perhaps we might even be impelled to safeguard our legal institutions from the types of impunity we observe every day. Because, just as we can afford to turn that blind eye, we also have the option of opening them wide -- however painful that might be for one brief instant -- and finally begin to see. That moment of sorrow might even be matched by a deeper sense of exhilaration: perhaps, once we no longer take "reality" for granted, we can begin to think in terms of social justice at last, and the mind can finally set us free.

A private note: this was a very difficult section to write, much harder, in many ways, than the first part, for several reasons. To begin with, the network of confidentiality was such that there was difficulty in accessing the most basic information about these subjects throughout. Preserving their anonymity for their own protection (as well as that of the sources/informants on the ground who were in touch with them), on the one hand, and wanting to tell enough of their story to the rest of the world, on the other, was a delicate balance to negotiate. The need to preserve this anonymity also had to be balanced with the need to vet the quality of the data itself at every step. Files and data were very difficult to track down also because there were no centralized sources of information. Above all, some of the narratives I had to read and listen to were ultimately somewhat harrowing.

But there were a stalwart few who came through for this section in the end, and to all of them I remain deeply grateful: to L, for walking me through Norzagaray; to E and G, for pointing out what might be electric; and M (who I regrettably only talked to at the very end), for clarifying the number of deaths we were actually looking at in Bulacan, which I had spent the better part of an entire month trying to verify... To J and J, for the technical support and for making a podcast of that superb interview, as well as for turning the Norzagaray and Iloilo DVDs into Youtube links. And to P and Luna Salin, for having been a joy to work with (a tight little ship, your unit is, and highly organized too), and for helping me out with San Pedro, Batangas and Cavite; a special thank you to P and M, too, for that wonderful chart at the end...

Luna in particular deserves a heart-felt thank you for having introduced me to some of these characters, for many of the photographs and for giving me enough detail so I could actually write about them. Not once did I encounter any hesitation, excuses or resistance (although there was quite a bit of sleepiness at the end :D); all I ever saw was a willingness to work as hard as I did, and then some. It is people like her (and M), who work in the field every day and clearly care about the people and issues the rest of us can only ever intellectualize about that I have the highest respect for. For Luna, this was clearly not a job or assignment but a calling to defend human beings whose welfare and future she cared about very deeply. To me, you will always be, my friend, one of this nation's unsung heroes.