The march lasted 73 days and crossed 1700 kilometres. A group of landless Lumad – indigenous peoples from Higaonon ancestry – set out from Sumilao to the Philippine capital Manila in late 2007 catching national popular attention. The seriousness with which the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo eventually treated this protest was revealed in its finally meeting the farmers in the Presidents palace and issuing a Revocation Order allowing the farmers to get back their land.
In the two decades these farmers from Sumilao had been fighting for land reform they had been granted ownership of their 144 hectares of ancestral land only to see it twice more revoked and returned to the previous landowner. Tellingly, the passage of land reform legislation had faced strong opposition in parliament, led by no less than the presidents brother-in-law.
This wasn’t the first non-violent protest for the group. A decade earlier, 17 of the farmers had staged a 28-day hunger strike at the front of the Department of Agrarian Reform in Quezon City to pressure the government.
Their fight had its roots in the agrarian reform of the Philippines which had been undertaken to limited success following the ousting of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Back then a plan was made to return a third of the countrys land to its rightful owners. Two decades on, about 75 per cent had been passed back. The problem was these farmers had no access to capital, irrigation or marketing. About a quarter had to sell or mortgage their farms. Most were living below the poverty line.
But those farmers who formed cooperative structures fared better. These Lumad farmers, indigenous to the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, were among those who banded together to form a cooperative and fight for their land.
Pablito Dante, the murdered co-founder of the Pecuaria Development Cooperative Inc to the north, had done his part. He was the inspiration for this group of landless farmers, led by the groups natural leader, a farmer called Rene Penas, who was later to suffer the same terrible fate as Pablito for his convictions.
These Pecuaria co-operators helped as they could. They received, fed and entertained the Sumilao farmers as they walked and helped to keep their spirits up and resolve high. Around the Sumilao farmers was a strong social movement made up of farmers organisations including the national peasant federation PAKISAMA, NGOs, the Roman Catholic Church, schools, media, politicians and government bureaucrats.
Eventually, in 2009, this movement has its ultimate win. The president signed a new law designed to see these agrarian reforms finally enacted quickly and properly. And once the Sumilao land was officially confirmed as being held by the cooperative it was the farmers fellow co-operators at Pecuaria who then provided farming advice.