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Right after President Benigno Aquino III left, the hall broke down into tears and shouts of rage. It was a painful sight to see. Journalists ran in all directions, not knowing which part of the scene to cover. Priests and nuns, the Catholic clergy who solidly placed their support behind the marchers, came to console the women and men who were crying and shaking in just anger. "We are not going to give up the land. Stop APECO!" People were shouting.
This was the scene after 120 farmers, fishers and indigenous people, from Casiguran in the Philippines had walked over 300 kilometers to meet the President. They were demanding that he respects their rights to the land of their ancestors and to stop the implementation of the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (APECO) project. This threatens to kick them off their land and to limit access to their fishing areas.
Everyone was in high hopes before the meeting started, as earlier communications with key people in government gave the impression that the President’s response will be nothing less than "positive". Getting the President of the country to sit down with farmers, fishers and indigenous peoples can be considered a victory in itself, but what the Casiguran marchers wanted was very clear: for the President to STOP the APECO project. They wanted him to distribute 105 hectares of prime agricultural lands; renew the ISF (Integrated Social Forestry) contracts of 90 upland farmers covering 288 hectares; issue the ancestral domain title for the Agta-Dumagat ancestral lands; delineate the municipal fishing grounds and provide secure settlements for fishing households.
The marchers were in tears after the President left having given no assurance on their demand to stop the economic zone. Nanay Adarlina Constantino, a spokesperson for the farmers, says her family has been tilling the land for more than 45 years. Tatay Victor, an Agta leader, says we have been there even before the Angaras came. "How can these people be "squatters" in their own land?"
Their claims were clearly backed by laws, and they were there to claim these rights. Perhaps it was the President who already has his mind set before coming to the dialogue and went there to try to convince the people?
At the end, the President agreed to a review of the project, with representatives of the people included in the review committee. What was left hanging was the issue about the claims on the agricultural lands, which remains unresolved up to the time of this writing.
The case of the Casiguran marchers mirrors the case of thousands of other poor farmers, fishers and indigenous communities. Families, lives and livelihoods continue to be threatened by policies and projects that unashamedly ignore existing laws that protect poor people’s rights to land and other productive resources. For the poor people of Casiguran, the threat becomes more real, when the highest official of the land fails to stand on their side.
The Casiguran March for Justice has already covered 350 kilometers in 17 days. When you’ve come this far, and waited this long, what’s a few more steps and a few more days of waiting? As far as the Casiguran marchers are concerned, it’s not yet over.
Padayon! (Onward with the struggle!)
This blog was written by Marie Grace Nunez. She is Oxfam’s Public Campaigns Manager and leads the GROW campaign for the Philippines. She has been closely following the march for land of the 120 marchers from Aurora. This blog also appears on Oxfam in the Phillipines blog.