Noel Hidalgo, 77, can still remember what their sleepy Mintal village in Davao City used to look like in the early 1960s. He had a hard time expressing himself and so, in broken Filipino and Bisaya, we talked.
“Ayos pa kami noon. Doon sa may baba dati yung [Mindanao State University], tapos diyan sa tapat ang taniman namin ng maraming fruit trees,” Tay Noel recalled.
Around his patch of land, only two dilapidated huts between a few coconut trees remain. The fruit farm that he toiled in since 1970 as a teenager is now gone, an enormous dome rose in its stead. I had to ask, “Ano po’ng nangyari?”
“Dumating ang UP,” he said.
Tree of Life
Tay Noel was cooking rice on his traditional stove when I arrived at his home. He and his wife greeted us with wide smiles.
As he tended to the fire, Tay Noel told me how, coming from a poor family, he had to start fruit farming at 17. Raised in a village with everyone in the same trade, he knew everything there was to know.
“Dito sa tapat, may fruit trees dati, iba-iba depende sa season. May mga puno rin ng niyog. Dami noon, tapos nakikitanim kami kasi malawak,” he told me in a mix of Filipino and Bisaya.
Copra, or dried coconut flesh, accounts for at least P24 million worth of exports in 2021. It is primarily farmed for coconut oil. Since 1911, the country has been a top producer of coconut products in the global market, making the sector a predictor of the Philippine economy.
But only a small chunk of coconut production is owned by small-scale farmers like Tay Noel. Worse, 2.4 million of them remain poor in 2021, according to the economic think tank IBON Foundation.
Tay Noel and his family now rely on only 18 coconut trees, bearing around 200 kilos per harvest, in comparison to at least 100 trees he used to share with the villagers.
To make sales, Tay Noel is forced to sell his harvest at floor-level prices to compete with commercialized farms. With UP Mindanao’s (UPMin) continuous crusade to banish Tay Noel and his family from their land, their right to live and work are also trampled upon.
“Abot singko [pesos] ang bawat kilo ng buko, edi mga P1,000 na lang ang ani,” he said, fanning the charcoal of his stove. This is a stark contrast to copra’s farmgate price of P20 per kilo. “Ang problema, hindi ko na kayang mag-harvest kasi matanda na ako. Kaya nagbabayad pa ako ng mag-ha-harvest ng kopra.”
UP arrived in Mindanao in 1961. But when then UP President Emil Javier was tasked to formalize the campus by former President Fidel Ramos, UPMin finally came to be in 1995.
Today, UPMin sits on a 204-hectare land, spanning across Bago Oshiro and Mintal villages. The campus shares land with the 11th Regional Community Defense Group, a military unit designed for warfare and anti-guerilla operations.
When Larry Digal became chancellor of UPMin in 2019, a rapid expansion of infrastructure commenced. Under his term, the Davao City-UP Sports Complex–the biggest sports infrastructure project in Mindanao–rose and became operational. But what UP considers as its world-class facade in sports sits on what used to be the coconut farmers’ bread and butter.
All of these infrastructure projects are in line with the UP Master Development Plan (MDP). Tay Noel’s story is reminiscent of UP Diliman’s crusade to push farmers of Sitio Malantic in Quezon City out of their homes and farmlands. MDP never mentioned farmers or residents who have been within the UP lands long before the university. And yet, commercial entities, like the Ayala Corporation’s UP Town Center and Technohub in Diliman, are accommodated by the university.
But what hurts more, Tay Noel said, is that UPMin resorted to making them sign various documents without holding dialogues.
The documents, as it would turn out, were a way to acquire their lands, said Tay Noel. Most copra farmers in the area have gone through this scheme. Some have moved into the subdivisions promised to them but are living without income, devoid of land to till.
“May bahay at buhay kami dito eh. Anong gawin namin sa subdivision? Kaunti lang ang area. Paano na ang pangkabuhayan?” he lamented.
UPMin sits atop sullied lands, with the blood and sweat of its original settlers still apparent–Tay Noel is living proof of this. Students, who fight alongside Mintal farmers, also fear for their safety as state forces continue to crack down on them.
The government’s lack of action to implement agrarian programs to alleviate livelihood burdens also afflicts the coconut farmers.
The Coco Levy Fund, a tax fund from coconut farmers that promised to improve farming technology and investment but was scammed by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is still unreturned. It is currently exacted at P100 billion and was supposed to be disbursed in 2021 but now remains in limbo. This would have helped farmers recover from the onslaught of post-pandemic price hikes of farming essentials.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. also appears to have no urgency in the disbursement despite being the agriculture secretary. His lack of action only underpins the turbulent status quo of farming.
While he has spent his entire life on his farm, Tay Noel said that he is willing to move out. He only wants UPMin to provide them with proper relocation.
Next month, Tay Noel’s remaining coconut trees will be ready for harvest. But he is uncertain whether the output would be enough to cover the expenses for him, his wife, and the two grandchildren they are raising who he wishes would never have to go through what they currently struggle with.
“Maliit lang ang hiling namin: na magkaroon ng tamang paraan sa mga agreement namin sa UPMin. Yung magiging maluwag sa kalooban naming nakatira rito; iyan lang ang hiling ng mga magsasaka rito,” he said. ●
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