Shifting gears: The rise of women leaders in Sumilao

For sheer drama, the Sumilao farmers’ struggle for land rights has no equal.  It has all the elements of a telenovela.

On one side were 137 landless farmers, descendants of Higaonon indigenous people, who wanted to reclaim 144 hectares in Sumilao, Bukidnon that their ancestors had lost to settlers in the 1940s.  On the other side was a powerful adversary: a wealthy family with diverse businesses and political connections.  Twice, the government ruled to grant ownership of the land to the farmers; twice, the order was revoked.  One farmer committed suicide; another farmer was gunned down.  Later, the landowner sold the land to San Miguel Corporation (SMC), one of the country’s largest business conglomerates.

The farmers, now organized as the Mapadayonong Panaghiusa sa mga Lumad Alang sa Damlag (Sustained Unity of Indigenous People for the Future, MAPALAD), tried everything to swing justice and public opinion in their favor: land occupation, two hunger strikes, camping outside the gates of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and Supreme Court, in addition to the daily drudgery of following up their appeals to government agencies.

In 2007, just a year before the agrarian reform program was due to lapse, the farmers prepared to step up their fight.  Fifty-five farmers, a third of them women, walked 1,700 kilometers from Sumilao to Manila, calling for justice.  Throughout the two-month journey, they were joined by supporters, and their campaign drew extensive media coverage.

With the mediation of the Catholic church, the farmers and SMC signed a settlement agreement in 2008; the farmers would get 50 hectares from the SMC estate in San Vicente village.  After two more years of negotiation and sustained campaigns, the farmers claimed an additional 94 hectares spread across three other villages.  But there was a small hitch.  According to the farmers, SMC was so piqued it refused to give the land to MAPALAD nor to the San Vicente Landless Farmers Association (SALFA), composed of the farmers’ children.  Thus, the MAPALAD and SALFA members established the Panaw Sumilao Multi-Purpose Cooperative.  Panaw is the local word for walk, and their name honors the memory of that long march.

The first 50 hectares were divided among Panaw’s 153 members, each receiving ¼ of a hectare to build a house and establish a family farm.  The remaining 94 hectares are managed by the cooperative and currently planted to corn and cassava.

Now that they owned the land, Panaw faced another challenge: to shift gears from advocacy campaigns to sustainable agriculture and managing a cooperative.  Over the years, the farmers had drawn loyal support from legal aid organizations, farmers’ networks, NGOs, the church, and student groups, who now pledged to assist in building Panaw’s capability.  To coordinate their efforts, the Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (National Movement of Farmers Organizations, PAKISAMA) served as their secretariat.  MAPALAD and Panaw were also members of PAKISAMA.

The support organizations helped facilitate strategic and annual planning for Panaw.  Capability building was undertaken through a series of leadership and management training courses.  These were coupled with learning visits, e.g., to another PAKISAMA member organization to observe good practices in financial management.  Panaw’s leaders received constant mentoring and coaching.  Members who displayed potential, for example, on bookkeeping, were invited to various training courses and even offered scholarships to go to college.  PAKISAMA also facilitated the deployment of several volunteers under the Jesuit Volunteers Program who worked on-site for at least a year, helping with projects and activities identified as Panaw’s priorities.  Likewise, agriculture was on top of the agenda, with PAKISAMA providing training on integrated, diversified, and organic farming systems.  The Department of Agrarian Reform provided training on enterprise development and facilitated simulation games for young farmers to understand the importance of a cooperative and its operations.  The Cooperative Development Authority ran another training on co-op management.

One of the most significant decisions made by Panaw was to hand over the leadership to the younger generation.  Another significant decision was to ensure greater participation of women, not just in daily activities of the cooperative, but also in its management.  This proposal came from the late Rene Peñas, a MAPALAD leader who, as PAKISAMA’s vice-chairperson, was familiar with its policy requiring at least 30% of leadership positions to be allocated to women. Panaw adopted this policy and ensured that opportunities for training courses were equally shared by male and female members.

Since 2013, Panaw has been headed by a female chairperson of the board.

Cheril Lorenza was only 33 years old when she was elected chair, but in many ways she was already a veteran.  As a teen, she saw her parents and uncles attempt to occupy the land, only to be driven away by armed security guards.  When the Supreme Court reversed the decision awarding the land to them, Cheril joined the famers in barricading the national highway in protest.  Such was her resolve that she joined the walk to Manila, even when the soles of her feet were so pocked with blisters “they looked like a map of the Philippines”.  But when she was elected chair, she admitted to crying.  She had finished only third year high school, Cheril said, and she was unsure she was up to the challenge.

One of Cheril’s mentors was former PAKISAMA Mindanao area manager Mavic Hilario, who recalls Cheril was initially quiet, “but you could really see her interest and passion and sincerity.”  PAKISAMA invited Cheril to their satellite office in the provincial capital and made sure that she was constantly supported.  At a time when finance management was Panaw’s priority, Cheril quickly grasped the importance of financial discipline, for example, sticking to their budget.  Mavic has seen Cheril grow in confidence and skill.  Today Cheril’s leadership abilities are not confined to Panaw alone.  She was appointed head of the village Agriculture and Fisheries Council, able to confidently engage with the town mayor and speak before the public.

After Cheril had served three terms, the Panaw General Assembly chose another woman to head the board.  Like Cheril, Elgine “Bajek” Merida-Orquillas was only 33 when elected chairperson.  Bajek was the youngest farmer to join the march to Manila in 2007, where she impressed the group by being articulate when engaging with the media and asserting herself during dialogues with DAR. As chairperson, Bajek credits PAKISAMA for helping facilitate planning and assessment meetings and for consistently reinforcing the principles of good governance in the cooperative.  Today, four of seven members of the Panaw board are women.

Capability building is also extended to Panaw’s women members.  Gender and women’s rights training are periodically conducted, in addition to technical courses on sustainable agriculture.  Cheril attests that women today are more conscious of their self-worth, more assertive about what they want.  They are also more confident in sharing decisions on farm management.  “It’s very different from our parents’ time when it was just my father who decided on farm matters,” Bajek said.

Women also have livelihood projects to augment their income.  MAPALAD women produce Sumilao Corn Brew, sold in attractive 200 gram packs, made from organically grown corn in their fields.  Meanwhile, the Panaw women have a beads project, fashioning bracelets and necklaces.

When Panaw’s history will be written, it will not be judged only in terms of how much income the cooperative has earned for its members.  It will also be honored for how it supported the rise of women leaders.

When asked why it was important to develop women leaders, Bajek paused, as if momentarily puzzled by the question.  And it is an absurd question.  “Because women can do anything men can,” Bajek declared.

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