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The Saga of San Miguel Island, once the food basket of Albay province

FREE RIDE. Campaign posters during the last election did not spare this islet in San Miguel Island in Albay. RHAYDZ B. BARCIA

2nd of a series

IGNITED by the land reform program of the Marcos administration, San Miguel Island was one of the Philippines’ most controversial land disputes and mirrored the country’s agrarian reform program during Martial law years from 1972 to 1984 that was met with strong opposition mounted by Celso De Los Angeles, Jr. of Legacy Group of Companies.

In mid-2000, De Los Angeles returned to Albay and got himself elected as mayor of Sto. Domingo town with the controversial land dispute brewing in San Miguel Island. He was even called before a Senate investigation on accusation of multiple estafa cases.

De Los Angeles being the president and majority stockholder of the AMADCOR was accused by the farmers as the mastermind of the renewed atrocities.

Due to this, the Maisan program withdrew from the island. The land conflict left two farmers dead, with many injured, and houses demolished or burned, and agricultural crops amounting to millions of pesos were destroyed, leaving the farmers and their families empty handed, resident Freddie Burce recalled.

Historically, this place (San Miguel Island or Pigbanwa to the islanders) was known to be abundant and self-sustaining food source of Filipino guerillas as they scoured through Cagraray and Batan Islands to the Sierra Madre connecting Manito town in Albay.

Pigbanwa was the name given to San Miguel Island by the natives.

But natives of Pigbanwa were driven away by the Spaniards and their lands seized under the power of Royal Decrees of 1880 and 1894 issued by the Spanish colonial government that required landholders to secure titles within a year or suffer forfeiture.

Similarly, the Land Registration Act of 1902-US Act No. 496 passed by the US Congress for the American colonial government in the Philippines requiring the registration of all landholdings under the Torrens Title system under pain of forfeiture may have been unknown to the natives of Pigbanwa which had been since named as San Miguel Island.

“All they could remember was the coming of a stranger, educated and influential, who claimed to have owned the land. The natives were driven out, houses burned or demolished, crops destroyed, overran by cattle let loose by the said stranger,” narrated Burce, 66, a resident of Barangay Hacienda in San Miguel, farmer and surviving human rights leader who fought the bloody land disputes in the history of land reform under the Marcos regime here.

In 1908 jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, according to Burce’s narrative in the case of “Mariano Villanueva versus Miguel Berces” the natives represented by their leader in San Miguel fought the influential stranger but lost in the court battle.

With agony in the hearts of the oppressed natives, they renamed the island as Dagang Pinagtangisan (Grieved Land). San Miguel Island bears a prolonged history of bloody agrarian reform struggle since the 1900’s to 1984.

Tilling to killing field

From tilling field, the island became the killing field, as the natives of the island shed their blood under the hands of a cruel master. Their misfortune was somewhat placated when the land was finally sold to an American who planted coconut and introduced cattle raising there while the other portions of the island were tilled by the natives, Burce said.

The new American owner built the first primary school in the island and called the property as San Miguel Estate. They had a big playground, called by the natives as “bali ground,” which was able to accommodate big sports events.

The natives had farm lots to till while also doing extra jobs and earning extra income as farm laborers of the American owner.

But soon the island was sold to Agusan Coconut Company (ACCO), an American firm. Under ACCO, San Miguel Estate was transformed into a relatively urbanized area. There was a railway transporting workers, copra and other cargoes. A coal-ran copra drier was installed to produce energy that ran a public alarm system during the day.

Roads, bridges and seaport were built enabling interisland vessels to load and unload cargoes and provide jobs to the islanders. The first abaca stripping machine invented by Ramon Quitales, Sr. who spent his years in mainland Tabaco town with his family was installed and used in San Miguel Island, Burce said.

With the island’s growth as a modern enclave, farming continued as the lifeblood of the inhabitants. Particularly, they planted rice and corn in the months of May and June. Root crops and auxiliary crops like banana, on the other hand, were planted the whole year round.

Burce said that an account written in the book entitled “Prosperity without Progress” by Robert Owen, it was hinted that then US Secretary of Interior, Dean C. Worcester, bought large estates—two of which were the San Miguel Estate off the coast of Tabaco in Albay and the other was the Tabacalera estate in Isabela.

But the progressive climate brought by the American owners to the island came to an end when the Japanese conqueror came during the Second World War. When the Japanese landed, the property was taken over by a Filipino manager, Burce said.

“But the good thing, as told by the natives, was that the place was the source of food of Filipino guerillas. After the war, the American owners came back to sell the property, including the equipment, facilities and remaining large animals in the island,” Burce said.

In 1949, the island was bought by the partnership of Santiago Gancayco, Sr. and the Velasco brothers, Fernando and Saturnino. Later on, the shares of the Velasco brothers were bought out by Santiago Gancayco, Sr., who formed the Agricultural Management and Development Corporation (AMADCOR), a family corporation of the Gancaycos’.

It was during the Gancaycos’ time that the term hacienda was adopted and ownership of the estate was made clear and emphasized. Under AMADCOR, the leasehold contract was introduced and tenancy was instituted, Burce said.

The company’s rules and regulations were stiff, primarily to protect the large portion of the estate which were devoted to breeding and grazing of cattle.

The new management had prohibited the natives to plant yellow corn and from accepting visitors without clearance from the Gancaycos.

The natives were also prohibited to own a banca, and a female cow and carabao. The native children’s education needs were ignored. But occasionally, the islanders experienced better times with the younger Santiago Gancayco, Jr., who was dearly called by the island farmers as “Gas” for his kind gestures.

During fiesta, he would order the slaughter of cows to be rationed free to each and every household in the barrio. Horse riding and rodeo exhibitions were also introduced during those days of celebration, to the delight of the natives.

But on December 18, 1959, the young Gancayco died in the hands of the rebels who had axes to grind because of cruel previous owners and managers of the farm, Burce said.

The young Gancayco’s death triggered more oppressive experiences by the island farmers. But although their houses were demolished and their crops bulldozed with the writ of execution by the court, the farmers remained to stay in their land despite the hostilities.

In 1982, the majority stocks of AMADCOR were bought by the late Celso Gancayco De Los Angeles, Jr. son of Purita Gancayco De Los Angeles, one of the heirs and stockholders of AMADCOR. Upon taking over the hacienda, De Los Angeles strongly opposed and contested the coverage of the property under agrarian reform.

Platoon size fully armed guards backed by a squad of Philippine Constabulary soldiers were deployed to threaten and harass the farmers, Burce said.

The intention according to him was to compel the farmers to leave their farm holdings and relocate them to one side of the hacienda to avoid land distribution by the government.

The farmers’ struggle and untold stories in San Miguel Island were publicized 37 years ago in Newsweek, an international magazine then.

Burce said that the story, “The Farmers versus the Corporation,” published by ran by Newsweek in its January 1982 issue caught the attention of Malacañang. The latter provided temporary relief as the government posed a semblance of concern to the farmers before the international audience.

But the farmers’ struggle against De Los Angeles continued. In March 25, 1983, a bloody event took place where the landlord’s armed men surrounded and fired at the farmers who were tilling their lands on the broad daylight.

The incident left Rodolfo, Freddie Burce’s brother, lifeless while 15 other farmers were wounded, including his father, village chieftain, Vicente Burce, a retired policeman.

Vicente, their father, was a farmer leader who fought, along with his wife Rosa and fellow farmers, against De Los Angeles’ oppressive maneuverings over the island.

Vicente survived the struggle despite numerous shotgun pellets embedded in his body. On October 14 of the same year, another farmer, Nelso Brutas, was shot to death right in front of his mother by armed men of the landlord, Burce said.

Freddie Burce who at that time a political science student at Aquinas University of Legazpi (AUL), now University of Santo Tomas (UST-Legazpi), took over his parents’ (Vicente and Rosa) struggle and led the fight against De Los Angeles.

With the support of the Diocese of Legazpi, through the Social Action Center of Legazpi (SAC), Freddie on February 26, 1984 led a long march from Tabaco to Malacañang. From Bicol, Freddie and his wife Susie, along with other farmers, joined the convergent North Luzon-South Luzon Lakbayan (Lakad ng Bayan magsasaka para sa kalayaan, or Farmer’s walk for freedom) gained sympathy and support from the public on their way to Malacañang.

On March 27, 1984, the Ministry of Agrarian Reform decided the case in favor of the farmers in San Miguel Island. Subsequently, on April 9, 1984, the farmers were physically restored to their landholdings by the Ministry of Agrarian Reform in the presence of representatives from 32 government agencies, including the police and military here.

Following farmers’ victory, they commemorated April 9 every year in the Hacienda in the island as “Piyesta nin Kapangganahan” (Feast of Victory).

In 1985, a year after the islanders’ victory over De Los Angeles, San Miguel Island became to be known as among the big producers of yellow corn in the Bicol region.

Planting corn continued thereafter through the Expanded Corn Production Program (ECPP) and the support and intervention extended by the Department of Agriculture (DA), with the Land Bank of the Philippines providing loan financing. To be continued

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