Photo and text by Agatha Gregorio and Yumi Paras

This story begins, as most stories do, with a hero. Not one who can walk out of burning buildings unscathed; not one with superhuman strength; not even one with incredible powers of persuasion.

This story begins with a hero whom you do not have to look up into the sky to see. In fact, if you were to do that, you would probably be looking in the wrong direction. Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano, also known as the leading man of this tale, is so rooted and down to earth, one might even be surprised at the fact that this man is not only a secretary of a government agency, but also the former chairman of a militant national farmers movement.

Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, also known as KMP, is an organization dedicated to defending and asserting the rights of farmers. With Ka Paeng bearing the organization’s principles, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) has implemented multiple programs and orders which have helped farmers across the nation, as well as strongly opposed the proposal of land use conversion.

Because of his insistence that the department be hands on in its helping out the masses in need, it seems only natural that Mariano be confirmed as Agrarian Reform Secretary. Despite being appointed last June 30, 2016, however, his confirmation has been bypassed by the Commission on Appointments (CA), allegedly due to his leftist stance and certain politicians’ opposition of the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill he has authored.

Ka Paeng is due to have his third and final ad interim appointment with the CA on August 30 and none of the other left-leaning Cabinet members are left.

“Wala naman akong nararamdamang kaba o pag-aalala,” Ka Paeng said.

There is no tremor in his voice when he says this, no semblance of untruth; instead, he vows that confirmed or rejected he will put at the fore the issue of the peasants, wherever he may find himself. This outlook and his decisive actions have even inspired the Kalinga of Cordillera to call him “Binsai,” which meant ‘courageous warrior’ in their culture.

While Mariano has won favor among those he’s meant to serve, he doesn’t appear to be as lucky among those he works with. But perhaps another factor that makes our hero different from the rest is that he has several sectors fighting, not just for him, but alongside him, too.


The room where it happened

The room was filled with farmers; fighters; revolutionaries in their own right, united by the singular desire to have Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano confirmed as secretary for the Department of Agrarian Reform. Representatives from various sectors were present at Balay Kalinaw last  August 25, passionate in their statements of support for him.

Various chapters of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, as well as organizations like Amihan Peasant Woman, Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, Kilusang Mayo Uno, and the Anakpawis party list spoke of Ka Paeng Mariano’s service for the Filipino people, and how much he has been able to alleviate many of the farmers’ concerns and plights.

While the CA continues to delay Mariano’s confirmation hearing, however, more injustices continue to pile up in the rural areas.

“Yung matinding krisis naming mga magsasaka [ay] ‘yung pagkawalan ng lupang sinasaka, ”Roger Montero, the Provincial Chair of Kapunungan sa Mga Mag-uuma sa Surigao Del Sur (KAMASS) and Regional Chairman of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas-Caraga (KMP Caraga), said.

He added that in Caraga, where 80% of the population is made up of farmers, a whopping 75% of those farmers don’t have land of their own.

“Sa bawat sampung magsasaka, pito ‘yung walang sariling lupa,” he said.

What’s more, the farming communities now face extreme risk in the face of the Duterte administration’s implementation of martial law, with a tragic 68 farmers known to be killed throughout Duterte’s first year as president, while others considered “wanted persons” without any rightful charge.

It is because of all these trials and tribulations that farmers from all sectors of the Philippines look to Ka Paeng Mariano to fight for the their rights amidst state neglect.

Granted with powers to bring about change in fellow farmers’ lives, Mariano saw an opportunity, and took it. He began by making himself truly available to the people, implementing an open-door policy to all farmers in the Department of Agrarian Reform, which up until then, had remained closed for eighteen years. Due to this improvement, 27,981 law implementation cases had been covered and solved, while 12,292 farmers had been accommodated for a total of 209 dialogues.

More importantly, he was able to author a bill that was in touch with the real situation of farmers in the Philippines, having been a farmer himself. The Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill (GARB) or House Bill 555 is aimed towards eliminating landlord-oligarchs’ land monopoly, as well as the implementation of free land distribution for farmers. It greatly differs from the current bill in action, being the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which has caused problems for farmers in terms of land rent and amortization.

“Tuwang tuwa tayo kasi never sa history ng departamentong ‘yan, departamento ng mambubukid, ay isang actual na mambubukid ang umupo. At hindi lang isang actual na mambubukid; maalam. Maalam sa batas at pakikibaka ng masang mambubukid,” former Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Chief, Judy Taguiwalo said.

Even with his government position, Ka Paeng continued to work for the sector beyond the office.  He participated in various movements arranged to assert and defend the rights of farmers. Last August 23, he took part in the Caraga farmers and fishermen’s “Lakbayan at Kampuhan Laban sa Kahirapan at Karahasan” in Mendiola.


Support and solidarity

“Confirm Ka Paeng!”

These words would soon be followed with an urgent and determined, “Now na!”

The people have testified that Ka Paeng will be able to bring forth their vision because of his greater understanding of what agrarian reform means to them, with primary experience as a farmer toiling for crops and fighting for his rights.

Supporters consistently expressed admiration and gratitude over the bravery and determination Ka Paeng has displayed in fulfilling his role in DAR.

“Walang DAR Secretary, sa una pa, na sinuri at sinundot itong mga malalaking panginoong maylupa at ang kanilang mga karahasan, mga panlilinlang, at kung anu-ano pang ginagawa para sa mga magsasaka,” Angie Ipong, Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA Pilipinas) organizer, said.

Ka Paeng’s impact on the people is also seen then in the DAR employees’ initiative to gather together for a week-long program meant to show solidarity and support towards the #ConfirmKaPaeng movement.


A hero’s response

Ka Paeng says, “Kung meron man pong uri sa lipunang Pilipino na may inaasahan na kahit sa limitadong pamaraan, ay mayroong magagawa, [para sa akin] bilang bagong kalihim ng DAR, walang iba kundi ang uring magsasaka.”

In this, Mariano proves that his confirmation as secretary for DAR would be a win not only for a political party, but for every marginalized sector, every farmer, every child who would grow up to see one of their own, implementing radical developments in the lives of the struggling and oppressed.

But what is perhaps most notable about Mariano is the fact that he acknowledges that without the collective efforts of militant movements – without the full-fledged support of those who had come to the gathering – he would not be where he is now.

This story ends, as most of them do, with a hero. He may not be able to walk out of burning buildings unscathed, but he’s able to stand with farmers as they battle the fires they face in their own lands. He may not have superhuman strength, but he was brave enough to open the gates of his home to those who needed it most, after having them shut out from getting help for nearly two decades.

And he may not have incredible powers of persuasion – but at the end of the day, Ka Paeng Mariano will serve Philippine farmers with all the strength, power, and responsibility his position (as Secretary for DAR or not) would allow him, his words echoing in the people’s minds long after he’s said them,

“Walang sinumang magsasaka ang maaaring ipaalis sa lupa na kanilang isinasaka.”


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