Farmers Take Over the Management of Oil Palm Plantation

The Sultan Kudarat Experience

Down the southernmost tip of The Philippines , Kenram and Mapantig farm workers go “corporative” – cooperative with a corporate sense. They are on the right track, the French and a dozen other European Union ambassadors are rest assured


ISULAN – IT WAS A BRIGHT MONDAY MORNING of the 19th of December 2005. Thirty leaders from Kenram Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries’ Multipurpose Cooperative (KARBEMPCO) and the Mapantig Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries’ Multipurpose Cooperative (MAPARBEMPCO) were gathered at an opena area in the front gate of the fenced Karbempco building compound. The scorching heat of the 9 o’clock morning sun failed to dampen the glow and excitement on the faces of the leaders and beneficiaries. They stood still for the arrival of their most important visitors of the day. They have been waiting for the delegation of 13 distinguished European Union (EU) ambassadors who were to visit the projects that the European Community had assisted.

Beneficiaries have been ahead by 45 minutes, and they killed time by chitchatting what to do and who will do what. As they tried to break the anguish of waiting, an elder kasama (a farmer colleague) was heard asking on top of his voice, a jesting manner that cannot conceal an eagerness to meet with the dignitaries:

Paano ta makaestorya sa ila sang aton naagum nga kadalag-an kay limitado man ang aton nahibal-an nga English? (How can we be able to tell them our achievements when our English vocabulary is limited?)”

The crowd responded with a mixture of grumble and laughter, but was abruptly halted when finally, the ambassadors arrived. As the EU Thirteen alighted slowly from their sports-utility vehicles, it was the sight of the newly-built ARB houses of the agrarian reform beneficiaries and the cooperative building surrounded by the oil palm tree plantation that momentarily captured the attention of the guests. Not the eager beneficiaries who waited for long, yet. But everyone was awed by each others’ presence.

“Behold, the Europeans!” Bienvenido Tamesis of Karbempco and Melicio Lebiga of Maparbempco, leaders both of the ARBs, gestured to approach and welcome the visitors. Brief exchanges of handshakes and bows followed as the visitors were ushered in to the coop’s open-type assembly building, for formal and informal gatherings. When all were in, the farmhands were asked to take their plastic chair seats arranged in circle, to allow each one to see each other, face-to-face. Short introductions ensued. The leader of the delegation introduced himself as Jan de Kok of France. Other dignitaries took turns in presenting themselves and the countries they represented, while the beneficiaries of the projects did the same, for the guests. The scenes were casual.

The beneficiaries were in consensus, Ben (as Bievenido Tamesis is fondly called) was to brief the visitors on the potable water system and swine breeding projects of Karbempco. Miling (Melicio Lebiga’s nickname) was to talk about the goat raising, inland fishing and vegetable production projects of Maparbempco. The EU delegations visit was to get an overview on the status of how things were going.

Chairman Ben who was adequate in spoken English afforded his Karbempco colleagues big sighs of relief when it was made clear to them their leader can tell the guests what they collectively meant to say about their EU-funded projects through the Philippine Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). They were delighted to hear how the piggeries and the drinking water systems projects had been successfully run in favor of the Kenram beneficiaries in wise utilization of European donations. Halfway Ben’s presentation, a few queries from the leader of the delegation regarding the takeover of the plantation under the Philippine government’s agrarian reform program, took the forum to task:

“… How were you able to succeed in carrying out your struggle? Were you able to do it by yourselves alone? Or were there help from other organizations in the process of your struggle?,” asked monsieur De Kok the stunned audience. Silence was momentarily everywhere. Everyone involuntarily looked at each other as if asking who would be the best volunteer to answer the French queries. Ben, who remained standing, was still their man of the hour.

Ben narrated the history of the Sultan Kudarat farmers’ struggle, for the Europeans’ reenlightenment on the matter, with the passion of a true Isulanan. He almost forgot to finish the gist of his prepared presentation on the Karbempco project accomplishments.

The Karbempco leader recalled that the land acquisition struggle in the oil palm plantations extensively took place during the end of the Aquino and Ramos administrations’ 10-year deferment period for commercial farms in 1998. The areas, constituting 1,558 hectares of oil palm plantations, are located in barangays Kenram and Mapantig of Isulan municipality.

Prior to termination of commercial farms deferment period, Ben added, it was in June of 1997 when the social preparation of potential beneficiaries was initially discussed by Rey Magbanua of the Rural Development Institute of Sultan Kudarat (RDISK), Ildefonso Buenacosa Sr, municipal agrarian reform officer (MARO) of Isulan, and Ramon Regalado of the Kenram Employees’ Labor Union (KELU). The discussion resulted to the formation of a task force comprised by DAR, RDISK and the farmworkers’ representatives. It was the task force’s mandate to directly organize and strengthen the bloc’s potential beneficiaries who filed a petition for the immediate coverage of Kenram-Philippines Industries (KPI) estate in Kenram and the First Southern Land Development Corp (FSLDC) in Mapantig after the deferment period shall have expired by the 15th of June 1998. It was also tasked to disseminate information on Republic Act (RA) 6657 campaign, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), to the potential plantation worker beneficiaries, Ben said.

The merging

CHAIRMAN Ben Tamesis related, that in February of 1998, the resultant task force’s efforts were realized when, during the Provincial Consultation on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (PROCCARD), a decision was made to form cooperatives as the uniting organizations of the two estates’ claimants. A core group of 14 selected potential beneficiaries was formed, to facilitate the conduct of pre-membership education education seminar series from July to August 1998.

Karbempco with 414 members was organized in May of 1998, while Maparbempco with 269 members, was put up in August of 1998.

It was vivid in Tamesis’ memory, making the two organizations strong was primary focus in the late-20th century. A goal-oriented project planning was hosted for the officers of Maparbempco and Karbempco to plan for the coops’ acquisition and distribution of the plantations at issue. Advocacy work, networking, lobbying and negotiations, he said, were given full attention to speed up the processes. The established working relation of RDISK with the provincial offices of the DAR became favorable to pursue the struggle. In preparation for the eventual takeover, the two coops briefed their members as to the possible options to take come the post-distribution phase. Some options presented to them under the reform program were joint venture, contract growing, lease-back and takeover arrangements.

It was, during this same period, Tamesis pointed out, the viability and feasibility of a cooperative-managed plantation operation was raised. It became the focus of arguments, specially when the potential beneficiaries were considering various options. It was crucial, the beneficiaries were to decide for themselves. Towards this end, RDISK initiated the conduct of a feasibility study on cooperative-managed oil palm enterprise, followed by a conference on the project viability issues. It was in the conference where, Tamesis and company were self-assured, it was proved that a “cooperative-managed oil palm plantation in the production aspect, is more economically viable,” exploring with the entrepreneurial idea how joint ventures in the milling and marketing aspects, can harness more revenue for the coops.

After a series of more information and education exchanges, Maparbempco opted to take over the plantation management during their assembly in November of 1998, while Karbempco decided for the takeover option, later in February of 1999. It was fortunate that the landowner showed openness of mind for negotiations related to land distribution, management option and marketing agreements within the bounds of the agrarian reform program implementation. In January of 2002, the certificate of land ownership (CLOA) was awarded. Thirst got wind of the Ben Tamesis stories about the coops’ triumphal struggles.

A hard earned struggle

ANOTHER dignitary ventured a comment, “As we listen to your story, I had the impression that you did not have much difficulty in pursuing your struggle…” A lull in the exchange was an opportune time for the Maparbempco chairman Miling Lebiga to take the cudgels from the already tired leader-speaker.

Miling begged to disagree with the impression of the inquiring dignitary, “Actually, Sir,” Lebiga responded, while pausing here and there, as if looking for his next best words to say, “this property was not given to us on silver platter,” he finally completed his statement in a baritone pure Ilonggo tone.

The Maparbempco leader recounted their uncertainties many years back when the wait was long for the ultimate award. Miling said, even if they had already decided on what course to take over the plantation, the landowner’s had been trying to convince many of them, almost with a modicum of success, for the lease-back option. Some almost gave up the fight already. Suspicions lurked at the back of the cooperators’ mind, the implementing agency was trying to fool around with them when a delay in the generation of the land value by the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) creeped in. They had to stage a picket dialogue in the DAR provincial offices to hasten the processing of land distribution.

A host of other dilatory tactics were attributed in part to conflicting interests between the landowner and the potential beneficiaries. DAR had to come in if only to facilitate resolution to the conflict, with offers of possible agriventure agreements by and between the parties. KPI, for instance, was recommending a joint-venture management of the oil palm production, while the beneficiaries were asserting to manage the plantation by themselves, and inked marketing contracts with KPI. It was recalled, KPI’s interest then was to ensure a steady supply of fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) for the milling plant which they retained in their possession. Series of negotiations, propositions and counter-propositions lasted for almost six months until finally, KPI and the beneficiaries agreed to take on the production and marketing as proposed by the farmworkers.

The Management Takeover

Karbempco and Maparbempco finally took over the management of the plantation on the first of July 2002.

The dual cooperative set up their own operational structures and systems to ensure a synergy of productivity, effectiveness and efficiency in the oil palm production.

After three years of operation, the two coops’ business expanded from single operation of FFB production to lending, FFB marketing, and consumer stores. In addition to the annual dividends received by the members at PhP34,878.00 per cooperator of Karbempco and P16,709.00 per cooperator of Maparbempco, the workers’ salary was increased from P170.00 per man-day during KPI management to P210.00 per man-day under the cooperative management.

Palpable results of their struggle….upliftment of their life

TODAY, the beneficiaries of the oil palm plantation cooperatives in Sultan Kudarat were able to also address their other basic need of housing within their areas.

It was learned, a residential area was allocated by KPI, equivalent to 27 hectares for Karbempco members and 15 hectares for Maparbempco members. They have established their villages where their offices are located at the central area.

In Kenram, they were able to extend their services to the community by providing subsidy to two cooperative-remunerated teachers in their public elementary school. Karbempco had also established a nursery for their replanting and expansion programs.

Miling Lebiga concluded his testimonials with a cheerful smile while relating their Kenraman dreams of looking forward to a more active participation in the whole oil palm industry chain. They also intend to become one among the major players in the industry, in the immediate future.

European Union visitors’ applause to the Karbempco presentation served as drumbeats that accompanied the Kenram leader back to his seat, oblivious that he was nearly walking towards the center of the forum as he anxiously narrated their stories.

Jan de Kok did not wait anymore to be asked of his comments. The French dignitary voluntarily stood up and congratulated the beneficiaries for their triumphs of spirit. De Kok admitted that with the colorful and complex experiences the beneficiaries had gone through in their struggle, he expressed confidence, the programs and projects the Europeans had backed up would be effectively and efficiently managed by the two cooperatives. The French ambassador was elated, their visit to the project sites also served as an enlightening quick-tour that educated them on how agrarian reform issues are fought down the Southern Philippines , without bloodshed.

A deafening applause from the beneficiaries to the guests’ warm approval of the reports saturated the hall after the head of the European delegation had spoken.

The packed lunch prepared by the beneficiaries were then served. Seemingly, everyone was not hungry. They did not feel like eating anymore. The wall clock hanged at the hall’s front wall announced it was already 12:45 in the afternoon. The farmworkers hearts were full.

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