- Hundreds of MEPI ARB wait for their turn to sign amended AVA providing significantly enhanced economic benefits.
The Marsman Estate Plantation, Inc. (MEPI) and its Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs) have reached yet another milestone in their decades-long partnership following the signing of a new agribusiness venture agreement (AVA) that would provide workers in the MEPI banana farm a significantly improved package of land rental, salaries and benefits that remain the highest in the industry.
Both the MEPI management and members of the Davao Marsman Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Development Cooperative (DAMARB) described the amended AVA as a “win-win” solution that would guarantee the ARBs an unmatched array of benefits, which include a signing bonus and retroactive and advance rental payments for each ARB-signatory amounting to P105,000 as well as a regular monthly income for each of them.
BENEFITS HIGHEST IN INDUSTRY
MEPI president Antero Sison, Jr., who reported this positive development in a letter dated June 21 to President Rodrigo Duterte, said majority of the ARBs working in the Marsman plantation have already signed the amended agreement.
“As of this writing, 489 out of the 793 ARBs have already signed the amended agreement. At least 18 more ARBs who are residing outside Davao del Norte and/or are sick or incapacitated have committed to sign through their representatives. As your Excellency has voiced in a number of occasions, the Republic continues to be run under democratic principles and hence, the wishes of the majority must prevail,” Sison said in his letter to the President.
Hernando Rivero, the chairman of the board of DAMARB, said the organization’s members find the amended agreement “to be reasonable and economically beneficial for themselves, the community, the banana industry and the government.”
The amended lease AVA, Rivero said, will ensure that more than 1,800 employees of MEPI would get to keep their jobs, which will, in turn, benefit nearly 8,000 dependents.
MORE THAN DOUBLE
The new AVA signed between MEPI and DAMARB last June 1 also includes payment for land rental of P50,000 per hectare per year plus an escalation of P10,000 every five years, which is more than double the industry average.
“For all ARBs, this will total P40 million per annum for the first five years alone, and getting higher as the escalation takes effect,” Sison said in his letter.
As part of MEPI’s continued commitment to social responsibility, the new pact also grants medical/death benefits for retired ARBs, which are beyond the provisions of the existing collective bargaining agreement.
Sison said the guaranteed monthly income for each ARB that would take effect starting January next year will come from an “innovative monthly rental payment scheme” that was agreed upon by the MEPI and the beneficiaries.
The MEPI president said that even ARBs belonging to the minority groups, such as the Santo Tomas Individual Farmers Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative (SIFARBCO) and Sto. Tomas Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative (STARBENCO) may also avail themselves of this unprecedented increase in benefits by merely proposing to MEPI the same amendments to their lease AVA.
He informed the President that the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), which had recommended the cancellation of the lease AVA, “has also been notified of the win-win solution through a letter sent by DAMARB on 03 June 2017.”
MEPI also followed this up with a separate notification to DAR on June 5.
“Whilst MEPI has strong legal grounds to question the cancellation of the lease AVA, this will be a very long process which will delay the grant of benefits to landowners. With this win-win solution, the ARBs immediately enjoy the economic benefits of land ownership. This may be considered a landmark approach for addressing other AVA controversies,” Sison said in his letter to the President.
Sison said that with the President’s support, the MEPI and the ARBs “look forward to finally putting this controversy to rest with the interest of all concerned parties accordingly addressed, most especially the economic welfare of the ARBs.”
On top of getting pay and benefits that are way above industry standards, ARBs and their families in the MEPI banana farm also enjoy educational and health care coverage; generous vacati on and sick leaves with pay; housing, meal and medical allowances; performance, production, Christmas, Labor Day and longevity bonuses; life and accident insurance; and retirement benefits.
For deceptive tactics, insensitivity to plight of agrarian reform beneficiaries
The management of the Davao-based Marsman Estate Plantation, Inc. (MEPI) said it may file charges with the Office of the Ombudsman against two officials of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR).
MEPI has decried the deceptive tactics employed by DAR Undersecretaries Marcos Risonar and David Erro in agitating and confusing agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) regarding the fate of their Agribusiness Venture Agreements (AVA) with the company.
“MEPI reserves its right to take the appropriate legal measures to protect its interest, including bringing this matter up to the Office of the Ombudsman,” said MEPI president Antero Sison, Jr. in a letter addressed to the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC), which is chaired by President Rodrigo Duterte.
In the letter, MEPI assailed the insensitivity of Risonar and Erro to the plight of ARBs and other workers in MEPI’s banana plantation.
Sison said he found it both appalling and disturbing that the two DAR officials would resort to “deliberate and organized misinformation” when they held a consultative meeting in Tagum City last March 23 with members of the Davao Marsman Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Development Cooperative (DAMARDEVCO).
In the meeting, Risonar and Erro told the ARBs that their cooperative’s AVA with MEPI has already been revoked.
Sison said the actions of the DAR officials were “totally unfair, misleading and devoid of due process as we have not been given the opportunity to correct these obviously erroneous and biased statements made by them.”
Sison said Risonar and Erro not only confused the ARBs but also caused “economic and reputational damage” to MEPI.
“Surely, the behavior of the DAR representatives is not aligned with the spirit in which President Duterte would like the pending issues to be resolved, which is that of fairness and transparency instead of misinformation and confusion,” Sison said in his letter that was also addressed to DAR Secretary Rafael Mariano.
Sison said that on MEPI’s part, it is “ready and committed to clarify and present factual and legal grounds” to back up its position.
The consultative meeting in Tagum was held to discuss whether the AVA between MEPI and DAMARDEVCO should be continued and determine the options open to ARBs in case they elect to get out of the existing lease contract. MEPI was not invited to the meeting.
Sison said in his letter dated March 24 that in the meeting, Erro, who also acts as the PARC Council Secretary, and Risonar, the DAR undersecretary for field operations, misled the ARBs by telling them the following erroneous statements:
The revocation of the AVA between MEPI and DAMARBDEVCO is already final and executory. Sison said this statement is “not factual and is misleading” because the PARC, in a March 7 letter to MEPI, informed the company that the Council agreed to defer action on the issue and that President Duterte had instructed the DAR to hold consultations with the parties involved “to discuss the intention to continue, modify or rescind the subject lease AVA with MEPI.”
MEPI no longer has legal ground to appeal the decision for the AVA cancellation. Sison said that this is again misleading because such claim “is not supported by legal grounds as MEPI’s motion for reconsideration has not been decided with finality.”
With the cancellation of the lease AVA with MEPI, the two other ARB cooperatives – SIFABCO and STARBENCO – may now take over the MEPI farm. Sison said that such a patently false statement “is alarming as it amounts to fomenting anarchy and instigating possible violence” and shows “conduct unbecoming of government officials.” Sison said that granting for the sake of argument that the lease AVA is cancelled, an interim period would still have to be observed by the parties involved to determine the arrangement that will govern their relationship.
The land originally donated by MEPI to DAMARBDEVCO was made to DAR and not to the ARBs and, therefore the ARB, need not worry about payment of just compensation to MEPI when the AVA is revoked. Sison said “this is completely wrong as the records will clearly show that the land was donated to DAMARBDEVCO and eventually subdivided to the individual ARBs to whom respective Certificates of Land Ownership Award (CLOAs) were issued.”
The ARBs will no longer have to pay for the land when the lease AVA with MEPI is revoked because they have House Bill 555, which bars the foreclosure of their land even with the nonpayment of amortizations to Land Bank, to rely on. Sison said this is another misleading statement. “How can House Bill 555 be used as a basis when it is not yet a law and there is no assurance that it will become a law?” Sison asked. Moreover, Sison said “the CARP law also clearly states that the Land Bank may foreclose the land in case of failure to pay three annual amortizations.” “With the DAR’s statement, the ARBs were given the wrong impression that they are not obligated to pay for the land at all,” Sison said.
Sison said he was also alarmed over the “uncaring” attitude of the DAR officials on the welfare of the ARBs and other MEPI workers who would end up jobless when the AVA is revoked. Sison said DAMARBDEVCO members informed him that the DAR officials told them that their plight was no longer DAR’s concern.
“Asked what will happen to the more than 1,800 employees of MEPI who will become jobless and to their 8,000 dependents if the lease AVA is cancelled and MEPI shuts down, the DAR representatives said that this is not their concern and that the employees can go to the Department of Labor and Employment to address that issue,” Sison said in his letter.
“This unfortunately shows utter disregard and uncaring attitude for the economic consequences of the Lease AVA cancellation,” he added.
Sison pointed out that on top of causing “economic and reputational damage” to MEPI, the deliberately erroneous statements made by the DAR officials also caused “confusion among the ARBs who may not anymore be able to make rational and intelligent decisions that will determine their economic future.”
“In the interest of fairness and transparency, we strongly urge the PARC to cause the DAR representatives to clarify as soon as possible the concerns expressed by the DAMARBDEVCO officers and members,” Sison said in his letter.
DAR OFFICIALS STIRRING UP LAND REFORM BENEFICIARIES INTO VIOLENCE VS. LANDBANK FORECLOSURE
Officials of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) have added fire to the volatile situation in the banana industry in Davao del Norte by urging Land Reform Beneficiaries (ARB) to meet with violence officials of Land Bank of the Philippines (LandBank) serving foreclosures on banana farms they are currently tilling.
Attack them with bolos!, DAR Undersecretaries Marcos Risonar and David Erro told members of the Davao Marsman Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Development Cooperative (DAMARBDEVCO) of Sto. Tomas town.
Risonar and Erro dished out the call to violence during a meeting in Tagum City on March 23 with the 1,800-member DAMARBDEVCO to discuss the cooperative’s Agribusiness Venture Agreement (AVA) with the Marsman Estate Plantation, Inc. (MEPI).
The meeting was held to tackle the issue of whether the AVA between DAMARDEVCO and MEPI should be continued and to explore the options for ARBs who will be displaced if the agreement is eventually revoked.
DAMARBDEVCO members said they were shocked to hear the DAR Undersecretaries telling them that they should “attack with bolos” representatives from the LandBank if the banana farms they are currently tilling are foreclosed by the government bank in the event their AVA with MEPI gets permanently revoked.
They denounced Risonar and Erro for attempting to dupe them with misleading statements and inciting them to violence.
Rolando Lusterio, one of the ARBs present during the meeting, recalled Erro, a lawyer, saying that “kapag nagpunta ang Landbank para maningil, itakin ‘nyo (if the Landbank goes to you to ask for payment, attack them with bolos).”
Dioscoro Abellano, another ARB, also recalled the indifference and utter lack of concern of the DAR officials to their plight when he asked what would happen to the more than 1,800 ARBs of MEPI and their 8,000 dependents once the AVA with the company is revoked.
“Tinanong namin sila paano na kami kapag nawalan ng trabaho. Ang sagot nila, hindi na daw nila problema yun, at doon daw kami magpunta sa DOLE para magreklamo (We asked them what would happen to us if we are rendered jobless. They responded that it’s not their problem anymore, and that we should go to the Department of Labor and Employment to complain).”
Edwin Gil, another ARB, said Erro made the statement when he and the other ARBs asked what would happen if their AVA with MEPI was revoked and they have to start paying amortization to Landbank as required under the law.
“Ang sabi ba naman sa amin, itakin daw namin ang taga-Landbank nang tanungin namin kung anong gagawin namin, wala naman kaming ibabayad (Imagine, they told us that we should attack people from Landbank with our bolos when we asked what were we to do, we do not have money to pay Landbank),” Lusterio said.
The land being tilled by the ARBs inside MEPI’s farm in Sto. Tomas, Davao del Norte was donated to them by the company as part of the terms of their AVA. While they were given the land for free, the ARBs also received lease rentals, above-average compensation and other benefits from MEPI that are considered among the highest in the agriculture sector.
If the AVA, which is the condition for the donation is revoked, the donation itself is revoked and the government must pay MEPI more than P1.0 Billion representing the company’s just compensation for the land it had earlier donated to the ARBs. The ARBs, in turn, would have to pay Land Bank for the land that they already owned had the AVA not been revoked.
Abellano said the DAR officials also told them that House Bill 555 will protect them and stop Landbank from collecting payment from the ARBs and having their lands foreclosed, when such a proposal has not yet been approved and has long been languishing in the Congress.
Under the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and its extension, ARBs can pay for the land awarded to them for 30 years at 6 percent yearly interest.
“Ano ba talaga ang gusto ng DAR, umunlad kami o maghirap? Bakit sila nagpadala ng mga opisyal na puro kasinungalingan ang sinabi sa amin? (What does DAR really want—for us to prosper or to become poor? Why did they send officials who told us all lies?),” Abellano said.
Lusterio, Gil and Abellano said the DAR officials tried to dupe them by saying that the AVA with MEPI was already “cancelled” when the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC), which is chaired by President Duterte, has not yet rendered a final decision on the motions for reconsideration that had been filed earlier by MEPI and DAMARDEVCO.
MEETING WITH DUTERTE
The DAMARBDEVCO ARBs said they could hardly argue with the two DAR officials, who introduced themselves as lawyers, even though the truth was that President Duterte even plans to attend the second round of consultations with them to discuss their AVA with MEPI.
Jun Mercado, another ARB present at the meeting, said Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella was quoted as saying recently that the President would be attending the second meeting, along with Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III, who chairs the Landbank.
“So how is the AVA already cancelled, mag-meeting pa nga kami with President Duterte?” Mercado said.
Mercado also recalled Risonar as claiming that MEPI can no longer appeal the decision before the courts on the revocation of the AVA, which is false because it deprives the company of due process.
“They were trying to make us believe that the agreement with MEPI is already cancelled by telling us na tapos na daw ang (we already ended our) relationship [namin] with MEPI,” Lusterio said.
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