MANILA, Philippines - For the first time, a true farmer will head the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) – former Anakpawis party-list group representative, Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano.
Mariano’s predecessor, Virgilio de los Reyes, said he is a grandson of a Batangas farmer, but Ka Paeng is the real deal.
The National Democratic Front (NDF) nominated Mariano as agrarian reform secretary when President Duterte announced he would name communist members to his Cabinet.
According to Mariano, he met Duterte, then mayor of Davao City, a few times when he and colleagues at the House of Representatives would visit the city.
“My recent encounter with the President was last February when the KMP (Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas) organized an event dubbed ‘Peasant Challenge 2016 and Beyond’ at UP Diliman where we laid down the sector’s 10-point agenda. He was gracious enough to say yes to our invitation,” Mariano, 59, recalled.
The boy who helped his parents till the soil in their hometown of Quezon, Nueva Ecija grew into a fearless peasant leader during the Marcos dictatorship.
In 1985, the KMP was founded and Mariano served as its first secretary-general, later becoming its national chairman.
Being the organization’s leader, he showed his determination to pursue a genuine agrarian reform program and national industrialization as solution to the problems experienced by farmers.
Mariano also served as national chairman of the umbrella group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) from July 1998 until 2004. In his desire to further serve the peasant movement, he also ran and won as representative of Anakpawis from 2004 to 2007.
Among his proposed measures were House Bill 2532 (Farmers Land Rights Act), HB 2591 (Farmers Security of Tenure Act) and HB 155 which sought the repeal of the stock distribution option in Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac owned by the family of former president Benigno Aquino III.
Mariano also continued to push for the interests of the farmers and farmworkers with HB 3059 or the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill.
He likewise authored House resolutions calling for congressional investigation into various human rights violations including unexplained killings, enforced disappearances and abuse of rights and welfare of ordinary masses. He also filed important resolutions on labor, agriculture, fisheries, public sector employees and international issues, among others.
Recounting his childhood years, Mariano said he would join his parents in cultivating a two-hectare land, part of a 100-hectare property where they were tenants. They planted palay and vegetables.
“I saw how the farmers were abused by the landed class. We are working very hard and yet we remain poor. I started analyzing our society and was able to pinpoint the root cause of inequality and poverty,” Mariano said in Filipino.
Being exposed to and having experienced firsthand the hardships of farmers, he promised to uphold their welfare and help ensure a better life for them and their families.
During his college years taking up Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and Agri-Cooperatives at the Wesleyan and Liwag Colleges in Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, Mariano was forced to stop schooling after his father got sick and the family’s debt accumulated. Being the eldest child, he took over as head of the family and became a full-time farmer.
Mariano recounted that in the mid-70s, the Department of Public Works and Highways put up a flood control dike in the area which affected the barrio where he and his family lived. The National Irrigation Administration also built irrigation canals that prompted residents of their barrio located at the Talavera riverside to evacuate.
“We were forced to leave our homes… we transferred to another barrio where we had difficulty continuing what we had somehow built for our respective families. We didn’t benefit from the project. In fact, it just destroyed our crops, that is why we decided to fight against this anti-people project of the government,” Mariano said.
At the age of 20, Mariano decided to join a youth activist organization in their area that championed the farmers’ advocacy. Because of his leadership qualities, he was elected chairman of the organization. He also ran and won as number one councilor in their barrio in 1981.
While being actively involved in the organization, Mariano and the other members saw that the issues and problems affecting farmers were similar to those experienced by peasants in the different barrios and towns.