Raffy Tulfo’s Senate debut

It was a pleasant surprise to see neophyte Sen. Raffy Tulfo clash with veteran legislator Sen. Cynthia Villar on an issue of immense public interest: the massive conversion of farmlands to commercial use. The lady senator, with more than 20 years of experience as a lawmaker, is generally feared for her prickly temper and sharp tongue.

Tulfo, a radio-TV broadcaster who made a name for himself as an arbiter of domestic quarrels and dispenser of justice for the common folk, is a first-term senator. Political newcomers like him are expected to be quiet as they familiarize themselves with the procedures and unspoken norms of collegiality and parliamentary debate. Some find themselves gently relegated to the committee on silence. Not Tulfo.

Minus the swagger of his show biz colleague and fellow newbie Sen. Robinhood Padilla, Tulfo has managed to make his presence felt in the upper chamber with an impressive string of interventions. I have taken note of his masterful grilling of the former UP president and now Trade Secretary Alfredo Pascual over the Department of Trade and Industry’s responsibility for the regulation of the sale of sodium-laden instant noodle products, a staple food among the poor. I have also listened to his exchange with Sen. Loren Legarda on how to ensure that lists of beneficiaries of government assistance are prepared with no interference by political patrons at all levels.

The occasion for his recent encounter with Villar was the plenary session on the proposed 2023 national budget. It had been a long day, and the agriculture budget was the last item on the agenda for the day. Everyone was anticipating the Department of Agriculture (DA) budget’s prompt approval, not only because its acting secretary is no less than President Marcos Jr. but also because the experienced Villar was standing as its sponsor.

But Tulfo had some urgent questions to ask. He went straight to the point, careful not to sound ungallant. Addressing the DA officials huddled around Villar, he asked how the department decides where to put the farm-to-market roads on which a chunk of the agency’s budget is spent. It appears, he said, that many of these do not lead to farms but to subdivisions, and even to cockpits.

“Oh, the Department of Public Highways (DPWH) uses drones to determine where these should be located,” Villar calmly assured him. “While the budget comes from the DA, it is the DPWH that builds these farm-to-market roads,” she added, little suspecting that that’s precisely where Tulfo was headed. Without missing a beat, the neophyte senator retorted: “So, if the DPWH and the property developers are in cahoots with one another, that’s the end for the poor farmers who are supposed to benefit from these roads.” Stunned silence.

“No wonder,” he exclaimed in the same breath, “farmlands are getting smaller and smaller as big developers buy them and convert them into commercial and residential lands. What is the DA doing about this?” The transition to the larger issue of land conversion was logical, but it came as a jolt.

Everyone in the Senate session hall suddenly perked up from their drowsiness. While Tulfo’s questions were addressed to the DA, and had nothing to do with Villar herself, it became clear to anyone who knows anything about the Villar business empire that the tenor of the discussion had turned personal.

From 2016 to 2021, Villar’s son, Mark, headed the DPWH, the agency that builds the roads, resigning just in time to run for senator in the 2022 national elections. He won, adding another Villar to the 24-person Senate. The family’s main business is property development. Their diversified holdings include C&P Homes and Vista Land and Lifescapes, which build residential subdivisions, condominium buildings, and shopping malls. Another company, the Golden Haven Memorial Park, operates a chain of memorial parks nationwide.

Indeed, no one in that room could have been more knowledgeable about the link between property development in all its forms and the purchase of raw land than Villar. As she herself put it, by way of cutting Tulfo’s rant about land conversions and property development: “Alam niyo, that’s our business.”

She may have intended it as a mild boast—a claim to speak authoritatively—rather than an admission of interest. But it must have dawned on her that her family’s vested interest in the industry also effectively undermined her credibility as a defender of the DA’s farm-to-market program and land conversion policy. Suddenly, the issue was no longer about one department’s budget; it had clotted into one politician’s conflict-of-interest situation.

Perhaps realizing she had painted herself into a corner, Villar quickly explained that their companies do not buy agricultural lands in the provinces. “We buy lands only in the cities and capital towns.” This came off as a disingenuous argument. Vast tracts of agricultural land are found in areas nominally classified as cities. “Where will the people live if you don’t build subdivisions?” she rhetorically asked. Anywhere, Tulfo replied, “just don’t take over the lands of desperately poor farmers.” Senate President Miguel Zubiri stopped the discussion and declared a recess.

Whether he meant to or not, Tulfo had touched a raw nerve in our premodern political order. This is the shameless interlocking of family-owned businesses and political dynasties, about which as little as possible is publicly said in the polite corridors of the legislature. Bravo to him!