Even at an early age, Benjamin de Vera already showed leadership potential, an interest in big causes and concern for his fellowmen. Benjie, as he was called, was 13 years old, one of the youngest—if not the youngest—among delegates when he took part in the 10th World Boy Scouts Jamboree held in Mt. Makiling, Los Banos, Laguna, Philippines in 1959. The jamboree’s theme was “Building Tomorrow Today.”
Benjie, the fourth in a brood of eight, was born on 14 July1946. The de Veras originally came from Mangaldan, Pangasinan while Benjie’s mother belonged to the Goseco-Roque clan of Pampanga. After the war, one of the grandmothers brought the family to Davao while Benjie was still an infant; Benjie grew up in Davao that became his home.
At the University of the Philippines in Los Baños where he earned his BS Agriculture major in Animal Husbandry degree in 1970, Benjie was a varsity swimmer and a participant in the Rodeo, an annual campus festival featuring competitions on such skills as calf wrestling, lassoing and branding, judging animals and load carrying. He also became a member of the Alpha Sigma fraternity. It was at the university, at a time of social unrest following the violent 1969 elections that propelled Ferdinand Marcos to a new four-year presidential term, that Benjie’s social and political consciousness grew.
After college, Benjie returned to Davao City and worked in the family ranch while pursuing his political activities. He was not alone in his convictions; three of his siblings also became activists. When martial law was declared in 1972, Benjie went underground.
For many activists who were deprived of legal avenues for protests and had to evade arrest, the vast expanse of Mindanao became some sort of a haven. There were also those who were detained at the outset but came out of prison emboldened to join the armed resistance; to them, Mindanao was fertile ground just waiting to be sown the seeds of revolution.
As the struggle against the dictatorship grew in both scale and intensity, Benjie became the most wanted enemy of the regime in Mindanao. To the people who knew Benjie, the frightening image that the military created of him was totally incongruous to his simple and unassuming ways.
On 10 June 1981, Benjie, together with Magtanggol Roque, was captured during a raid in an underground safehouse in Guadalupe Village in Davao City. Soldiers killed Roque during the raid. Benjie went missing for 50 days after having been picked up from his regular place of detention in July 11. An Amnesty International report dated 11-28 November 1981 revealed that “… In response to a letter from his father requesting for information on his son’s whereabouts, Brigadier General Alfredo Olano, regional commander of Region XI , stated that ‘Benjamin has been borrowed by the intelligence family of a higher authority for further investigation on a matter of national strategic intelligence value.” Additionally, the report stated that “… the mission found that detainees were commonly tortured during periods of incommunicado detention while undergoing ‘tactical interrogation’ in non-recognized places of detention such as ‘safehouses’”.
When his family was finally able to see him, Benjie kept mum about his ordeals while incommunicado, preferring to reassure them that he is alright. He was actually more worried about them and his comrades than about himself. But the numerous black and blue contusions all over his face and body spoke of the severe torture he suffered.
Torture and detention failed to break Benjie’s spirit. One morning in July 1982, he escaped from Camp Leonor and immediately rejoined his comrades. Benjie was able to develop his plan by studying his captors’ habits and movements, even befriending some of them. Harnessing support from friends and allies, he was able to make soap impressions of jail keys and had these reproduced. As the guards snored while in deep sleep resulting from the previous night’s drinking spree, Benjie unlocked the prison cell. With fellow prisoners, all of them clad in jogging pants, Benjie jogged in the early morning sunrise to freedom. At a safe distance from the camp, a jeep-load of city partisans waited to take Benjie to insurgent territory.
In response, the military conducted retaliatory and punitive actions against suspected persons and communities. The house of prominent Davao City lawyer, Alex Orcullo was raided in the hope of finding Benjie hiding there. Soldiers vented their ire on the prisoners who were left behind and inflicted unspeakable atrocities on them.
Benjie was arrested again in March 1988. He continued to keep abreast with developments in the social, economic and political spheres. He also engaged in silkscreen printing of t-shirts to augment the family income. After his release in 1992, he worked with the Philippine Peasant Institute, the Philippine Network of Rural Development Institutes and became board member of several non-government organizations.
In 2000, he was appointed Director of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) in Region X and later, in region XI. He also became the National Deputy Manager for Special Project Minssad based in Mindanao. During his stint with the DAR, he tirelessly worked for the improvement of the lives of farmers and introduced innovations in his department. He also attended conferences and training abroad in order to further hone his skills and keep abreast with and learn new technologies that he can apply in his work. He studied how community trading works in Japan and how GPS (global positioning system) technology was being used to improve agriculture and forestry in Sweden.
On 7 December 2007, while conducting a study on natural farming methods of the Blaan tribe in the mountains of Sarangani, Benjie succumbed to cardiac arrest. He was quickly evacuated but was already dead on reaching a town hospital in Glan. He left behind his wife, Beatriz, and three daughters.
Benjie refused to be transformed into a bureaucrat who was comfortably ensconced in his air conditioned office, but instead preferred to remain simple and work among the peasants and tribespeople in the mountains and hinterlands. At his wake, two women from the Manobo-Dulangan tribe sang a dirge locally called dung-aw while they grieved beside his coffin, a moving testimony of their gratitude for the concern and service Benjie rendered them.