A legacy of killing farmers?

May 24, 2022

by Rogene A. Gonzales

Before Rodrigo Duterte concludes his presidency and paints a rosy legacy, let us not forget his bloody record as a relentless attacker of people’s rights to land, food security and social justice even amid a pandemic and crisis exacerbated by worship of neoliberal policies.

Let us not forget Randy Echanis, long-time peace advocate, who was tortured and killed in his apartment in Quezon City. Let us not forget Chai and Ariel Evangelista, fisherfolk who stood against reclamation but were gunned down right in front of their ten-year-old son in Nasugbu, Batangas. The couple and seven other activists were slaughtered by coordinated police and military operations in Southern Tagalog now known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Let us not forget the nine Tumandoks in Panay who were brutally slain for opposing construction of the Jalaur Mega Dam. The New Bataan 5, including Lumad teachers Chad and Jurain, who were met by state violence for advocating protection of the indigenous people’s ancestral domain and their right to self-determination. The Negros 14, farmers and habal-habal drivers massacred before dawn. The Sagay 9, slain because of collective farming. Rommy Torres, peasant activist found dead and stuffed in a blue plastic drum. Joseph Canlas, the peasant leader who died of COVID-19 due to state negligence while in prison for trumped-up charges. Peace defender Randy Malayao, shot inside a public bus. The list goes on, and the details, all gruesome.

When we look back now, Duterte’s time is of blatant disregard to human life and dignity. The killings fueled by legislation and syndicated directives consistently placed the Philippines at the top of the most dangerous places for land and environmental defenders in Asia for eight consecutive years, according to Global Witness. The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) alone recorded 344 peasants extrajudicially killed and 26 incidents of massacres connected to land disputes under Duterte’s watch. Each death is not an isolated one, but part of a systematic persecution by state forces and oligarchs that target progressive groups aspiring for genuine land reform.

Given a Marcos Jr presidency, prospects are even bleaker for any substantial resolution to the roots of land conflict that farmers have been struggling to overcome for centuries. The Duterte presidency, despite its ‘socialist’ pretenses in the beginning, has only worsened massive land grabbing, land use conversion, and development aggression in the guise of ecotourism and infrastructure projects under its grandiose Build Build Build (BBB) program. Marcos Jr has unrepentantly vowed to continue BBB.

The Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) said in January 2022 that 1.2 million hectares under agri-business venture agreements (AVA) have already been converted to corporate plantations while 1.6 million hectares are targeted for expansion. When combined, this will make 20% of our agricultural lands monopolized by corporate plantations that offer lower than minimum wages to farm workers. Neoliberal policies such as the Rice Tariffication Law, touted by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) as one of the best things that happened to the rice industry, has rendered farmers bankrupt and unable to maintain their farmlands. NEDA cannot even convincingly defend presidential candidate Bongbong’s bluff that he could lower rice price to Php20 per kilo.

The economic oligarchs who have enriched themselves immensely under the Duterte administration—the big landowning families and real estate developers—have taken advantage of the favorable policy environment to advance their greed. Framed within a vision for artificial urbanization, the successes of their projects spell displacement for thousands of farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples. These are the same oligarchs who have either directly supported a Marcos Jr presidency or have had close ties to local politicians and warlords who ensured his electoral victory. They are the same oligarchs who have suppressed the people’s aspiration for land and justice.

Marcos Jr’s promise of doubling the budget of the Department of Agriculture (DA) along with the mantra of food security, modernization and lower rice price remain superficial especially since free land distribution, which is at the core of the conflict, runs counter to the elite’s voracious appetite for wealth and profits. There shouldn’t be any illusion therefore that the next administration will dismantle the conditions that have brought them to power. How can the Filipino people forget a family that gained power and wealth through abuse of authority and militarism? What else can we expect from such? Nothing else but the increasing turmoil of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, red-tagging, and forced surrenderees now normalized thanks to the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). The armed forces have also regularized, kept unknown to the general public, bombings of farming and rural communities.

However dismal the future may be, hope still resides in the ordinary citizens’ collective efforts to stand with farmers and land defenders against all kinds of state repression. For as long as 7 out of 10 farmers remain landless, they continue to advance their rightful ownership of the means of production. When livelihoods of fisherfolk are run over by resorts and indigenous people’s ancestral domains are converted into casinos, more people will rise up and join the struggle for food sovereignty and agrarian emancipation. It is only just.  

Marcos Sr.’s dictatorial rule designed the blueprint for the current-day bogus land reform and started the implementation of neoliberal policies that opened Philippine agriculture to unbridled foreign and big business exploitation. If there is anything colonial and post-colonial history has taught us, it is that from one tyrant to another, nothing surpasses the courage of farmers and land defenders to lead movements and revolts to end oppression.

As we mourn for those who’ve fallen by the hands of tyrants, history has also taught us that the lives they’ve sacrificed and the concrete conditions of our crisis will only keep alive the people’s rage against an unjust system. The farmers never forget, even as the seasons change.