“Welcome to Paradise!”
This was the phrase I could think of to encapsulate the jam-packed experience, emotions, and viewpoints that came along when my colleagues and I held an overnight visit with the Paradise III community in San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan (SJDM).
Our exposure took place at an opportune time as the farmers in the area were harvesting and preparing their goods for transport as part of the Bagsakan project. It was in coordination with the Agroecology Fair being held at the Quezon Memorial Circle (QMC). The fair aimed to raise awareness on the global campaign for food, land and climate justice. It was a Sunday, therefore, a perfect time for Paradise III farmers to sell their produce to the thousands of strollers, joggers and families gathering in QMC.
But the day before, we got up early and were excited to visit the community. We took a Grab taxi and initially couldn’t pinpoint the exact location, but we eventually arrived safely and were welcomed by members of the Samahan ng Magsasaka sa Paradise III (SAMAPA). After a short introduction and orientation, we were assigned to the family hosts. I was paired with Ate Xands, and we were sent off with the family of Ate Ching who were also preparing for the Bagsakan.
We went to the farm where Ate Ching’s family cultivates vegetables and the ponds where they fetch snails. Although their preparation was halfway finished when we came, we gladly helped with the other remaining tasks left. This was mainly reaping additional commodities and binding some of the goods like sweet potato vine (talbos ng kamote), water spinach (kangkong), malabar spinach (alugbati), and taro (gabi).
Before lunch, Ate Ching’s products were intact. Ate Xands and I decided to join the other teams and families who were not finished harvesting yet so we could offer help. We accompanied Ate Jenny, one of the younger officers of SAMAPA. Our group ventured through the steep and slippery mountains, rocky streams, and maze-like terrains. This included the “shortcuts” that Ate Jenny showed to us, which unsurprisingly were steeper and stretched our city legs. Afterwards, we even visited a waterfall in the area in search of the edible fern (pako) with the remaining energy that we had. Going back to Ate Jenny’s home, we then collectively cleaned the taro and tied all the water spinach and sweet potato vines gathered earlier. It was already dark when we bound the last of the crops for transport the following morning.
The area has been “paradise” for the hundreds of families who have settled there for the past six decades. Even though we were only staying there overnight, it was still an enriching experience, getting to be part of their production work that is entirely different than just reading about their situation.
Paradise for the Few
Through our interaction with the two families, I learned about their common woes, the same hope and means of action. Ate Ching said the estimated Php10,000 monthly earnings from their farm production could barely cover the needs of her family. Other family members had to find jobs in Manila.
This is just one of the many manifestations of a backward local agriculture sector that fervently relies on importation.
Yet instead of resolving the problems of the sector, the government supports – to the peril of many Filipino farmers – neoliberal pro-big business socioeconomic projects and policies. In its recent land-use plan, the City of San Jose Del Monte envisions that within two years, up to 3,800 hectares or 72% of the city’s total agricultural land will have been converted to other uses.
Dubbed as the Northern Gateway from Manila, Bulacan openly promotes the province as an ideal investment and tourist destination. The construction of the MRT-7 in particular is expected to usher in the entry of more private businesses.
Ate Ching and Ate Jenny’s families, along with the rest of the farmer families in Paradise III, are under threat from competing landlord and oligarchic interests. Their small plots of land are surrounded by large hectares of privately-owned land belonging to the Aranetas and Villars. In many instances, farmers have encountered harassment from private guards, and threatened with illegal demolition and forced eviction. The private guards of the Villars even come to the area every day, prohibiting the farmers from repairing or building their houses.
Last November 2022, the Araneta group and Ayala Land Inc. invested Php20 billion to expand their joint venture’s mixed-use estate in SJDM for both residential and commercial developments. The Villar-owned Vista Land & Lifescapes, Inc. is also planning to launch 64 estates around the country in two years.
When Sunday came, we got up early and rode with the farmers to Quezon City. As we were leaving Paradise III, we all felt we were bringing the farmers’ fight with us. As we traversed the erratic road systems of SJDM, passing by the heavily secured Pangarap Village and back into the construction pillars of MRT-7, it became clear to me that the farmers have been facing and would continue to meet the daunting challenges with their humble but resolute struggle to assert their livelihoods.
If only the government would realize that the real paradise – or that ideal or idyllic place or state – is where the right to livelihood of those who put food on our table and set the wheels of industry into motion are upheld.