For 27 years the farmers of Hacienda Tinang in Concepcion, Tarlac have struggled for control of agricultural production. This has been amid unabated poverty and food insecurity, landlessness, and lack of social services in the countryside. They have been deprived of the right to till the land and have toiled as farmworkers since the 1960s for Php3.00 a day while enduring slave-like labor conditions – some farmers even narrating child-labor practices. When the Malayang Kilusang Samahan ng Magsasaka sa Tinang (MAKISAMA-Tinang) finally decided to assert their rightful ownership to the land as Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs), the state through its local government unit and the Philippine National Police (PNP) viciously tried to suppress their aspirations.
The circumstances that led to the June 9 illegal mass arrest and filing of fabricated charges against the 83 farmers and agrarian advocates (now known as Tinang 83) who were conducting collective farming or bungkalan have exposed our government’s systematic neglect of farmers. Events have further revealed to the general public that the Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) has been kept from the farmers since 1995 and that incumbent congressman and incoming mayor Noel Villanueva has devised mechanisms such as the establishment of a fake cooperative to maintain power over the 200-hectare disputed land. Though Villanueva denies allegations of his connections, records obtained by the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas show that he and his kin are the biggest shareholders in the Tinang SN Multipurpose Cooperative, with 2,680 subscribed shares amounting to Php268,000.
Villanueva was even seen in the bungkalan site commanding Officer-in-Charge PNP Concepcion Chief Reynold Macabitas before farmers and advocates, including the elderly, women and minors, were manhandled to the police station without a warrant of arrest. Macabitas ignored the farmers’ plea despite their presentation of documents issued by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). It is not in the jurisdiction of the police to meddle in agrarian disputes as echoed by the Joint DAR-DILG-DND Circular 5-2002. The memo specifically states that DAR “shall provide central direction and coordination” with regard to implementing the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. Were the police unaware of this, or were they simply violating it?
What is more appalling is the seemingly police state that the town of Concepcion is in, with Villanueva and Macabitas conniving to suppress the Tinang farmers’ legitimate claim which led to more human rights abuses. The Tinang 83 who were detained for four days and three nights decry deprivation of the right to due process. Acting Provincial Prosecutor Mila Mae Montefalco-Ikeshita’s conduct of an inquest proceeding was not impartial and even branded them as “vigilantes.” More than half of the Tinang 83 suffered and slept inside an overly cramped and tiny jail cell (60 men inside a space only for 10; 30 women inside a space for five). This was obviously part of Macabitas’ mental, emotional and physical torture when no one entertained the policemen’s constant interrogations.
As a result of the police’s deliberate neglect of medical conditions and COVID-19 protocols, some detainees fainted and were rushed to the emergency room. Anakpawis Party-list and Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura have filed a complaint to the Commission on Human Rights to investigate these incidents, including the delay of the release of the Tinang 83 due to Macabitas’ arbitrary defiance of the court’s release order.
The rabid National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has muddled the issue with the usual press conferences of red-tagging farmers and advocates. Their tirades of vilification only serve to warm up the disinformation drive for Marcos Jr who also happens to be the new Department of Agriculture secretary. Trolls and fake news peddlers rejoiced at the trend to sustain their rackets while Apollo Quiboloy’s so-called journalists never batted an eye to the real victims of land grabbing and exploitation. All of them, only machines amplifying the hysteria of NTF-ELCAC and its manic spokespersons.
What must not be overlooked, however, is the magnitude of support that Tinang 83 has garnered from the people in such a short span of time. In a matter of hours, a team of lawyers and volunteer paralegals headed by the Sentro para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo (SENTRA) ensured a caliber that could stand down state repression and uphold justice. Videos and photos which further exposed police brutality against the marginalized sectors while favoring the elite went viral in social media platforms and fueled public outroar for the immediate release of the 83. Overnight, various peasant and cultural formations here and abroad released statements of support and raised funds for bail through contributions of hundreds of individuals and organizations that eventually led to the Tinang 83’s release last June 12.
The incident in Hacienda Tinang, considered as one of the biggest illegal mass arrests in Philippine history, has shattered the illusion of peaceful transition from Duterte to Marcos Jr. It has unveiled the deeply-rooted wounds of our food producers who remain hungry and desolate due to our country’s worsening agricultural crisis. The neoliberal policies such as the Rice Tariffication Law coupled with the pandemic lockdown caused a visible loss of Php67.6 billion in the last three years, or Php32,206 for each rice farmer.
The agricultural crisis that Duterte is handing over to Marcos Jr is at its worst – the smallest share in the gross domestic product in history, lowest average growth rate since the second world war, unprecedented millions of jobs lost since 2016, lowest budget allocation in two decades, and highest trade deficit in history. The imposition of neoliberal policies on the sector had been unrelenting, unrepentant.
These concrete conditions, along with the government’s dubious agrarian reform program, make bungkalan necessary to ensure that the poorest of the rural poor have a chance to survive and eventually assert their control over the land and other resources and be genuinely self-sufficient.
Last June 20, DAR reaffirmed its decision that 94 members of MAKISAMA-Tinang who are part of the land cultivation project are legitimate and qualified beneficiaries of the disputed land. Last June 27, the Concepcion Municipal Circuit Trial Court through Judge Antonio Pangan dismissed the charges for malicious mischief and illegal assembly for lack of factual and legal basis.
But the Tinang 83’s struggle is not yet over as more trumped-up charges have been filed for obstruction of justice, usurpation of real rights in property, and disobedience to authority. Nine of the Tinang 83 – those who have stood up against PNP’s abuses during detention – have also been charged with human trafficking and child exploitation. The defendants are seeking to file countercharges and inhibit the prosecutor and the police chief for their unlawful conduct.
Just several kilometers away, ARBs of Hacienda Murcia and Hacienda Luisita face similar dilemmas. How many more ARBs who are legitimate CLOA holders are being deceived by the powers-that-be to advance private monopoly interests?
Government officials have even questioned the presence of activists, cultural workers, students, journalists, and other concerned sectors linking arms with the farmers in their bungkalan and being jailed for this. Farmers are the primary force who work for food security, agrarian and rural development, and social justice. It is only right to stand with them then, for the farmers’ struggle is a people’s struggle.