Why farmers in SJDM are under attack

July 5, 2024

by Maricar Piedad

On the outskirts of Metro Manila lies a fertile expanse of wide plains, rolling hills and lush greenery. Its rich soil is suitable for different crops, including palay, and perfect for raising livestock and poultry. San Jose Del Monte (SJDM) in Bulacan shares a border with Caloocan City and is surrounded by the province of Rizal and other Bulacan municipalities of Marilao, Sta. Maria, and Norzagaray. To the east, SJDM is naturally bordered by the Sierra Madre mountain range, which lends a rising slope to its terrain.

SJDM hosts some of the largest resettlement areas in the country, such as Sapang Palay, which covers 36 out of SJDM’s 59 barangays. SJDM is also home to rural migrants who arrived decades ago to work, farm, and settle in the area. Barangays like Tungkong Mangga, San Roque, and Paradise III are known for farming and have become vital sources of agricultural products for Metro Manila residents. These communities have established their residence, economy, and self-sustaining organizations over the years.

But trouble would always come to this seeming paradise. State forces and private goons have constantly harassed and intimidated the farmers. They repeatedly destroy the crops, demolish the farmers’ houses, block the entry of construction materials, surveil and threaten leaders, and physically assault and even kill those who resist.

The most recent of these attacks is the illegal search and entry into the old and unoccupied house of Ronnie Manalo, secretary-general of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), in San Roque. This was perpetrated by around 100 troops of the 70th and 80th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army (IBPA) and the Bulacan Philippine National Police (PNP) crime operatives (SOCO). They prevented Ronnie’s wife, Marcelina, who was staying in another hut at that time, from leaving, ransacked the old house, planted evidence, then coerced Marcelina into signing documents that falsely listed searched items, including firearms and explosives. They also pressured Marcelina to convince Ronnie to “surrender”, accusing him of being a member of the New People’s Army (NPA).

On the same day, in Paradise III, the soldiers searched the area for Cecilia Rapiz, leader of the Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulacan (AMB) and a prominent producer-seller of the Bagsakan Farmers Market, which sells directly at agroecology fairs and bazaars in Metro Manila. They labeled her a wanted criminal for supporting the NPA along with Manalo. Throughout the day, the soldiers patrolled both barangays, terrifying the residents and restricting their movements. Days before that, the troops were already conducting military operations without the knowledge of the local government.

What could possibly motivate state forces and agents to commit such egregious acts and human rights violations, and to do so with such impunity?

For real estate profits

SJDM is the first city in the province of Bulacan. Its proximity to Metro Manila has made it a target for the expansion of real estate development and other businesses.

In recent years, there has been a noticeable and rapid reclassification of land use within the city. According to the City of SJDM Ecological Profile 2023, the area designated as General Agricultural Zone (GAZ) was 1,912.97 hectares (ha) in 2015, but by 2022, it had decreased significantly to 172.30 ha. This indicates that 1,740.67 ha of former GAZ land had been converted to other uses. During the same period, there was an increase of 1,357.38 ha allocated to Special Development Zone –  Agri-Tourism/Innovation Hub (SDZ-1). There were notable expansions in the Light Industrial Zone (LIZ) and Commercial-Industrial Zone (C-2). These changes mean that the local government of SJDM has reclassified numerous agricultural lands for purposes such as commercial ventures, real estate development, and tourism destinations.

Furthermore, major infrastructure projects such as the Metro Rail Transit 7 (MRT-7) have provided significant incentives for large corporations to invest in the city. Despite delays in its construction, these corporations have remained undeterred. With the project nearing completion, they have become more aggressive in expanding their interests by acquiring more lands, often through harassment and attacks on the farming communities.

There has been rapid development of private housing and commercial establishments, like the SM mall that has been conveniently built near the MRT-7 SJDM station. Banks, food chains, malls, and resorts have mushroomed in the city. Real estate development is among the industries that have significantly grown in SJDM, with a recorded number of 44 developers operating in the city, including corporations owned by the country’s economic oligarchs – the Sys, the Ayalas, the Villars, and the Aranetas.

Greed for more

The Ayala Corporation is one of the biggest conglomerates in the Philippines. It has businesses in different industries such as financial services, telecommunications, energy, health, and real estate. Its real estate development is managed through Ayala Land Inc. (ALI), which recorded a total of Php24.5 billion net income in 2023. ALI has launched the Altaraza estate, a 40-hectare urban community that includes the Altaraza Town Center and the first branch of STI College in SJDM. This is set to expand by an additional 600 hectares through a Php20-billion joint venture deal between ALI and the Araneta Properties Inc. (ARA).

Another major real estate developer is Vista Land & Lifescapes Inc. of the Villar family, which recorded a net income of Php10.3 billion in 2023. Major projects in SJDM include Palmera Homes, Camella Homes, and Bria Homes, mostly located in the western part. Current expansions are extending towards the mountainous eastern part. Aside from real estate, the Villars have also established commercial businesses such as malls, convenience stores, finance services, and food and beverage services. Additionally, the Villars, through Primewater Infrastructure Holdings Inc. hold the concession for the joint venture with the San Jose Del Monte Water District, establishing themselves as the operator of water distribution throughout the city.

The Aranetas have established their private land ownership in the city longer than the Villars. Greggy Araneta is the husband of Irene Marcos and brother of Liza Araneta Marcos. The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr awarded enormous agricultural lands in SJDM to the Aranetas and his other cronies through a fake land reform program. Majority of ARA’s real estate development is in SJDM. Aside from the Altaraza project, ARA has partnered with another real estate mogul, Ezequiel Robles of Sta. Lucia Realty, in developing the Colinas Verdes Residential Estates and Country Club. This is described as a 261-hectare subdivision located in the central business district of SJDM.

ARA has reported a net income of Php152.9 million for the first quarter of 2024, a huge jump from its net loss of Php9.6 million from the same period last year. This turnaround in profit was reportedly pushed through aggressively selling ARA’s real estate projects in SJDM.

The thing is, majority of the land interests of the Aranetas and the Villars span Tungkong Mangga, San Roque, and Paradise 3 where farmers and their communities are organized to defend their right to till the land.

The oligarchs’ blood-stained hands

Residents have been suffering harassment and violent attacks, which are obviously perpetrated to drive them away and remove them from the coveted lands. The promise of lucrative real estate and business expansion is behind the oligarchs’ consuming desire to get rid of the farming communities.

The KMP reports that the Aranetas and the Villars hire goons and enlist the support of state forces to sow terror in the communities. The soldiers and goons destroy or even steal the farmers’ crops, leading to a situation where the farmers cover and hide their flowering crops and pretend not to be farming at all.

The KMP notes that direct attacks have been happening since the 1990s and can escalate to killings. In 1999, in what has been dubbed the Tungkong Mangga massacre, four farmers were killed and two others were wounded by the Aranetas’ private goons. In 2015, an elderly farmer activist couple were killed during the time when soldiers from the 48th IBPA were operating in the area. In 2019, another farmer leader was shot dead outside his house. In 2022, Ronnie Manalo was part of a team of farmers and peasant advocates who were fired upon and assaulted in Tungkong Mangga by Aranetas’ goons.

For this likelihood, the KMP was quick to launch a fact-finding mission (FFM) on the illegal search, planting of evidence, and false accusations on Manalo and Rapiz. Participants in the FFM also held dialogues with the local government and presented findings to the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). When Marcelina was presenting her testimony before the CHR, visibly under a lot of stress and anxiety, she had a heart attack and collapsed. Marcelina Manalo was brought to the hospital where she went into a coma and died the next day.

An unrelenting struggle

The government is instrumental in securing the oligarchs’ profit agenda. On the other hand, the Villars, the Aranetas, and the country’s oligarchs are hugely influential in the country’s politics and in building regimes. They have used their economic and political clout in massive, illegal, and often violent land grabbing and relentless attacks on farmers.

But the farmers of SJDM have fought on. They have creatively devised their forms of struggle through their Bungkalan and Bagsakan efforts. Bungkalan is collective and cooperative land cultivation that minimizes production costs, while Bagsakan is direct marketing to consumers that skirts unfair pricing by middle buyers. Harvests are not always plentiful, especially due to constant harassment by the military and the goons, but the farmers have instilled in their communities the importance of attaining food security.

During the pandemic, the farmers of SJDM were crucial in delivering vegetables to the community pantries that were set up by concerned citizens when the Duterte government was defaulting on a decent response to the pandemic. Yet, even that humanitarian act by the farmers was criminalized by the military.

No state is in its right mind when it denies free land distribution to farmers who have made the land productive for decades. A genuine agrarian reform is the farmers and peasants’ unrelenting struggle, to their last breath. It should be one of the Filipino people’s foremost struggles, for it is the foundation of genuine national development. No farmer’s death should ever be senseless.