Landed interests speculate of higher profits by grabbing properties in San Jose del Monte (SJDM), Bulacan. Its peasants however ensure an unremitting struggle for land, food, and justice.
The pandemic and militarist lockdowns have wreaked havoc on the already fragile livelihoods of the Filipino masses. In response, since 2020, peasant organizations under Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines or KMP) established and/or strengthened campaigns against hunger.
In most places such as Cavite, Cagayan, Isabela, and Panay, this took the form of collective tilling of food crops. In Bicol, it was through a mobile soup kitchen. In SJDM, there is Bagsakan, a mobile farmer’s market.
Bagsakan connects farmers to buyers through online orders or in occasional face-to-face gatherings. It removes the trader’s profit from the process. If all goods are sold, farmers make up to three times their usual earnings. A part of this they dedicate to their organization, Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulacan (Alliance of Peasants in Bulacan or AMB), provincial chapter of KMP.
A huge part of Bagsakan goods come from AMB’s communal farm lots or Bungkalan. Members take turns in taking care of these lots, mostly planted with bananas. Occasionally, a day of collective work is held when members simultaneously toil the land. Participants earn points by contributing work. Gains are then distributed at the end of the year depending on each member’s accumulated work points.
Most of these lands are under dispute as landed interests claim ownership. In this context, Bungkalan and Bagsakan are forms of asserting peasants’ land rights.
All the while, affordable and fresh produce is made available. Bagsakan patrons also include those who hold relief drives, feeding programs, and community pantries. A nurturing cycle is generated.
“We wish we can always or more frequently hold Bagsakan. It’s a huge help,” vegetable farmer Lea Jordan says. At first, Bagsakan mostly relied on volunteers who assisted the farmers in facilitation. AMB has since steadily gained independence.
Land still at the root
However, as in many parts of the country, farmers face an older and more persistent problem than Covid and the lockdown: land grabbing.
Araneta Properties Inc., led by Gregorio “Greggy” Araneta III, threatens to evict at least 350 peasant families from more than 300 hectares of farm and home lots. Belonging to one of the richest clans in the country, Araneta aims to further expand his properties. He has already launched a 294-hectare private subdivision in 2005, in partnership with the dynastic Robes family.
Araneta makes use of the flawed agrarian reform program. In the past decades, he has benefited from the exemption and conversion of agrarian reform lands. The local government seemingly approves. Its city land-use plan envisions that by 2025, up to 3,800 hectares or 72% of SJDM’s total agricultural lands, will have been converted to other uses.
Indeed, SJDM is the site of various transport infrastructure projects under the Build! Build! Build! (BBB) program. Many speculate that land prices in the city will continue to rise as it further urbanizes. This speculation has since spurred a frenzy among the biggest billionaires to grab lands in SJDM.
This includes Ramon Ang of San Miguel Corporation, which holds the P63 billion contract for MRT-7, the biggest BBB project in the area. The real estate magnate Villar is adding new subdivisions to the ones they’ve built in the city as early as the 1990s. Media mogul Lopez has been developing a 120-hectare studio complex since 2011. The Ayalas have a 109-hectare “mixed-used urban community.” Retail giant Sy has also built a 10-hectare mall at the very heart of the city in 2016.
These developments exacerbate the land problem. In Barangay San Roque, up to 96% of peasants are landless.
They put in peril not just those in the affected areas. They also undermine the food security of SJDM and nearby cities where its farmers supply tons of fruits and vegetables.
Land grabbing amid Covid
Landed interests employ a myriad of tactics to evict farmers. Bribery, threats, and scare tactics are common. Worse forms include unauthorized closure of farm-to-market roads and fencing off parcels of land, trumped-up charges, arson, and assassination.
In 2015, a farmer-activist couple was shot dead in Barangay Paradise III. From 2017 to 2019, a unit of the Philippine Army encamped in Barangay Tungkong Mangga. Three village organizations fragmented due to their harassment and bribery operations.
With much perseverance, AMB has recovered these past years. Unperturbed by Covid, land grabbers and armed elements continue to pester farmers.
Just a few weeks into the lockdown last April 2020, a relief delivery team heading for communities in nearby Norzagaray were illegally arrested.
The year after, farmer leader Rommy Torres of Barangay San Mateo was shot dead by paramilitary and private guards. His remains were stuffed in a drum, cemented, and thrown on a ditch in Laguna. His body was found last February 6, 2021, three days after he was first reported missing. Torres was among the most staunch in asserting their rights to a 75.5-hectare agricultural land.
An adjacent Villar-owned cemetery is however set to expand over the area. In 2018, Royal Moluccan Realty Holding Inc. hired goons that destroyed AMB’s Bungkalan inside and fenced it off. In January 2021, they filed theft charges against farmers who harvested crops inside the disputed land. Royal Moluccan now exhorts the farmers to give up their land rights, in exchange for them dropping the charges.
The charges themselves are flimsy but the mental and financial burden of facing a case in court can sometimes be too heavy to bear. In Barangay Kaybanban in SJDM, farmers were charged with cyber libel after AMB posted online that goons attempted to hold an unauthorized survey of their land. “Araneta hates it when we let the truth out. They are just trying to intimidate us,” accused Tyrone Saguid says. The charges were later dismissed by the court.
AMB Chairperson Cecil Rapiz faces periodic “visits” from armed men. They goad her to avert from KMP and instead “work with the government” – a common euphemism used to fake a rebel surrender.
AMB has worked with government agencies. It always tries to hold dialogues with the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and local government units. But landed interests seem to be beyond the government.
In a dialogue last October 6, 2021, regarding arbitrarily closed roads in Barangay Tungkong Mangga, the local chief expressed despair over Greggy Araneta and his ilk’s disrespect of the law. “Even the municipal or national government might have problems reining in Araneta; these jerks have their own laws!”
Greggy Araneta is also the brother-in-law of presidentiable Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.
Indeed, in November 2021, Araneta-hired guards illegally demolished several huts in the same barangay.
Last December 7, 2021, DAR, as requested by AMB, sent a team to Barangay San Roque for an ocular inspection. Araneta’s guards barred the team’s entry, and the inspection was postponed indefinitely.
Despite all this, the farmers stand committed. “As long as we remain on and work the land, we are victorious,” Saguid says.
AMB has brought back its regular meetings, tightening the peasants’ unity and resolve. Standing their ground in the face of continued harassment by armed guards and wily agents, AMB has molded new leaders who inspire courage among fellow farmers.
Bagsakan has trained them in managing the direct sale of their products, at just prices. It has also reaffirmed for many how collective effort can provide tangible economic relief. AMB’s recent fund-raising efforts have also provided them with hand tools, grass cutters, and an irrigation pump. And currently, AMB member organizations are trying to expand their communal Bungkalan sites.
Steadily too, a new generation of younger leaders is emerging.
The farmers recognize that only their decades of collective struggle have allowed them to defy displacement, continue working the land, and feed and grow their families and communities. “This land and our struggle to defend it are the legacies we hand over to our youth,” Rapiz says. #
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article is that of the author only and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization nor of the CPDG.