Fighting for land

The Lubao farmers with me and my UPEACE classmates (photo courtesy of Prof. Vene Rallonza)

published 13 June 2012

There was a big bilao of pancit palabok, the spicy kind. Also on the table were pichy-pichy, nilupak, suman, puto, kutsinta and some instant coffee. On a makeshift stove on the ground, guinataang halo halo was bubbling away inside a big pot. As one of only four Filipinos in our group, I described each kind of food to my classmates—foreign UPEACE students—in Gender, Human Rights and Globalization.

We did not crash a fiesta. It was, instead, a gathering of farmers in a village in Lubao, Pampanga eager to share with us the story of their long fight to claim the land they were tilling.

These days when the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program is mentioned, what comes to mind is Hacienda Luisita, the property owned by the President’s family in Tarlac. The case has only been recently resolved by the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, it was also dragged in the impeachment case against the former chief justice. This I think is a disservice to the real stakeholders, the farmers, whose only concern is for social justice to be delivered to them—regardless of the political wrangling in Manila.

But make no mistake. The Luisita farmers are not the only ones struggling with poverty and injustice. All around the country, landowners and other wealthy and influential persons, of whatever political color, continue to exploit farmers and muzzle their efforts to obtain justice for themselves.

The late 1980s to the early 1990s were, for instance, the most challenging years for the group of men (AMA or Alyansa ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura) and women (KABAPA or Katipunan ng Bagong Pilipina) in that Lubao village. They originally claimed 300 hectares of land in the villages of Lourdes, San Isidro and San Rafael.

Ka Elvira Padrequilan talked about the intimidation they suffered from the Pinedas of Lubao, known allies of the family of former President Gloria Arroyo, who wanted to evict them from the land they had been living on for generations.

They were slapped with trumped-up charges of arson, theft, robbery or arrested for no reason at all. The woman cooking the guinataan that morning—I was not able to get her name—said she was taken to the municipal jail for “questioning” and then detained for two weeks without charges.

My classmates and I were impressed at the organizational skills of the farmers. They were simple folk, yet they were able to apply principles of human resources management. They were able to inspire and help each other achieve their common goals. They also tried to resolve any infighting and conflict of interest among themselves.

They were eloquent and related well with the other groups: farmers with similar problems, the media, government officials, non-government organizations.

They said they pursued their objectives within the legal system. They were at all times conscious of the consequences of their actions and ensured everything was documented for future reference. After all they had been through, they still believed in the rule of law—even as its agents had often failed them.

They fought their oppressors in ways brilliant in their simplicity. For example, when a tractor came to destroy their crops, the women lined up and linked arms in protest. A woman took off her top as she was being arrested on trumped-up charges. Under threat by armed men, women formed the first line of defense— with the men standing right behind them.

Finally, the fight was not free from moral ambiguities. There were realities to contend with. Some of their companions, out of material need, renounced their rights for money. The farmers also had to raise money to pay good lawyers even if this meant resorting to loans they would be burdened with for years. They also shelled out cash for fares, food and other expenses, competing with their domestic needs. At times, they encountered agrarian reform workers who demanded money to ensure that their case progressed, however slowly.

The struggle had to be mounted alongside the daily concerns of putting food on the table, caring for the children and sending them to school.

On that Saturday morning, the farmers told us it appears as though the desired ending is at hand. A decision has been made by the court in their favor— but they have yet to see the paperwork. In this country, you cannot be too confident until you have a document on your hands.

Even then, challenges remain. How can the farmers be sure their opponents will be willing to let go of the property just because the court said so? How shall transition be effected? What are the challenges facing the next generation of farmers?

These concerns are not specific to the Lubao folk. They apply to other agricultural workers all over the country. Let’s hope change does come, although in trickles, and that it is felt not only along the corridors of power in Manila but most importantly on the narrow, muddy, unpaved streets in the provinces.