The gargantuan task of feeding a nation typically falls on the Filipino farmers’ weary shoulders—but for a people who receive only a little recognition, if any at all, the burden may be too great in exchange. The everyday farmer endures back-breaking work under harsh conditions, and must contend with numerous challenges, principal of which is the lack of land ownership.
In an effort to uphold the fundamental right of every Filipino farmer to land ownership, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was enacted under the presidency of Cory Aquino, which became a beacon of hope that held much promise for the future of the Filipino farmer.
However, what was supposed to be a path to an equitable distribution of land for farmers would devolve into a decades-long struggle for farmers’ rights—one marred by politics, corporate greed, and bloodshed.
Agriculture and farming have always gone hand-in-hand with the concept of land, and one would be forgiven to assume that most, if not all, farmers owned the land they grow crops on. “‘Yung pagsasaka ay dikit doon sa pagkakaroon ng lupa—hindi ka pwedeng magsaka ng wala kang sariling lupa, ‘di ba?” reasons Miguel Novero, a policy advocacy officer for Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (PAKISAMA), a farmers’ rights organization.
(Farming is inseparable from land ownership—you can’t farm if you don’t have your own land, right?)
However, even to this day, many Filipino farmers still do not own the land they till. “‘Yung pundamental na problema pa rin ng mayorya ng ating mga magsasaka sa ating bansa [ay] ‘yung kawalan ng lupa o kakulangan ng lupa,” explains Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano, Chairman Emeritus of Kilusang Mambubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and former cabinet secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform.
(The fundamental problem of the majority of our farmers in the country is the loss of land, or lack of land.)
This means that farmers are rarely able to use the land they meticulously care for on their own terms—in exchange for use of their land, farmers often have to pay the landlords a fixed monthly amortization amount, further reducing their already meager incomes.
Agrarian reform was created as a viable solution to this issue, aiming to redistribute land at no cost to farmers. Only after continued pressure from the public did the government make a move, most notable—and infamous—of which was CARP launched in 1988 under the presidency of Corazon Aquino.
However, due to landlord exploitation of various loopholes in the program and sluggish government implementation, the program has failed to deliver on its promises, with many farmers today still left landless, resigned to a life of hardship.
Stifled at gunpoint
This fundamental problem dates back more than centuries in the past and has become the source of many related problems, including the endless wave of violence against farmers. “Sa tagal [na] ng panahon na walang lupa ‘yung magsasaka, ‘yung complexity ng problema, nagsanga-sanga na. Kaya ‘yun ‘yung dinaranas sa amin ngayon ng mga magsasaka.” Novero conveys.
(For the longest time that farmers have been landless, the problem has only grown in complexity. That’s why this is what farmers are experiencing right now.)
With the odds increasingly stacked against them, the cries of our landless and impoverished farmers are stifled at gunpoint. Every step taken in conviction of their rights further sentences them to the inevitability of political imprisonment or a martyred death. Farmers organizing and advocating for land rights are subjected to relentless red-tagging. Now, with the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, Novero expresses, “Dahil ‘yung mga oppressor ay nasa poder ng gobyerno at may political power, madali kaming i-brand as terorista, madali kaming dahasin, madali kaming ikulong.” Mariano shares this frustration, lamenting, “Pagiging terorista ba ‘yung mga lehitimo at makatwirang panawagan?”
(Because the oppressors are favored by the government and have political power, we are easily branded as terrorists, violated, and imprisoned.)
(Do legitimate and rational calls for action make us terrorists?)
While red-tagging has led to illegal arrests of farmers, violence from landowners only aggravates the danger. Novero recounts the murder of PAKISAMA farmer-leader Ka Rene Peñas, who led the 2007 march of Sumilao farmers from Bukidnon to Manila to reclaim their land. Further citing the Mendiola, Luisita, and Sagay massacres, Novero points out the bloodthirsty common denominator: “‘Yung mga landlords, hindi nila kayang bitawan o hindi nila gustong bitawan ‘yung lupa. Dina-daan nila sa karahasan at minsang pinapatay [ang mga magsasaka].”
(The landlords refuse to let go of these lands. They resort to violence and sometimes kill farmers.)
Changing the status quo
For landless farmers, being able to till on their own land means breaking free of a seemingly endless cycle of hardship. “Hindi dapat ganun ‘yung problema. Dapat, bilang magsasaka, ang sinasaka nila ‘yung lupa na sa kanila, para hindi sila natatali doon sa landlord,” Novero declares.
(This shouldn’t be the case. As farmers, the land they farm on should be their own, so that they do not become indebted to landlords.)
Initially filed in 2007, the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill aims for free redistribution of all agricultural lands to its farmer-beneficiaries, while prohibiting non-land transfer schemes and land-use conversions—existing lapses under CARP—which prevent full emancipation of the land for the farmers. The bill was set aside by the Congress to instead pass the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extensions with Reforms, an extension to the CARP law. In spite of the existing agrarian programs, Novero asserts that as long as farmers face the threat of death over land disputes, the promise of agrarian reform is yet to be fulfilled.
Amid the overwhelming transfixation of the government on economic development, Mariano remarks that true progress must not leave behind our farmers, the country’s primary productive force. “Kung wawasakin, pahihinain, dudurugin ‘yung ating pangunahing productive forces sa kanayunan, anong magiging salalayan ng tunay na pag-unlad?”
(If the primary productive forces of the countryside were weakened and crushed, what would genuine development be built upon?)
The call for genuine agrarian reform is not a closed-door movement. The public needs to realize that the food they’re provided with comes from the enduring peasant struggle. Novero attests, “Ito ay produkto ‘nung blood, sweat, and tears ‘nung mga magsasaka, at kasama na doon ‘yung pakikibaka nila doon sa lupa.” Championing land for the tillers means breaking the oppressive status quo for genuine development that’s inclusive for all Filipinos.
(This is a product of their blood, sweat, and tears, including their fight for land ownership.)