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Fuel on the Fire: The World Bank’s Complicity in Duterte’s War on Farmers in the Philippines

January 26, 2021
By: Andy Currier
Farmers lead protest against extrajudicial killings in the Philippines
Farmers lead protest against extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, January, 9th 2021. Credit: KMP

On March 17th 2020, 25-year-old peasant advocate and artist Marlon Madlos was riding on the back of a motorcycle in broad daylight in Tagbilaran City, when he was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen.

Two weeks later, while walking home, 66-year-old Nora Apique — known fondly as “Nanay Nora” to the peasant farmer organizations she devoted her life to — was brutally gunned down by two armed men riding a motorcycle outside Bgy. Patong.

On August 10th 2020, Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis, a 72-year-old activist leader instrumental in advocating for policies to protect peasant rights in the Philippines was stabbed over 40 times, killed by a group of assailants in his apartment in Quezon City.

In the predawn hours of December 30th, the Philippine National Police dragged Indigenous Tumandok community leaders from their homes on Panay Island. Nine were lined up before being shot and killed in the street, while another ten were arrested and taken away. Those targeted were Indigenous community leaders who had successfully protected their ancestral land by delaying progress on the Jalaur River Multi-Purpose Project Mega Dam.

These are not random or isolated killings, but targeted assassinations carried out against peasant farmers struggling for a better future. The government’s development strategy prioritizes a “modern” export-oriented commercial agriculture system that directly threatens farmers’ and Indigenous Peoples’ right to land and life. Those who organize and resist are killed or imprisoned with impunity in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines.

A protest against the killing of Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis
Justice for Nora Apique graphic
Justice for Marlon Maldos graphic

Calls for justice and protests following the murders of Marlon Madlos, Nora Apique and Randall Echanis. Credit: KMP

The country’s highly unequal distribution of land has left millions landless, forced to pay high rents for farmland or work for low wages on plantations, trapped in cycles of poverty and food insecurity. In response, farmers and farm workers groups have organized and waged a decades long struggle for genuine land reform. Centered on owning the land they till, the freedom to implement agroecological practices focused on community food sovereignty, and breaking free from the export heavy plantation system, this struggle has been met with repression aimed at silencing dissent.

Since Duterte assumed power in 2016, there have been 311 documented killings of peasants, farmworkers, and fisherfolk related to land dispute cases and agrarian reform advocacy. The 2020 United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights annual report corroborated that “land and environmental rights defenders feature prominently among the documented killings of human rights defenders” and that there is “widespread impunity for such killings” in the Philippines. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic, the targeted assassinations have accelerated, as over 90 of these murders have occurred since quarantine measures were issued in mid March.

Referred to as “red-tagging,” the government falsely labels peasant activists as “terrorists” or “communists,” circulating their names publically on “liquidation-lists” to special military and police units. On July 3rd 2020, Duterte signed the “Anti-Terrorism” Bill into law, granting the government the right to arrest suspected terrorists without warrants and detain them for up to 24 days.

Under the shadow of the pandemic, Duterte’s bloody “war on drugs” has also escalated, with the rate of people killed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency jumping 50 percent during quarantine. In total, an estimated 8,000 and 24,000 people have been killed.

While farmer killings have not generated the same international media coverage as Duterte’s drug war, it remains an escalating situation, closely linked to suppressing the resistance to the government and World Bank’s shared vision for agriculture development in the Philippines.

Major Donors Turn a Blind Eye to Extrajudicial Killings

“While the Bank’s unwavering financial support to Duterte is not unique among donors, its strategic vision for transforming agriculture stands apart, as it remains inextricably linked with the escalating threats to land rights and violence against farmers who continue to struggle for their right to land.”

Instead of condemning these rampant human rights abuses, the World Bank, international financial institutions, and major donor countries have maintained or increased support to the Philippines since Duterte assumed office in 2016.

The United States has maintained its contributions towards “Peace and Security” to the country and is in the process of finalizing a package of military equipment worth an estimated US$1.5 billion. Similarly, Japan and China have maintained foreign assistance levels under Duterte, signing new multiyear development plans largely focused on infrastructure with the government. The large levels of support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have not wavered despite Duterte’s extrajudicial killings. In 2020, the ADB’s lending is expected to set an annual record high at US$3.3 billion, with over half committed to the country’s infrastructure overhaul.

The World Bank has maintained its major presence in the Philippines, praising the Duterte administration’s “sound economic fundamentals.” In the Bank’s latest Doing Business Rankings, the controversial program that ranks countries on the “ease of doing business,” i.e. regulatory changes and reforms that make them more attractive to private investors, the Philippines jumped 29 places up to 95th in 2020, another signal of support to Duterte’s agenda.

By the end of August 2020, the World Bank's active portfolio in the Philippines consisted of 13 operations totaling US$2.5 billion. Of this, 22 percent was committed to “Urban, Resilience and Land” while 14 percent went towards “Agriculture and Food” related projects. While the Bank’s unwavering financial support to Duterte is not unique among donors, its strategic vision for transforming agriculture stands apart, as it remains inextricably linked with the escalating threats to land rights and violence against farmers who continue to struggle for their right to land.

The World Bank’s Vision to Transform Agriculture in the Philippines

“Transforming Philippine Agriculture During COVID and Beyond,” cover
Cover from June 2020 World Bank Publication Transforming Philippine Agriculture During COVID and Beyond. Credit: World Bank

Despite claiming to promote “New Thinking” in Transforming Philippine Agriculture During COVID and Beyond, the World Bank prescribes the same set of pro corporate policies that subjugated farmers in the country during the colonial and structural adjustment periods. The strategy outlines how in response to the pandemic, the Philippines should prioritize farm consolidation, modernization, industrialization, export promotion, and infrastructure development. The Philippines Department of Agriculture, in its proposed budget for 2021, has heeded these priorities from the Bank as it explicitly targets increasing: “export promotion and farm consolidation.”

Three hundred years as a Spanish colony and another half century under US rule highly concentrated land in the hands of several wealthy families and multinational corporations in the Philippines. While a US colony, large agribusiness corporations were granted massive tracts of government land as a part of the export-oriented economy. Following independence in 1946, land remained highly concentrated over the decades that followed, as 10 percent of the population owned 90 percent of the land in the late 1980s. Despite violent repression, tens of thousands of farmers took to the streets in sustained protest efforts until the Aquino government finally conceded and launched the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) in 1988. The CARP had the goal of transferring eight million hectares of land from large estates and corporations to tenant farmers and farmworkers. After several decades of implementation, the government claims that CARP had distributed 4.8 million hectares of land, just over 15 percent of the entire county, to almost 3 million agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) by 2018.

While such numbers may suggest the success of the program, the actual experience of the reform on the ground paints a dramatically different picture, as power imbalances and the absence of much needed support to beneficiaries undermined its effectiveness. Influential landowners were able to leverage their political power to ensure that nearly half of the land allocated was public and did not come from the largest private holdings. When their land was targeted for redistribution, large landowners at times used “fraudulent beneficiaries,” which allowed them to officially transfer the land while retaining control.

For farmers who initially received land, excessive amortization fees and lack of support led to debt, which in turn resulted in the widespread sale or lease of lands back into the hands of the big landlords and foreign agribusiness firms. For example, some 70 percent of the sugar plantation land redistributed on the island of Negros was leased back to its original owners.

While the government and World Bank point to the success of CARP, the June 2020 Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights echoed the criticisms from peasant groups, noting that: “Powerful business and political actors consistently undermine efforts at land distribution and agrarian reform.”

“In practice, this results in pushing out smallholder farmers to enable large-scale commercial agribusiness operations to flourish.”

As a result of the entrenched political power of large landowners, millions of farmers in the Philippines remain landless and tenure insecurity is widespread, with 48 percent of adults feeling insecure about their land rights. Yet, as the best course forward, the World Bank prescribes consolidating land ownership in the hands of “efficient” farmers. In Transforming Philippine Agriculture During COVID and Beyond, the Bank cites “dysfunctional land markets” and a growing population as the drivers of severely fragmented land holdings. To address this “problem” the Bank states that the “consolidation of small and medium farms will enable producers to achieve economies of scale, reduce production costs, and realize higher farm productivity and profitability through more efficient farming.” In practice, this results in pushing out smallholder farmers to enable large-scale commercial agribusiness operations to flourish.

The Bank has recently assumed a larger role in facilitating land reform, approving a US$470 million loan for the Support to Parcelization of Lands for Individual Titling (SPLIT) project in July 2020. Of the titles issued during CARP, approximately 53 percent were granted as individual titles while the remaining 47 percent were issued as collective titles. According to the Bank, the SPLIT project will divide one million hectares currently under collective titles into individual titles and as a result, “strengthen tenure security” for close to one million smallholder farmer beneficiaries.

While the SPLIT project at first appears counterintuitive to the Bank’s goal of consolidating land, breaking down collective titles into individual ones will expedite land transactions and jumpstart “dysfunctional” land markets. By receiving individual titles, farmers will have the “choice” to sell their land and exit agriculture, allowing more land to be transferred to the “efficient” producers. The Bank acknowledges the “risks of beneficiaries selling part of their land to pay-off taxes owed or other debts, rendering the remaining plot unable to sustain their livelihoods.” For the one million farmers who receive an individual title through the project, selling their plot in land markets may be their only option, an outcome which will likely lead to wealthy interests consolidating ownership.

Alongside land consolidation, the Bank’s core prescriptions for transforming the sector includes modernizing and industrializing agriculture while focusing on exports. The plan for modernization involves adopting “modern science-based farming,” which likely includes an increased usage of chemical fertilizers and commercial seeds to support monoculture plantations. The strategy suggests that the wider promotion of exports and fostering “mutually beneficial partnerships with agro-industry” as keys to accelerate industrialization in agriculture.

The Bank’s “Transformation” Threatens Peasant Farmers

Chart: Food Security Development Framework of the Department of Agriculture
Food Security Development Framework of the Department of Agriculture, Philippines cited in the World Bank Document: Transforming Philippine Agriculture During COVID and Beyond.

The path to agriculture “development” that the Bank has laid out and that the government is in varying stages of implementing undermines the needs of peasant farmers and farmworkers in the country and directly threatens their livelihoods.

“This is not the future that peasant farmers and activists in the Philippines are struggling for.”

The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) — Peasant Movement of the Philippines — harshly denounced the Duterte government’s approach to agriculture, which closely mirrors the Bank’s pillars of transformation. In September 2020, KMP warned that the Department of Agriculture’s budget priorities will “further worsen the landlessness of farmers and the social injustices endured by our rural population.” Specifically denouncing the SPLIT program as “highly-divisive” and a “waste of resources,” KMP warned that the project would negatively impact tenure security.

To justify the SPLIT program, the Bank claims: “Without formal proof of individual ownerships, farmers feel insecure about their landholdings,” which as a result, “has prevented the farmers from realizing the full financial potentials” of their land. However, there is no evidence supporting the claim that farmers will be able to use individual titles to gain access to credit. This assumption also ignores the fact that the ability to use land as collateral makes it possible for banks to legally take over the land if farmers experience a difficult harvest year and are unable to pay back their loan or mortgage — a phenomenon all too common amidst today’s climatic realities and a risk that KMP specifically highlights from firsthand experience.

While tenure security is undoubtedly a major issue for Filipino farmers, evidence does not broadly support individual titles as the most effective path to increased security, as overviewed in the Oakland Institute’s report Driving Dispossession. Under the guise of increasing tenure security, the Bank’s SPLIT project looks to grant individual titles in the short term to create a viable land markets. Over time, research shows that this likely will lead to consolidated ownership, as farmers are pushed into debt and left with few options but to sell their land.

This is the exact risk that KMP Project Coordinator Kathryn Manga calls attention to, explaining:

“Our decades of experience struggling prove that farmers granted with a certificate of ownership often lose their claim through loopholes to the laws, to violence, and to deception. SPLIT does not aim to distribute land titles to farmers. Contrary to its name, the program aims to pave the way for the reconcentration of land into the hands of big companies to construct their mega-farms.”

The Bank explicitly acknowledges that the transition to a “modern” agricultural system is geared towards expanding agribusiness at the expense of peasant farmers and farmworkers. In the Bank’s Transforming Philippine Agriculture During COVID and Beyond, Chile is hailed as a model example of a country that followed the same prescriptions on modernization, industrialization, and export promotion the Bank is now prescribing to the Philippines. While Chile’s transformation created a “burst of modernization in production” and boosted exports considerably, the Bank explicitly acknowledged: “there is legitimate concern that smallholders were less able to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the reforms than the larger operators.” While not the primary beneficiaries of these reforms, small farmers and poor rural residents “benefitted” from new opportunities as “wage earners” when rural employment expanded — according to the Bank.

This is not the future that peasant farmers and activists in the Philippines are struggling for.

The Bank’s Complicity in Human Rights Crisis

To defend their right to land and control over their food, farmers and their organizations such as KMP are challenging the types of policies and programs funded by the Bank. In an October 2020 interview, KMP’s National Chairman Danilo Ramos clearly stated: “we are opposing the anti-people projects and programs of the government under the Duterte administration, and also the expansion of plantations devoted to export and mining.”

Under Duterte, the government has shown no hesitation in killing and imprisoning farmers and activists who resist the takeover of their lands or dare to organize and struggle for the right to feed their communities. By remaining silent on these human rights abuses and continuing to grant hundreds of millions of dollars towards agricultural reforms that benefit agribusiness at the expense of peasant farmers, the Bank enables and adds fuel to Duterte’s war on farmers.