On the Frontlines of Duterte's War on Filipino Farmers
“Let the farmers till, give them their legitimate and democratic rights, support rural development; that’s what they’ve been wanting. Build irrigation facilities, do away with intensive chemical farming, build sustainable farms, provide financial support to farmers and not loans that will bury them in debt. Supporting them will eventually support the whole country. 75 percent of this country’s population are farmers, so supporting that 75 percent of the population who are in agriculture will feed this whole country. So I do not know how KMP is linked as a terrorist organization when that is the goal of the organization, to fight for the people’s democratic and legitimate rights.”
Kathryn Manga, Project Coordinator, KMP
Andy Currier (AC): Hello and welcome back to the Oakland Institute podcast. I am Andy Currier and I’ll be your host for today’s episode as we take an inside look at the Filipino government’s war on farmers. Since Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, there have been 311 documented killings of peasants, farmworkers, and fisherfolk related to land dispute cases and advocacy for agrarian reform. These are not random or isolated killings, but targeted assassinations carried out against peasant farmers struggling for a better future
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.
Today I’m very grateful to be joined by a member of KMP - a democratic mass organization of Filipino peasants primarily struggling for genuine land reform, social justice, and genuine social change. It is composed of landless peasants, farmworkers, peasant women, youth, and millions of rural poor in the countryside.
With more than two million members throughout the country, KMP remains unwavering in leading peasants, farm workers, and the rural people in defending their life and lands.
Kathryn Manga (KM): My name is Kathryn Manga and I am the Project Coordinator for Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), or the Peasant Movement of the Philippines. I’ve been working with KMP for three years now, so still very new. I’m new staff with KMP considering that some of the staff are already 35 years or 25 years with KMP.
AC: Thank you again for joining us today, let’s get right into the questions. Since taking power Duterte has waged a brutal war on farmers. Can you describe the current situation facing farmers in the Philippines?
KM: The pandemic has laid bare the problematic system in the Philippines right now. So before the pandemic, Philippine farmers had already been facing landlessness, land grabbing, harassments, and different human rights violations. Amid the pandemic they were faced with difficulty transporting their goods. They were faced with land grabbing because farmers are not able to go to their farms so the landlords and corporations were able to fence their farms. And right now, still amid the pandemic, they are facing a lot of problems like the new programs being implemented by the government as, they say as their answers to the problem of the pandemic.
Three fourths of the Philippine population is composed of farmers. Most of these are landless farmers and without land, working in farms as agricultural workers or helpers, is not sufficient for their daily needs. So that is what they are faced with right now.
AC: So for farmers and activists who are trying to address this problem of not having their needs met, how has the government responded?
KM: We have recorded 311 killings of farmers in the Philippines. The latest is the Tumandok Massacre. Tumandoks are the indigenous people of Panay in the Visayas region. This happened last December . So the synchronized police and military operations, led by the Philippine National Police in the Region 6, they are ongoing operations in the Tumandok areas in Panay. They were deployed there in 2018 and they have been responsible for the series of killings of farmers and hacienda workers. KMP’s local chapter in Panay, Pamanggas, have reported that witnesses say that soldiers and the policemen forcibly entered into the homes of the victims at daybreak, and then ordered the members of the families to get out of their houses, and then they were fired upon. Some of the relatives of the victims said that some of their loved ones, the victims, were even tortured they were killed.
The Tumandok is an organization or a tribe resisting the construction of the Jalaur River Multi-Purpose Project. It is already in stage two and it is located in Iloilo is the Visayas region. In the past, the Tumandoks were being forced to accept 50,000 pesos [~US$1,040] per hectare for the farmers’ IP’s holding their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title, and a lesser amount for those without the title. They have been constantly threatened with the construction of the Mega Dam, I think it’s an 11-billion mega dam (estimated cost PHP11.2 billion ≈ US$233 million), and the persistent resistance of the Tumandok has delayed several years of construction.
So the latest massacre that happened in December was that incident, and right now we have counted 311 farmers killed under the Duterte administration.
AC: That is obviously a terrible statistic that unfortunately I don’t think the international community has recognized sufficiently. So in the Philippines, how does the government justify this kind of violence against its own people, especially its own farmers?
KM: So, tagging an individual or an organization and “Red” is tagging him as a communist. In the Philippines, the government has long wanted to put the CPP, or the Communist Party of the Philippines, on the terrorist list and just this December, I think December 9, the Anti-Terrorism Council has designated the CPP as a terrorist organization. They have a document that’s been approved that states that there is a probable cause that CPP-NPA (New People’s Army) committed acts defined as terrorism under the Anti-Terrorism Act, and should be tagged as terrorists. So what happens when you get tagged as a communist-terrorist? They use that term now, a communist-terrorist. You are targeted to be killed, you become part of their “liquidation list.” This was the case of Zara Alvarez, a human rights activist and health worker. This was the case of attorney Ben Ramos, a People’s Lawyer from Negros. This was the case of Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan, the head of the City Inter-Agency Task Force Against Emerging Infectious Diseases.
This last quarter of 2020 they intensified red-tagging, and in KMP we think that one of the internal motives is an electoral motive for the military. They have been trying to destroy the People’s Party lists who are members of the Congress, who are members of the Parliamentary, because next year is already an election and they are trying to destroy every representative on these party lists, we call it the Makabayan bloc, to not let them run for elections. So without them in the Congress, the people’s policies, pro-people policies, people-centered policies will not be passed, will not even be considered to be written or be passed. So we think this is the internal objective of this red-tagging.
Well just to add, they’re saying that the armed rebellion in the countryside is the root of poverty, which totally dismisses the fact that the five decades of war in the countryside have been brought about by landlessness and unequal control of resources. What KMP has been saying is that if you want this war to end, let the farmers till, give them their legitimate and democratic right, support rural development; that’s what they’ve been wanting. Build irrigation facilities, do away with intensive chemical farming, build sustainable farms, provide financial support to farmers and not loans that will bury them in debt. Supporting them will eventually support the whole country. 75 percent of this country’s population are farmers, so supporting that 75 percent of the population who are in agriculture will feed this whole country. So I do not know how KMP is linked as a terrorist organization when that is the goal of the organization – to fight for the people’s democratic and legitimate rights.
AC: As an organization on the front lines of this struggle, KMP has been specifically targeted by the government. What happened to KMP’s Deputy Secretary-General Randall Echanis?
KM: Today, January 10th, marks the fifth month of Randy’s death, “Ka Randy” as we called him. “Ka” in the Philippines is short for “kasama” or “comrade”. It’s also our way of respecting our elder activists, so we called him Ka Randy. Today marks the fifth month of Ka Randy’s brutal murder.
So in the early morning of August tenth, more than five men, the witnesses say that they saw more than five men, put a ladder in front of Ka Randy’s building where he was renting an apartment and then went to his room, and then broke into his apartment. A lot of witnesses said that they heard muffled screams, eventually Ka Randy was found lifeless with 40 stab wounds. He had two gunshot wounds in the head, so for us, we thought if he was shot he might have died immediately. But that was not the case with the autopsy. The autopsy showed that he was tortured, and what we thought were gunshot wounds were not: they were sharp objects that were stabbed in his skull. And aside from that there were lots of bruises and wounds in his body. He was tied, hogtied. Yeah, so 40 stab wounds. After that, the police reported his body under another name so we could not claim him. We had to go after the body in the funeral parlor. And then when it was released after more than 24 hours, we were already getting ready for the wake, but his body was snatched from where the wake was supposed to be. They got the body and then returned it to the funeral parlor because they said it has not been closed, they are not sure the body is that of Randall Echanis. The thing is, the wife already identified the body and his colleagues and his friends already identified his body and the lawyer already identified his body, but they would not release the body of Randall Echanis. So eventually it was released after three days, so that was the only time when the family and his colleagues and his friends were able to mourn in a wake for him.
AC: That’s obviously terrible and pretty shocking to hear. I’ve seen also that his daughter and young grandson have also been targeted in the aftermath of his death?
KM: Amanda is Ka Randy’s youngest daughter. Amanda is an organizer for the women’s organization AMIHAN, and AMIHAN has a chapter in Cagayan Valley that’s north of the Philippines. So Amanda’s been an organizer there for a long time now, and at that time when she was illegally arrested, she just gave birth, actually when she was arrested it was a 21-day old child, so not yet one month, still with the mother, still nursing. When Amanda’s hut, or Amanda’s house in the province was raided, guns and explosives were planted inside the house. In fact she has a video while it was happening and she was saying in the video that, “these are not mine, this bag is not mine, I don’t have this kind of bag”. So anyway, after that Amanda and her month-old child were taken under the custody of the police and until now she is detained.
AC: So from what I’ve seen what’s happened to the Echanis Family is not an isolated event and what you’ve been describing appears to just be a targeted campaign led by the government against peasant farmers for their activism. I think for listeners not as familiar with the situation, understanding the history of land ownership in the Philippines is vital to understanding what KMP is struggling for. Could you explain how land came be so unequally distributed?
KM: Ok, the Philippines has a very long history of colonization. It was colonized by Spain for 300 years, and then came the Americans who controlled its government, its education, and its culture eventually. So even before the Americans, the Spanish colonization has already made inequalities with the distribution of land. The hacienda system in the Philippines, where there are still a lot of haciendas up to now, are doing monocrop production, the big corporations controlling the land in Mindanao are also there. So the unequal distribution of land in the Philippines started under that and then eventually, with the different policies of the governments and administrations that came after, it has continued this unequal distribution.
In 1988, the CARP Law, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, was signed into law, but with the CARP not being able to distribute the targeted land area for the farmers, it continued and from 2009 to 2014 extended with the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Extension Program. And even until now it has not succeeded in distributing the targeted land for the farmers. When it was closed in 2014, data showed that 76 percent of the beneficiaries were unable to amortize the land, and so what that means is the lands were taken from them, so it was not really distributed to them.
AC: That’s interesting, I think it's the government statistic that I've seen said that 15 percent of the country was redistributed to almost three million agrarian reform beneficiaries. So what you're saying is these beneficiaries weren't able to hold onto their land and ended up losing it after the fact?
KM: Yes, that’s correct. What happens is most of them, for example in the haciendas, there is a system called “arriendo.” In the arriendo system, real estate agents would sweet talk farmers’ organizations and the Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) holders into, well they are forced into entering arriendos, or lease-lease back deals with corporations. Under this arrangement the farmer beneficiaries will lose control of the land and essentially become farmhands, receiving small wages and shares, they call it shares. And worse, land, under this arriendo system or scheme, is mostly used for production of export crops – which is unnecessary for their food security.
AC: That’s a very helpful summary of the history of land consolidation in the Philippines to understand how landlessness has become such a widespread issue today. Now turning to the present day, do you feel the government’s priorities on agriculture meet the needs of farmers?
KM: Well right now, the government is implementing different projects like the “Plant, Plant, Plant (PPP)” project, programs that pave way for more land grabbing in the countryside. So they have the “Plant, Plant, Plant” and they have the “Build, Build, Build (BBB)”, [laughs] they use terms that need to be repeated thrice I think. So these programs are implemented mostly for the international market. As for the BBB, it has been paving way for lots of grabbing and lots of destruction in the farmlands of the farmers in the regions. The BBB is one of the biggest projects of the Duterte government in partnership with China. The Department of Agriculture (DA) is calling for farm consolidation, and they have said that, “you have to come together and be an organization so that we can help you as an organization and not as individuals,” and that it will be easier for the government to give you support, that’s what they said.
This is the Department of Agriculture, while the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is calling for a split. The World Bank funded a program of SPLIT (Support for Parcelization of Lands for Individual Titling) where they are calling for collective CLOAS, collective land titles to be transferred into individual names. So these two government agencies, both in the agricultural sector, are calling for two different things. Right now, their budget has been approved already, and we think that the reason why the Department of Agrarian Reform is so into this SPLIT project is that this is triple the budget that has been approved for them. So it’s more money and more funds for them, but it does not answer the needs of the farmers in the countryside.
AC: I’m glad you mentioned the World Bank’s SPLIT project. A little more background on that, so recently the bank assumed a larger role in facilitating land reform in the Philippines, approving a US$470 million loan for the Support for Parcelization of Lands for Individual Titling, known as SPLIT, in July of 2020. According to the World 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.
So will this project help improve land tenure security for farmers, and what are your thoughts on whether these collective titles are the failure that the World Bank claims that they are?
KM: I think that the SPLIT of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) will only aggravate landlessness in the countryside. It will enhance the disposability of CLOAS as a negotiating tool in the market or as collaterals for loans that would later lead to the cancellation of these CLOAS when they are not able to pay anymore, and eventually it will for close the government awarded lands. KMP thinks that 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 for their mega farms. That’s one of the programs of the government right now, the mega farms. Our decades of experience of struggle prove that farmers granted with a Certificate of Land Ownership award often lose their claim through the loopholes of the law, through violence, through deception. These anomalous schemes of land reconcentration are very prevalent. And the mega farms and the food security program of the Department of Agriculture, I was not able to mention that earlier, but these are the current programs of the Department of Agriculture. The mega farms and the food security program are also, we think, set to aggravate hunger. It aims to corporatize farmers who own small parcels of land to engage in special production of high value crops in 50 hectare mega farms, which is really then actually to the governments aim to make farmers transition from planting to cash crops, especially the rice farmers who went bankrupt due to the recent rice import liberalization, or the rice liberalization law that was enacted recently. So no, this will not help improve the security of land for the farmers.
AC: And so what does genuine agriculture reform look like KMP? How can farmers gain secure access to land?
KM: For KMP, genuine agrarian reform starts with free land distribution and supporting rural development: building irrigation, supporting sustainable agriculture, letting the farmers decide what kind of crops they would want to plant. In KMP’s 35 years of experience, accessing land can only be done if the farmers have a strong organization to position themselves in the land, to till it according to their will and with all the productive resources in their control. Our experience has taught us that it takes a movement to create such substantial change.
We need the help of the young people, the women, the workers to make this happen so whatever threat is thrown on the farmers, they will not waver. To secure land, of course, it would need a program that will help them nourish that land. And to secure that, as of the moment, it would take a whole movement to do that, because admittedly the kind of government right now will not permit it to happen.
AC: Now towards this goal, what are some of KMP’s priorities as we enter 2021?
KM: The commemoration of the Mendiola Massacre, which is now on its 34th year since it happened in 1988, will be the kick off of KMP’s yearlong campaign. It will be this January 22, and we are calling for a big mobilization of farmers from the different regions. Aside from that, our main campaign is still the passing of the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill (GARB) in the Congress. Another one is the anti-privatization of the Coco Levy Fund of the coconut farmers. We also, of course, have our campaign against the killings, so our campaign for Stop Killing Farmers is still there. And we are building on this campaign against the World Bank’s SPLIT program. Right now, we are continuing with the campaign for the cash aid for the farmer families. Since the pandemic started, it has still not been released. We do not see any intention from the government that it will release such aid for the farmers, but it is very much needed. The only thing that I think we got from the government is some seeds which have been distributed to the area, but you have to request that still, they do not give it on their own. We have the yearlong campaign for the National People’s Food Systems Summit, which is our answer to the UN Food Systems Summit this 2021. So what we are doing is we have built up activities like sectoral workshops on cash crops, on mining, on land grabbing. The intention is to gather solutions from those sectoral workshops and then bring them to the national summit this coming September or October, whenever the UN summit is going to be held, so we are going to hold our national summit may be a month before that. Another objective of that is to push the advocacy for agroecology in the Philippines, for sustainable farming. It is also connected with our campaign against highly hazardous pesticides. So yeah, we have a lot of things to do this year and actually they are just a continuation of what we’ve been doing in the past.
AC: Well that's quite a bit on your plate for this year. It is very encouraging to hear an alternative to the UN Food Systems Summit be developed already; this is a summit that the Oakland Institute and hundreds of civil society organizations have been very critical of. As it has been taking shape, given its leadership and corporate ties it is obvious that it does not intend to trigger the deep systemic changes necessary to address the massive challenges that we face. Instead it’s looking to do more of the same green and poor-washing to preserve and perpetuate interests of agribusiness and agrochemical corporations at the expense of people and the planet. So hearing KMP being involved in organizing an alternative summit that really puts forward agroecological solutions endorsed by farmers is very encouraging.
So besides following KMP on social media, and we’ll provide some links to the accounts in the episode description, how can listeners outside the country lend support to the farmers’ movement in the Philippines?
KM: Actually, I’ve listed down three things that you can do to support us. One is you can organize online forums, discussions about the plight of the Filipino peasants and farmers and invite our leaders to speak, invite our leaders to talk about the inequality, the human rights abuses that have been happening in our country because talking about it will mean that we are not alone in what is happening in our country, and we know that with more people knowing about what is happening it means that more people are looking for answers and solutions. And the second one is that you can write appeal letters to the UN on the human rights situations in the Philippines, particularly the series of killings among farmers who’ve been struggling for their land and for their lives. The third one is we need volunteers for our online work, so if you are campaigners, if you are visual artists, if you are web developers, we still need help in this arena, it is our Waterloo, it’s where we are still weak. So to amplify our campaign for our farmers, this is something that you can do for us.
AC: Great, well thank you so much again for taking the time, I know how valuable your time is and it’s late on Sunday night so I want to let you go.
KM: Thank you Oakland Institute, thank you Andy for doing this for us. Thank you everyone for listening and I hope that this talk has opened windows for the Filipino farmers, has opened possible support for them. And we hope to have more of this in the future, not just about Filipino farmers but farmers as a whole and Asian farmers.
AC: Thank you again Manga for taking the time today. Again, for readers interested in keeping up with KMP, links to social media will be provided in the episode description. You can also go to peasantmovementph.com for their website. Until next time.
Special thanks to intern scholar Noah Linde for transcribing the interview.