Defend Negros, #TanggolMagsasaka and National Peasant Month in the Philippines
The conversations, including defend Negros farmers, that need to take place well beyond October
With intensifying frustrations toward so-called public servants in government (whether it’s over Manila’s transportation crisis or the administration’s unassertive demeanor when West Philippine Sea disputes become the subject), it is inevitable that other pressing issues wind up on the back burner.
But some of these issues, no matter how quickly they’re cast aside, find their way back to the headlines just as fast, becoming near-impossible to ignore and proving the need for national attention.
Along with President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs (the cornerstone of his administration and the one recurrent hot topic three years in), it appears there’s a new item on the docket: his war on Filipino farmers.
To date, 228 farmworkers have been killed largely on the grounds of red-tagging by members of the military themselves, who in turn, shoot the accused at point-blank range…in some cases, execution-style. Without evidence presented, a chance at a fair trial for defendants or due diligence on the end of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the lives of civilians, environmentalists and the activists who defend them continue to be claimed. But how did the Philippines get here? What is the link between labor rights and the New People’s Army (NPA)? How did the Filipino farmer become the face of National Peasant Month? A lot of conversations need to take place in order to unravel the centuries-long struggle of the Filipino farmer, but here’s a start:
Recap of the Latest: The Call to Defend Negros
Negros, in particular, has suffered the brunt of the government’s state-sanctioned attacks. Between his election in 2016 and his declaration of a “state of lawlessness” over Negros in November 2018, 42 civilians in the province have been murdered.
The declaration, which came by way of an anti-insurgency policy called Memorandum Order 32, has led to a spike in such atrocities. And in the eight months since its implementation, the body count has more than doubled to 87, indicating an almost 350% increase in the rate of killings.
Back to the Beginning: Why We Need to Talk about Feudalism
Think feudalism doesn’t fit in the current framework of the Philippines? Think again. Medieval times would suggest that society is comprised of the landlord classes and the peasants. The former co-owns large parcels of land, while the latter serves as the forces used in production within them. The old-timey modes of exploitation that come with this kind of economy still exist today and are the root of the problems that have resulted in the string of murders in Central Visayas.
During the Spanish occupation, the institutionalization of feudalism was introduced through encomiendas: parcels of land under the government of friars, religious orders in the Spanish period or armed military officials. Something as vast as five barangay-sized parcels of land would go to a single religious group.
The only relationship these elites had with their Filipino peasants revolved around taxes, tributes and the landlord owning rights to the output of these farmers. When the province of Iloilo, a key area for exportation, was opened up by the Spaniards to world trade in the 19th century, the encomienda system gave way to the hacienda system, which took root and thrived.
In the aftermath, farmers experienced oppression and exploitation. Plenty ended up being displaced.
New Colonizers, Old Tricks: The Americans and the Semi-Feudal Economy
While the Americans can take credit for introducing their brand of democracy through benevolent assimilation, they are also responsible for maintaining a semi-feudal economy in the Philippines––rooted in the need to meet the demands of an imperialist system (read: where one capitalist country demands cheap raw materials and cheap labor in order for them to stay in business and in power).
But What Does Semi-Feudalism Look Like in 2019?
Farmers receive little to no benefits given the scope of their work, essentially mirroring modern-day slavery. Today, large lands are still owned by only a few families or companies, some of which have made running for office part of the family business. This ensures that they can keep creating policies that protect their claim to their land and, by extension, their personal interests. In Negros, for example, 60% of the land is under private control.
In 2017, Philippine Collegian published a series of infographics displaying the country’s biggest landholdings and haciendas. “Despite a decades-long struggle and assertion of rights over the lands they till, peasants are still being pushed further into the margins of society,” the group said. “These parcels of land should have already been distributed fairly to farmers if not for the loopholes of agrarian reform laws crafted by landed lawmakers themselves.”
Expectations: A Government That’s Anti-Poverty. Reality: A Government That’s Anti-Poor.
Planting a diverse set of crops is forbidden within the current hacienda system, so farmers are limited to producing just a single type of crop all year round––though the option to diversify is available. In addition, these workers earn anywhere between ₱100 and ₱340 for a full day of working in the field (hacienderos often disregard the Wage Regulatory Board’s standard wage of ₱295 a day) and only during the active months in the year. They are essentially rendered jobless during tiempo muerto: dead season at the start of the year and offseason after September.
Farmers with a single job, assigned to a single crop, have to abide by this unsustainable working calendar and yet, must find a way to feed themselves and their families.
The system is broken and injustices abound. So how can you help Filipino farmers and make sure your efforts truly count? For one, you can start buying directly from Benguet farmers through Session Groceries here or the other farm-to-doorstep store BukidFresh (their shoppable website goes live on October 21).
On October 20, meanwhile, you can head to Quezon Memorial Circle for BAGSAKAN: Stand With Farmers. The concert event will highlight live performances, a farmers’ market, a skate competition, live art and local merch.
Art Alexandra Lara