Last June, the unions in Hacienda Luisita declared they will encourage and undertake systematic cultivation of portions of idle land in the plantation to produce food crops and stave off hunger during the rainy season. The “bungkalan” (cultivation) immediately became a big hit among hacienda workers’ families, enabling them to buy food and simple household needs.
By Abner Bolos
TARLAC CITY – Aside from the decision of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to revoke the stock distribution option, farm workers of Hacienda Luisita in this city (about 120 kms north of Manila) have one other thing to be cheer about: They are slowly reaping the benefits of cultivating idle land in the plantation.
Virgilio Pascua, 45, a farm worker and union member, started clearing a small plot near his home in Barangay (village) Mapalacsiao when the rainy season started last May. Although he owns P15,000 worth of stock shares in Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) there is no way for him to convert his shares to cash and his family had suffered much because of the prolonged labor dispute.
Last week of September, he harvested some 25 cavans of rice worth more than P12,000 from a 1/2 hectare plot he was able to make productive. A low yield by current farm standards, but for a worker who has been out of work since the strike began 11 months ago, the harvest is a welcome respite.
Since July, Pascua has also been earning some P500 a week from his harvest of eggplants, string beans and ampalaya (bitter gourd) and other vegetables, aside from the rice harvest. He is among scores of striking workers who dared till a part of the 6,000-hectare sugar plantation owned by the family of former president Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino.
“Working the land is much better than being paid very low wages,” Pascua said in an interview. “Even before the strike, we were getting only P9.50 every week. I hope we can till the land permanently.”
Pascua’s union, the 5,000-strong United Luisita Workers’ Union, the plantation workers’ union, along with the Central Azucarera De Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU), 700-strong sugar mill workers’ union, struck Nov. 6 last year in protest over the termination of 326 ULWU officers and members and to push their demands for higher wager and benefits.
Last June, the unions declared that they will encourage and undertake systematic cultivation of portions of idle land in the plantation to produce food crops and stave-off hunger during the rainy season.
Soon “bungkalan” – a Filipino word meaning cultivation – became a big hit among hacienda families. Small rice and vegetable plots have proliferated in the 10 barangays comprising the hacienda. So far, more than 200 hectares have been made productive by both the plantation and sugar mill workers.
In Barangay Asturias, 21 farmers cultivated an average of 1/4 to 1/2 hectare each, the typical size of individual farms in the hacienda. The harvests have enabled the workers to buy food and simple household needs. For some, tilling the land even helped in sending their children to school.
Part of the harvests is sent to the picket line to augment the food supply and as a contribution to their struggle. After all, those engaged in cultivation regularly visit and help man the picket, according to Pascua.
The workers feel some kind of liberation in clearing the land, planting the crops they want and enjoying the harvests. In the past, sugar cane is the sole crop planted in the hacienda and the people are not allowed to cultivate even the unused portions of the land.
“We used to wait for meagre wages, but now we can enjoy the full fruit of our labor. We feel freer now and confident that we really can make our lives better,” said Maximo Sebastian, 56, an ULWU member who along with is brother tilled a one-hectare plot in Asturias.
The unions however, are careful to note that they are not yet claiming actual ownership of the land.
“Our effort to make the land productive is an off-shoot of the strike,” ULWU president Rene Galand said. “We are not saying that we are taking possession or claiming ownership of the land. We just cannot allow our members and their families to go hungry while the land lies idle.”
Part of the struggle
“Bungkalan is also part of our struggle,” Galang explained. “We want to prove, even just for now, that for the workers to use the land for their own benefit is better than stock certificates or wages from the Cojuangco family.”
Union leaders say there are two forms of “bungkalan” practiced in the hacienda: individual cultivation and “collective farming.” While both are encouraged, the unions hope collective farming will be the more common practice.
Galang said collective farming will produce better results in terms of higher crop yield and strengthening the organization and collective spirit of our members.
Lito Bais, 41, leader of 76 workers in a collective farm in Barangay Asturias said tilling the land will show the Cojuangco family that the workers are serious in their struggle for land and may compel the clan to negotiate with them to resolve the strike.
He said their experience in collective and individual cultivation has left them many lessons. It took only two days for about 40 people to clear and prepare a 1/2 hectare piece of land for planting. Conversely, those who cleared and planted individually took as long as one month to clear a plot of the same size, according to Bais.
There is also a middle ground between individual and collective farming: these are two or three families who jointly till and manage adjacent plots. Farm chores such as weeding, applying fertilizers or pesticides or simply warding off animals and insects are scheduled among family members. This way, not all are tied-up in the farm and can attend to other matters.
Most of those who joined the “bungkalan” used only their bare hands and the crudest of farm implements–hoes, shovels, pick axes, rakes and the like, since no mechanized equipment are available.
The workers complain in jest about their lack of skills and the shortage of farm tools. “Napudpod na ang aming mga gamit bago kami nakapag-ani. Sa una, halos kinakamay namin ang lupa dahil marami ang hindi pa marunong maghanda ng lupa para sa gulay at palay” (Our tools were already worn-out before we were able to harvest. At first some of us even used our bare hands because we did not know yet how to prepare the land for rice and vegetable crops), one worker said.
For SDO revocation
Too, the workers say their experience with “bungkalan” is one solid argument for the complete revocation of the stock distribution option in the Hacienda.
“The difficulties we faced because of the strike and the way we were able to survive because we cultivated even a small portion of the hacienda land is one more solid proof that the SDO must be completely revoked and that land distribution be implemented,” Galang explained.
“Our experience with individual and collective farming is also strong argument that farm workers have a better chance of improving their lives than through the stock shares that were forced on us,” Galang added.
Hacienda management have argued that parcelling out the land to thousands of farm workers will jeopardize the viability of the land as a sugar plantation.
For the long term, and should land distribution take place in the hacienda, collective farming through cooperatives is seen as a more feasible type of land use in the post-SDO hacienda, according to union leaders. (Bulatlat.com)