Militant peasants in the heart of Cebu City

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

For four days this week (March 17-20) more than 200 peasant leaders from all over the country converged in the heart of bustling Cebu City. In their rubber slippers, they practically took over and occupied the gleaming, new Cebu Cultural Center within the University of the Philippines-Cebu campus, which opened in October 2012.

For three days they convened inside the 1,000-seat air-conditioned theater. They ate their meals kamayan style, standing or squatting on the shiny floor of the lobby. Mothers fed their children on the carpeted steps of the stairs leading to the balcony.

Admirable was the self-discipline manifested by these simple people with sunburned faces. They patiently lined up for their meals, then carefully deposited the food scraps, used plastic bags and disposable cups in the designated trash bags.

The occasion was the 7th National Congress of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas. The delegates discussed a wide range of issues affecting not only the peasantry but the whole nation, and drew up a five-year action program. They also shared experiences, both successes and failures, in their struggles.

On the third day, I joined the gathering as one of three speakers in a forum titled, “Surging Forward: the Filipino Peasantry’s Struggle for Genuine Agrarian Reform.” Archbishop Jose T. Palma, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, and acting Cebu Gov. Agnes A. Magpale came to deliver their messages of solidarity.

The forum’s core critique was that government-initiated agrarian reform has already taken more than 40 years, reckoning from Marcos’ Presidential Decree 27 (1972) through Cory Aquino’s 1988 “centerpiece” CARP (Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program) and its extension, CARPer (2009-2014). Yet it hasn’t resolved the issue of massive landlessness among the peasantry.

Available official records show that in four decades, the Land Bank of the Philippines has approved P41.6-billion compensation to 83,203 landowners for only 1.3 million hectares. And while the CARPer has a P150-billion budgetary allocation for five years, a bill has already been filed for its further extension beyond 2014.

Both the KMP congress and the conference concluded with the peasants’ firm resolution to press for a genuine agrarian reform program that allows no exemption from coverage and that calls for the free redistribution of land.

I listened keenly to the workshop reports towards the end of the conference, particularly those that pointed out cases of successful struggles in different regions of the country. Let me cite some of them.

• In San Isidro, Kidapawan City, 75 peasant families were able to take possession (through occupation, “bungkalan,” which has been a success in many areas of Luzon and in Negros) of 30 hectares of riceland that had been left idle for 20 years before the absentee owners tried to reclaim it.

However, in 2010, the peasants were forced to mortgage the land to Don Bosco to finance their farming needs, but found to their chagrin that Don Bosco wanted to plant bananas and not rice. Gloria Barce, vice chair of the peasant association Kamasi and head of the women’s section, said they are finding means to redeem the mortgage and regain full control of the land.

• In Caraga, the peasant organizations were able to improve the mode of compensation via crop-sharing of farm workers: for rice, from 1 sack going to them for every 18 sacks produced, it became 1sack for every 15. In coconut farms, the workers’ share was increased from 10% to 22% of the produce.

The Caraga farmers also won an increase in the price of abaca from P18 per kilo to P37, and a significant reduction in interest rate on loans from 26-45% to 12-18%.

• In Mindoro, the farmworkers’ wage has been raised from P80 to P120 per day, plus P10 every succeeding year. Notably, after a long struggle, the women farmworkers won equal wages as their male counterparts.

• In Northern Mindanao, the peasants who had enjoyed a higher wage (P120) than in Mindoro, succeeded in having it raised to P120 with free meals, or P160 without free meals.

On the fourth day, I joined the peasants’ march with supporters, including church people, from Fuente Osmena to downtown Cebu. At an intersection of the busy Colon district, speakers from the regions related their bitter experiences in struggling for land and called for support among the people who cared to listen to them under the hot noonday sun.

The Cebu peasants specifically asked for support in their fight to prevent the “landgrabbing” of the 168-hectare Hacienda Gantuangco in Aloguinsan town — which they have been cultivating as tenants — via plans either to convert it into an economic zone or a mango plantation.

Extensive conversion of agricultural lands to residential, industrial, commercial, and tourism-related projects have forced landless farming families out of the rural areas to seek livelihood opportunities in the cities.

I cannot help but relate this to an early-morning scene that I came upon at the corner of Jakosalem and Gomez streets. On the sidewalk three families, with five small children, slept on cardboard beddings, as two kids fed three chicks with scrap food.

Could they have been among the peasant families victimized by land conversion?

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March 23, 2013

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