“The struggle in Hacienda Luisita is the struggle of the Filipino people.”
By DEE AYROSO
HACIENDA LUISITA, Tarlac – Maria Luz Magallanes sported black leggings, a printed long-sleeved blouse and a blue scarf around her neck, and looked fashionably out of place as she gathered rice straws in the dry, dusty field. She looked exhausted from the heat, but still smiled and kept working.
“This feels good,” she said.
Magallanes is among some 50 mostly city-based activists who sowed corn and mung beans on a small patch of land in Balete village here, cheerfully singing protest songs and laughing at their lack of farm skills as they worked with their hands for almost four hours. Hundreds of other progressives from different sectors also went to work in the villages of Mapalacsiao and Cutcut, in the one-day cultivation of collective farms as part of the bungkalan — the land cultivation campaign inside Hacienda Luisita.
On Nov. 15, the Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala) led the bungkalan on Day Two of the three-day commemoration of the 2004 Hacienda Luisita massacre, in which seven striking farm workers were killed and dozens were injured when state forces opened fire on their picket line.
In the past 12 years, the bungkalan has been the silver lining in the Luisita farmers’ struggle for land, as they face the powerful Cojuangco-Aquino clan which still lords over the 6,000-hectare hacienda in spite of a Supreme Court order for its distribution. Thanks to the bungkalan, hundreds of hectares of the once-sugar lands now thrive with organic rice, corn, vegetables and fruit trees, bringing food on the farm workers’ table and income to their pocket – a far cry from the abject poverty and exploited condition which pushed them to go on strike in 2004.
The success of such initiative not only showcases how collective action by farmers who own the land they till increases farm productivity, but also pushes forward the struggle for genuine democracy, as a victory in Luisita will break the monopoly over vast tracts of land of one of the most powerful political clans in the country.
Through the years, security guards and private goons of the Cojuangco-Aquino company, Tarlac Development Corporation (Tadeco) have repeatedly harassed the farm workers, burned their huts and bulldozed the bungkalan areas. Still the farm workers were unfazed and the campaign continued to gain ground and support.
“I’m happy to be part of this,” said Magallanes, a member of Gabriela Women’s Party-list in District 2-Quezon City, who visited the hacienda for the first time. “We can see that those we are supporting have harvested victories in their struggle.”
The Nov. 15 bungkalan gathered youths, women, urban poor residents from Quezon City and Bulacan, Central Luzon peasants, Aytas, relatives of overseas Filipino workers, teachers, students, nurses, community health workers, church people, NGO workers and artists.
Bungkalan: a common ground for similar experiences, struggles
Although they came from different places and sectors, participants of the bungkalan are linked by the same struggle for the people’s rights.
It brought back memories to Magallanes, who was born and raised in Escalante, Negros Oriental, where she started as a sugarcane worker at age seven in Hacienda Sta. Ana. When she went to Manila, she found herself in another sugarcane plantation, working with her husband in Hacienda Yulo in Laguna.
“Not everyone gets to be part of cooperative work like this,” she said, as she stressed the need to be organized in struggle. She and other women activists said they, too, are asserting their right to land, but for their homes. Magallanes, who lives in disaster-prone Bagong Silang village in Quezon City, said they are calling for onsite relocation, in a safer area they have identified near their community.
For farmers from San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, the Luisita struggle mirror their own fight against a government institution – the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas – which claims some 1,500 hectares of agricultural lands in their area, and threatened to displace their homes and farms.
“We have the same experience: the killings, harassment and destruction of crops,” said Ka Redo, peasant leader from San Jose del Monte. “This collective action adds to our experience and morale.”
He cited the recent case of five farmers of Karahume, San Isidro village who were arrested on false charges of possession of illegal drugs. Although four of them were released after a month in detention, one still remains in jail. Two of the victims, Lito Natural and Rowel Reola, also joined the bungkalan.
Families of OFWs led by Migrante secretary general Mic Catuira also took part in the farm work. He said many OFWs were landless peasants, who had to work abroad. Catuira himself, a former OFW, came from a peasant family.
Taking the sustainable, people-centered, agriculture-driven path to development
Danilo Ramos, secretary general of the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (Uma) said the bungkalan is in stark contrast to the “development path” being pushed by the Cojuangco-Aquinos and most landlords, who only aim for profit by converting prime agricultural lands for the use of big foreign investors.
“Just imagine: if these vast tracts of land are planted with palay, think of how it can contribute to the food security of the country,” Ramos told Bulatlat. Ambala farmers can harvest 100 up to 170 cavans of organic rice in one hectare.
In Mapalacsiao village, farm workers maintain a demo farm, which produces various varieties of organic rice. A small fishpond raises tilapia and other freshwater fish. They have also began to plant hardwood, such as mahogany, as part of creating a sustainable environment in the hacienda.
Ramos said the farms thrive because of the sheer determination and courage of Luisita farmers, amid the various forms employed by the Cojuangco-Aquinos to deprive them of land. He said the latest case was on July 1, when Tadeco guards bulldozed 30 hectares of rice fields already ripe for harvest. But the farmers returned and planted again, and some have recently harvested.
Uma and Ambala are calling on the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to recognize the bungkalan initiative by distributing the hacienda land for free to the tillers and to scrap the tambiolo (lottery drum) scheme in distribution. In the long term, the groups support the enactment of House Bill 555, the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill, which will dismantle land monopoly and bring social justice to the peasantry.
Ramos said they also aim to expand bungkalan through more collective farms to increase production and cooperation among farm workers.
The farmers also support the peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), which is tackling the draft Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER). Ramos said the NDFP draft recognizes peasant initiatives such as the bungkalan, to increase agricultural productivity and fuel national industrialization and economic growth.
Sowing the seeds of change
“The struggle in Hacienda Luisita is the struggle of the Filipino people,” Ramos said, citing various forms of support and solidarity from different sectors in the country and abroad.
Ramos said the bungkalan also educates those who come in solidarity. He cited the integration by 80 female students of St. Theresa’s College (STC) in Quezon City who joined separate harvesting and planting work on Nov. 8. One of the teachers observed that unlike before when students did not care about their leftover rice, this time they wiped their plates clean.
“The students realized the hardship that goes into producing food,” Ramos said.
But for the Luisita farmers, the physical hardship is nothing compared to the continued threat on their lives. An armored personnel carrier (APC) of the Philippine Army was seen entering the Central Azucarera de Tarlac, and roving around the bungkalan areas in Balete. The 31st infantry battallion, 3rd Mechanized Division has set up its company headquarters in the village.
As the struggle to own the land continues, so does the call for justice for the Luisita martyrs.
“We want the Cojuangco-Aquinos and their cohorts to be held accountable,” Ramos said, adding that they will soon revive their criminal complaints that had been junked by the Ombudsman during the term of Cojuangco scion, President Benigno Simeon Aquino III.