After two years, it was only in July when Flores and other farmers were allowed to again till their farm lots, a part of the long-running struggle of farm workers in Hacienda Luisita.
By KAREN ANN MACALALAD
HACIENDA LUISITA, Tarlac – While most people are busy shopping for the holidays, Ricky Flores is working nonstop for his second cropping on a 1.6-hectare field in Balete village, Tarlac City, hoping to catch up on his income losses. After two years, it was only in July when Flores and other farmers were allowed to again till their farm lots, a part of the long-running struggle of farm workers in Hacienda Luisita.
On February 8, 2016, exactly on the 54th birthday of then President Benigno Aquino III, armed men belonging to Great Star Security bulldozed crops and huts owned by farmers including Flores. The agency is hired by the Tarlac Development Corporation, owned by the Cojuangco-Aquino clan.
During the bulldozing spree in some 260 hectares, Luisita farmers also spotted members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Police even arrested Flores’ 16-year-old son who was filming the incident with his phone. He was detained for day.
Up to now, Flores still bemoans the loss of their crops which were ready for harvesting.
“Wala naman kaming magawa kasi may SWAT [Special Weapons And Tactics] na nakaalerto. Kung gagawa ka ng karahasan babarilin ka siguro (We could not do anything because members of SWAT were there. If we fight back, they might shoot us),” he told Bulatlat during a community integration on December 17.
Income from the destroyed harvest could have paid off the P40,000 ($800) debt he incurred in farming expenses, and even earn extra for his family. It was the same case for other farmers, who reportedly lost P2.1 million ($42,000) in total.
Within the two years farmers were barred from tilling their farm lots, Flores was forced to enter different jobs such as construction work for his family to survive. A father of four children, Flores only finished 2nd year in high school due to poverty. His parents have been serving the Cojuangco-Aquino clan for decades now.
“Sa pagsasaka kasi ‘di alam ang kinikita mo isang araw. Makikita mo lang kita dito kapag anihan (In farming, you’ll only see how much you can earn during the harvesting season),” Flores explained. It is only the businessmen who make profit, from interests in loans that they extend to farmers during planting season, he added.
The lack of jobs and measly salary of P18 resulted to the massive strike of 5,000 sugar farm workers in Luisita in 2004, Flores recalled. State forces opened fire on protesting farm workers at the picket line, killing seven strikers and wounding at least 200 others, in what is now known as the Luisita Massacre of November 16, 2004.
The destruction of their crops and huts – which could very well be a “birthday gift” for then President Aquino – was only one of the many attacks the Cojuangco-Aquino clan did on farm workers led by the Alyansa ng Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala). These include filing cases of grave threats, trumped-up charges and land-grabbing – further pushing the farmers to the brink.
This November, armed men led by a village official from another village threatened farm workers in Mapalacsiao village and took over the Ambala hut in the area. Also in Mapalacsiao, a bulldozer flattened rice and vegetable crops on July 1, the first day in office of former peasant leader Rafael Mariano, whom President Duterte appointed as Agrarian Reform Secretary.
These attacks continued to escalate, amid the Supreme Court’s decision in 2012 which ordered the distribution of 4,915 hectares and other agricultural lands to 6,296 beneficiaries in Hacienda Luisita.
No court order was issued to warrant the demolition and bulldozing activities, while ironically, the notice of land coverage issued by the Department of Agrarian Reform on December 17, 2013 remains unimplemented.
Amid these apparent violations of the farmers’ rights over Luisita, claiming justice has never been easy for the victims.
“Nagfile kami ng demanda sa DOJ [Department of Justice]. Matapos, tatlong beses kaming pabalik-balik. Sabi ibabalik daw, pero hanggang ngayon wala pa naman (We filed a case at DOJ and went there three times to follow-up. They told us they will pay for the damages, but up to now, we got nothing),” Flores lamented.
Florida Sibayan, Ambala chairperson, decried the lack of job and hunger they experienced during the time when the Cojuangco-Aquino’s armed men put up barbed wire fences around the farm lots.
“We stand up for our rights even if some farmers get detained and have charges. We tell the other farmers to till their lands as we fight back,” Sibayan said at the community orientation for Luisita visitors.
Hoping for genuine changes
While farmers in Balete are allowed to again till their lands, Flores said they harvested less due to the tall grass that had grown in the area. He only reaped 68 cavans of rice, only a third of the usual 182 cavans his land can potentially produce. He needed at least 100 sacks to pay his debts.
On the good side, less armed forces have been lurking inside Balete, Flores noted.
“Dati habang natutulog bigla-bigla may kakatok sa’yo, gigisingin ka. Tatanungin kayo kung NPA kayo [New People’s Army] (Soldiers used to wake-up sleeping farmers in their huts just to ask if they were members of the NPA),” he said.
However, Flores said the farmers in Luisita still needed support from the government and the public.
“Grabe ‘yung pagkalugi noong pinaalis kami dito. Gusto lang naming magbungkal…walang makinarya, kulang sa pinansya at kagamitan (We suffered grave losses after the armed men evicted us from our farm lots. We only wanted to plant now, but we lack machines, money and materials to do so),” he added.
Luisita farmers stand firm in their calls for genuine land distribution.
“Kahit anong dahas ang dinanas ng mga manggawang bukid sa Hacienda Luisita, ay tumitindig para sa laban nila dahil mas gusto pa nilang lumalaban kaysa ‘di ka lumalaban na dilat ang mata mo (Despite the attacks committed against the farmers in Hacienda Luisita, they will continue to fight instead of being mum with their eyes open,” Sibayan said.