The peasantry may have found an ally in the President, but they know where lies their true strength in the struggle.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – The 200 Mindanao farmers who camped out at Mendiola Bridge faced what they least expected on the ninth day of their protest on May 9. Into the protest camp came – not state forces, hordes of private armed men, nor whizzing bullets, which are the standard landlord response to every peasant assertion of the right to land – rather, it was President Duterte himself, who cheered the peasants with his clenched fist, sympathetic demeanor and more importantly, the commitment to help them return to their land.
Responding to the appeal by the Madaum Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Inc. (Marbai) of Davao del Norte, Duterte promised he will order their reinstallation into the government-awarded farm lots in a banana plantation which has been under control of the Lapanday Foods Corp. (LFC).
“We are happy that Mr. President came to face us and responded to our calls. His commitment is a big gain for us…he sided with the farmers and not with the landlords,” said Antonio Tuyak, a board member of Marbai and spokesperson of the Unyon sa Mag-uuma ug Dinaugdaug Nagtikad sa Tinuod na Repormang Agraryo (Union of Peasants and the Opressed for Genuine Agrarian Reform or UGMAD TRA). A smiling Tuyac was among the leaders who spoke at the press conference in Mendiola on May 10.
Duterte’s support now even more emboldens progressive peasants, as the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) has started the wheels rolling on a nationwide campaign to break up land monopoly and, consequently, for free land distribution. But even with a supportive, non-landlord president, along with former KMP chairman Rafael Mariano now at the helm of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), farmers know by experience that what will win the fight for genuine agrarian reform is not orders from Duterte or Mariano, but their collective, consolidated numbers.
Since late last year, Marbai members tried to reclaim the San Isidro (Sanid) farm, but have been shot at, pushed out, and threatened with death by Lapanday’s private armed guards. The company had locked its gates and brushed aside the DAR order for them to turn over the land, which the local police also refused to implement, citing the presence of hundreds of armed guards.
Lawyer Jobert Pahilga of DAR said the agency will soon issue a “break-open order” to unlock the plantation gates and implement the writ of installation for the third time. They will also request a representative from the Office of the President for the event. “So that there will be no repeat of what happened on April 18 and 21 when the police dilly-dallied and did not implement the order,” Pahilga said.
In response to the President’s requisite for the ARBs to comply with the needed documents, Pahilga said Marbai had complied with the legal processes in the past years, and the DAR had issued orders for their installation.
Lapanday insists that DAR has no jurisdiction on the case, based on a 2011 court decision upholding the validity of the contract between the company and HEARBCO. Marbai, however, bolted out of HEARBCO in January 2011, before the contract was signed later in the year in September.
Marbai’s return to their land will be a showdown between the progressive peasantry, with the support of the President, against the multibillion agribusiness export company Lapanday, which is owned by the family of former Agriculture Secretary Luis “Cito” Lorenzo. It also showcases the restiveness of agrarian reform beneficiaries who found themselves subjected to worse feudal exploitation as their lands continue to be in the control of the landlord class.
“This will have a domino effect, not only on ARBs in the 1,400 hectare-land claimed by Lapanday, but on a nationwide scale,” said Anakpawis partylist Rep. Ariel Casilao. He added that the installation is expected to be set within the month.
The bulk of the 200 Mindanaoan farmers in the Mendiola camp were the 80 members of Marbai, from the villages of Madaum and San Isidro in Tagum City, Davao del Norte. They are set to return home on May 13, not by the two-day bus ride, but this time by plane, as Duterte promised to shoulder their air fare.
CARP beneficiaries with no control of their land
Tuyak, 62, a native of Leyte, started working in the Madaum banana plantation as a youth in 1976. It was then under the Hijo Plantation Inc. (HPI), owned by the Tuazon family, and produces Cavendish bananas for export. It was there where Tuyac met his wife, Lucita, and started a family.
Hijo plantation covers 1,400 hectares in the villages of Madaum and San Isidro in Tagum city. In 1996, the plantation was put under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), and distributed to its farm workers, who formed three cooperatives, each collectively owning distinct areas: the Hijo Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative-1 (HARBCO 1), HARBCO 2 and Hijo Employees and ARBs Cooperative (HEARBCO).
Agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) like Tuyak did not farm individually. Instead, under the agribusiness ventures agreement scheme (AVAS) under CARP, they were assigned work by the coop – such as leaf-pruning, injecting, bagging, harvesting, and packing – and paid a daily rate of P92 (less than $2) for an eight-hour workday.
In 1998, the ARB cooperatives entered into a 10-year banana sales and marketing agreement (BSMA) with HPI, under which their banana produce is exclusively sold to HPI, which classifies and dictates the price according to its own mechanisms. Under the same agreement, the agribusiness company also manages the farms, supposedly, to maintain the export quality of the bananas. It also provides the farm inputs, which the cooperative buys at prices dictated by the company. Aside from the cost of production, the co-op also shoulders the cost of improvements made on the farm – such as irrigation canals, feeder road, cables – as seen fit by the company.
In 1999, Lapanday took over HPI. By this time, the ARBs have been split into two factions, with one expressing dissatisfaction and wanting to end the arrangement. Tension led to clashes in which two HPI employees were reportedly killed and several ARBs injured. The conflict ended with the restive leaders ejected out of the co-op.
In 2007, the farm workers successfully negotiated a shift into the individual farm tilling arrangement, which allowed them to work and manage their own farm lots. The ARBs were each awarded a 0.79-hectare farm lot to till individually, but still have to sell their produce to Lapanday under the BSMA.
Tuyak said that at the beginning, the farm workers can earn from P5,000 up to P15,000 ($100 to $300) every two weeks. But Lapanday complained that production had gone down, and in 2008, under a new contract, started imposing penalties on the co-op for “violations” of the agreement. This drastically brought down the ARB’s income while the company kept a big profit for itself.
“When Lapanday saw that the farmers were earning enough for their families and living decent lives, it started putting its foot down on our backs,” he told em>Bulatlat in an interview.
Helen Samillana, a Marbai member, recalled how Lapanday kept the ARBs shackled to its conditions, as it runs the co-op operations. Her husband, Romeo is an ARB, and she herself was hired as a contractual in a packing house since 2000. They were paid P4.25 per carton packed.
At one point, the workers complained about low wages and demanded an increase. Instead of an increase, the contractuals became “casuals,” who were terminated after five months. Semillana said she had to work as household help in Manila so as to keep her daughter in college.
She said Lapanday also implemented a P97 million-irrigation project in the plantation, which put the coop even deeper in debt to the company.
Tuyac cited how Lapanday will not pay for a whole batch of packed bananas if one carton happens to have damaged contents when it reaches its destination abroad.
Lapanday also brings down the price of the produce by downgrading Class A bananas into Class B. Class A is priced at $2.10 per 13.5-kilo-box, while Class B is at 60 US cents. Class C are considered rejects and are sold in the local market. The company profits per box increase up to 10-fold, with each box sold from $14 to $24 abroad.
The company also extracts profit from the ARBs by overpricing the farm inputs it supplies the co-op. Tuyac cited that a bag of urea which costs around P750 ($15) in the market is priced at P1,400 ($28) by Lapanday.
Tuyak said the ARBs end up with pay as low as P5,000 ($100) every two weeks. Of this amount, the ARB only takes home P1,000 ($20), with the rest automatically deducted to pay debts that earn a nine percent monthly interest.
“We own the land but we can’t even earn enough for our families,” Tuyac said.
Mired in a cycle of debt, members of HEARBCO formed Marbai and voted to get out of the contract with Lapanday. In response, Lapanday locked the plantation passageways and kept the farmers out of their farm lots.
“We want our own lands to be under our control, not Lapanday’s,” Tuyak said.
The fight to reclaim their own farm
Since 2010, the ARBs who opted out of the onerous agreement had to resort to odd jobs as sources of income.
Samillana said Lapanday offered P15,000 ($300) each to ARBs if they will accede to the contract. Out of the 542 active HEARBCO members, about 300 went back to work with Lapanday. The remaining 159 ARBs who comprise Marbai are now the ones asserting their ownership to 145 hectares.
Tuyak said even he was tempted to give in, as his eldest daughter Eden Rose had then just started her first year in college. But she instead offered to delay her schooling, just so he will continue the fight. “Pa, don’t turn back. Continue with what you are fighting for,” she told him.
This encouraged Tuyak and his wife to push harder to stay in the struggle and keep their children in school. He said he drove a passenger single motorcycle, and with his wife, cooked and sold binangkal, suman, puto and other native delicacies.
“Doble-kayod, araw-gabi,” Tuyak told Bulatlat. By her parents’ dint of hard work, Eden Rose earned a degree in agricultural engineering, along with her sister Melody, who finished education.
But not all ARBs were as lucky, and many of their children had to stop schooling. Samillana cited how an ARB’s daughter was forced to quit school and work as household help to augment the family income. Even small children were forced to work as kargador (porter) in the market, as their parents do not earn enough.
In December last year, Marbai members mustered its courage to renew its fight for the land. Successfully forcing their way into the plantation gates, they proceeded to harvest bananas, which they were to sell to a new buyer. Lapanday responded by sending its private guards against the ARBs.
On Dec. 31, 2016, Lapanday guards forced their way into the packing house where Marbai members spent the night after harvesting bananas. They mauled the men, and at gunpoint forced the ARBs out of the plantation.
Samillana said she went home that night and was not among those routed by armed guards. She lamented that the Lapanday guards prevented the victims from bringing anything out of the packing house, not even their personal belongings. The guards then carted off the harvested bananas into trucks, and all other contents of the packing house, including electronic knives, sprayers, newly-bought office equipment, two motorcycles, bicycles, personal cellphones, rice, food, pots and other cooking utensils, and the P70,000 ($1,400) payroll of the farm workers.
She said they have not yet recovered the said items, including the motorcycles, which belong to two ARBs who use these as means of livelihood, plying passenger routes.
After all their sufferings and sacrifices, the ARBs were all heartened to finally find an ally in no less than the President.
“Masaya, pero di pa kumpleto. Kasi hindi pa nakapasok sa loob (We’re happy, but not completely, not until we return to our farms),” Samillana said. “Di pwedeng magkampante (We will not put our guards down),” she added.