“They would call us, three or four at a time, sometimes to the barangay hall, sometimes to the municipal hall. The interrogations would start from 10 a.m. and end 10 p.m., no breaks.”
By JUSTIN UMALI
Malabahay is a barangay in Macalelon, a fourth class municipality in the southern part of Quezon province. It is almost 14 kilometers away from the town proper and a commute would easily take one to two hours. A jeepney ride costs as much as a hundred pesos one-way. “Sometimes, we just walk towards town,” Eliseo Batarlo, 63, told me in Filipino. “If you had 500 pesos, you’d spend most of it on the commute. You’d only end up with a kilo of fish just to have something to bring home.”
Eliseo is a coconut farmer and is intimately familiar with the small barangay, having lived there for most of his life. He served as barangay captain of Malabahay for 12 years, and people still affectionately call him Kap. He and his wife, 59 years old, are two of the evacuees from South Quezon who were forced to flee the town following intense militarization and harassment from elements of the Phippine Army’s 85th Infantry Battalion.
Life for a coconut farmer in Quezon is hard. “A ton of copra sells for P13,000. Less the deductions, that nets to around 8,000. Whole coconuts sell for three or four pesos a kilo,” Eliseo said. The production of copra, or the dried meat of a coconut, remains a small-scale business limited to individual farmers, itself an indication of the prevailing nature of farming in the country. Copra is mainly used to extract coconut oil, but its byproducts can also be used as animal feed. The Philippines, as an agricultural country, remains both a top producer and exporter of copra, and many farmers in Quezon, like Eliseo, rely on the copra market to survive.
The low selling price of coconut and copra is in stark contrast to the coconut industry, whose total exports were worth over 1.5 trillion USD in 2017. Coconut farmers are considered some of the poorest of the poor – with many of them do not have their own land. The lack of development and infrastructure to support the coconut industry forces it to remain export-oriented and its players small-scale and poor. But by far one of the most contentious aspects of the coconut industry is the Marcos-era coconut levy fund.
The coco levy fund, which was a tax applied to coconut farmers during the Marcos years, has been a constant source of contention for both farmers and the government. Recently, President Duterte urged Senate to pass a coco levy trust fund bill aimed at redistributing the now P100-billion fund during his 2019 SONA speech, a year after he vetoed previous legislation.
Coconut farmers like Eliseo, along with groups like Coco Levy Funds Ibalik sa Amin (CLAIM) Quezon and KOPRAHAN Quezon, have long called for the coco levy funds to be redistributed to its prime beneficiaries, the farmers. “We need those funds to survive, to buy equipment and chemicals and tools,” Eliseo said. “And besides, that’s money taken from the coconut farmers. It’s only right that it should be given to us.”
In March this year, elements of the 85th IBPA set up camp near the municipalities of Macalelon and nearby Lopez, ostensibly to take a census of the population. “Some of them even helped out in the farming,” Eliseo recounted. “But that was just it. By day they were friendly. By night, they would knock on our doors and ask questions.”
The questions were seemingly benign at first. “They would ask us if we knew so-and-so, then invite us to the camp to answer more questions. I always refused.”
It didn’t take long for the nature of the visits to change. “After a few days, they set up camp in the barangay hall and started handing out lists of people they wanted to call for interrogation. There were ten people on the list,” Eliseo said, “and I was one of them.”
One evening, soldiers knocked on Eliseo’s door to ask him to come for questioning, which he refused, noting that they didn’t have any document with them other than the list. He told the soldiers that they can come back in the morning, citing his age. The soldiers agreed and left.
Eliseo and his wife didn’t wait. They didn’t have the time to pack their things. By 10 p.m., they were making the trek from Malabahay, Macalelon to the Karapatan office in Catanauan, a distance of 37 kilometers.
Eliseo wasn’t the first one to be asked for questioning, nor was he the last. Slowly, reports trickled in and more people began to flee Macalelon. One farmer, also from the same barangay, recounted:
“They would call us, three or four at a time, sometimes to the barangay hall, sometimes to the municipal [Hall, in Macalelon proper]. The interrogations would start from 10 a.m. and end 10 p.m., no breaks. They would ask us, repeatedly, if we were supporters of the NPA [New People’s Army]. It was actually more of coercion. They’d tell us, ‘We already know who you are, so why don’t you just admit it?’ and they’d say a name and tell us that they were the ones who ratted us out.
This would go on for hours. They’d tell us that we could go as long as we tell them what they wanted to hear. If we don’t admit that we were NPA supporters, they said, they’d charge us with rebellion and imprison us. So it’s either we admit something we’re not, or we go to jail. And who wants to go to jail?
When [the farmers being interrogated] end up admitting, they have to name other people as well, whether it’s true or not, before they could be let go. Then, the military will say that they have your confession on record. You have to stay in your barangay, or else they’ll file a case against you.”
In Malabahay alone, the list went from 10 people to over 100. “If this was list of suspects,” Eliseo said with sarcasm, “then they have the entire barangay on it. We’re a barangay full of NPAs.”
The situation is the same in other barangays in Macalelon and in other towns as well.
One farmer from nearby Lopez was also called into questioning: “One evening, three people knocked at my door. I was already asleep, but my children were watching television, so they woke me up. They introduced themselves to me as NPA fighters, and even tried to shake my hand, but I didn’t want to. I never shake hands with strangers. He introduced himself as ‘Ka Marco’, and he asked me a bunch of questions about the area.
He used a lot of words I didn’t really understand, but it was clear that he was trying to bait me. He told me, ‘You don’t have to play dumb, we already know you’re a comrade,’ and he told me that so-and-so told them about me. I replied, ‘I don’t know that person’. Eventually, his mood changed and he left. I saw them ride away on motorcycles.
The next day, more people came knocking. Soldiers in uniform. A man who introduced himself as Sgt. Marciano was demanding that I come with him for questioning. He was shaking with anger, like a snarling dog. He kept on insisting I was an NPA supporter. He said a bunch of names and told me that they were the ones who informed on me. Then he showed me a picture of my son, with a hammer and sickle. ‘Your son was a rebel, so why don’t you just admit that you are too?’ he asked me.
He kept threatening me if I didn’t cooperate. He didn’t have any weapons but the soldiers around the corner had rifles. I asked them if they had any warrants, but they refused to give me an answer. I refused to go with them to the camp, and eventually they left.
They didn’t come a third time. But the next day, I heard a loud crash on my roof, and I saw somebody throwing a rock. When I opened the door, there was a note on the floor, and it read, ‘Your days are numbered.’
I didn’t wait for them to come back a third time. Their camp was near our barangay and they could just come and go whenever they want. So that evening, I left.”
Sometimes, the insinuations would turn into threats. On August 8 in Catanauan, Karapatan-Quezon reported that soldiers from the 85th IBPA harassed children and threatened to behead them should they “find them in the jungle”.
Not a new story
Cases of militarization aren’t new to the residents of these towns. Eliseo’s first encounter with soldiers dates back in 2008, during the tail end of the Arroyo administration. “It was Labor Day, and they asked me to come to their camp for questioning. I didn’t want to go,” he said. There was a time in 2011, during the Aquino administration, that they were forced to flee from Macalelon for a time.
For Eliseo, it’s clear that the military’s true reason for harassing them isn’t tied with the communists. “They’ve been doing this for as long as we’ve fought for the coco levy funds,” he said. “This is nothing new. Now, they’re starting this [irrigation project] that’s threatening to sink an entire barangay, and this is how they respond to our protests.”
Last July 31, the National Irrigation Authority launched a P775-million irrigation project in Macalelon, which includes a dam and irrigation works. Eliseo and other farmers from Macalelon and Lopez oppose the dam project, which they say will submerge nearly a hundred hectares of land and displace an entire barangay.
That same day, elements of the 2nd Infantry Division tried to enter the Karapatan office in Lucena, where Eliseo and the other evacuees had been staying after fleeing their homes. They had stayed in Catanauan for a time, but were again harassed by soldiers of the 85th IB. Fearing for their lives, the farmers were moved to Lucena, but it seemed as if there was no escape from the military.
The mood shifted as the conversations went on. “If you ask me how life was before the military arrived there, I’ll tell you that it was great,” one of the farmers from Macalelon said. “Things were peaceful, and we could sleep soundly at night. It’s when the soldiers came that things became scary. But shouldn’t it be the opposite?”
Eliseo said, “Life is already hard enough as it is, and we’re only barely trying to get by. Then they come in and treat us like criminals. Putang ina nila.”
And who wouldn’t be angry? In one incident, the military took a farmer into questioning and subsequently detained him after in the barangay hall. Friends and family visited him every day to ensure his safety, until one day, they were told that he was being brought to a hospital to get a check-up.
When he returned, he had bruises all over his arm, and he could barely speak. Eventually, he managed to relay what happened: they went to a clinic to get a medical certificate before going to the camp outside Macalelon, where they had him drink something “which paralyzed him” and beat him.
But anger also comes with action. Last July 23, the evacuees filed a complaint with the Commission of Human Rights to hold the 85 IB accountable for human rights abuses. An investigation by the Commission is set for August 9.
Karapatan and Defend Southern Tagalog, the human rights organizations assisting the farmers, are similarly hopeful. “Justice always prevails in the end,” said Pastor Sam of Defend-ST. “What’s important right now is that people learn what’s happening in Quezon. This isn’t an isolated case, or even that unique to Quezon. This is systemic repression that we’re seeing as effects of Oplan Kapanatagan. The best thing we can do is expose these injustices.”
“We just want the coco levy funds returned to us,” a farmer said, “and to be able to return to our homes. That’s all.”