The choices Filipino farmers make

Armed goons with long rifles arrived on August 24, 2020 to attempt to displace the farmers in sitio Buntog. (Photo courtesy of Amihan)

SANTA ROSA, Laguna – Rommy Torres is a farmer in Sitio Compra, Barangay San Mateo, Norzagaray, Bulacan. He was a quiet man who cultivated bananas and other root crops.

Last year, agents from Royal Moluccan Realty Holdings, inc. fenced off 75.5 ha. of disputed land and separated farmers like Torres from their crops. RMRHI has tried to stake its claim to the land since 1998, but the farmers have lived there since the 1950s.

Last February 3, Torres entered the fence to harvest his bananas. He failed to return home that day, and was found stuffed in a drum in Mabitac, Laguna, some 100 km away. He was 52 years old.

On the other side of Laguna, Leo Mangubat heard the news of armed guards employed by Ayala Land, Inc. demolishing his mother’s home in Sitio Buntog, barangay Canlubang, Calamba. Like Torres, Mangubat is a quiet farmer who planted vegetables and other crops.

Ayala Land, with the help of San Cristobal Realty Development Corporation, has been trying to get its hands on Sitio Buntog and nearby sitios since August 2020. Last year, goons burned down houses in Sitio Matang Tubig. They have done the same in Buntog since January of this year. Buntog is part of Hacienda Yulo, a 7,100 ha. estate first bought by Jose Yulo in 1948, though its residents have been there for as long as they can remember.

The stories in Sitio Compra and Sitio Buntog share many sad parallels. They are both stories of land-use conversion and violence against the nation’s dwindling agricultural communities. While peasants clamor for land reform, the Philippine government has deemed land-use conversion by large corporations as an acceptable substitute.

How did this state of affairs begin? In some ways, the Philippines has yet to shake off the feudal past it inherited from the Spaniards.
Spanish colonization brought with it a system of land division – first the encomienda, then the hacienda system. Haciendas were given to loyal subjects and religious orders, or sold to the highest bidder. Three centuries of landlordism created a class of wealthy land-owners, sustained by a majority class of poor, landless peasants.

The American period added a new dimension to the conflict – economic interest. Old haciendas were claimed by American capitalists, or by wealthy Filipinos, and cultivated for foreign export. The country’s natural resources were opened up to American investors, for the sole purpose of expanding the American empire.

This system didn’t necessarily change until the late 1970s. Foreign capitalists began merging with large businesses in the Philippines as the global market wanted less of sugar and coconut. The old landlords had little use for its farmers and began pushing them out in favor of foreign corporations and wealthy Manileños looking for a slice of suburbia.

Fast forward to today: developers like Royal Moluccan and Ayala Land become agents of the ruling class, pushing aggressive development agenda at the expense of farmers living off the land. Beneath the veneer of urban development outside Metro Manila are thousands of farmers losing their livelihoods, and oftentimes, lives, fighting for what by all means should be theirs in the first place.

Where is the government in all of this? Technically, the law is on the farmers’ side: Sitio Compra has been subject to land reform since 2006. Sitio Buntog’s CARP exempt status, meanwhile, has a pending motion for reconsideration. Truth is nowhere near reality, however.

It was the police that accompanied RMRHI agents and burned down 26 homes in February 2018. It was the police that arrested 11 farmers in Sitio Buntog in May 2010 after goons from San Cristobal Realty tried to illegally cut down their coconut trees.

Meanwhile, agencies like the Department of Agrarian Reform are slow to act. More often than not, farmers find themselves disappointed at DAR’s decisions.
Farmers are thus faced with two choices: be quiet and accept their fate, or speak up and fight back. For Torres, Mangubat, and so many others, the choice seems obvious.

But obvious choices are not easy ones. Mangubat has not returned to Buntog since January, and his children sometimes ask why he keeps fighting when he can just as easily move out. Torres, meanwhile, has paid the ultimate price.

Others take a different path. In Macalelon, Quezon, coconut farmers struggle with low prices of coconut and copra while the National Irrigation Authority threatens to displace them to make way for a dam. The Philippine Army’s 201st Infantry Brigade ensures the success of the project by pointing their guns at those who’d dare fight back.

Ronel Batarlo and his family were one such example. When he was seven, they had to leave Macalelon out of fear that the soldiers would kill them. He saw the same situation in other towns too, from Lopez to Catanauan.

When he was older, he was faced with the same choice Torres, Mangubat, and so many other farmers face – keep quiet, or fight back?

He chose to fight, but not as a peasant organizer. Left with no other option, Batarlo dropped his sickle and picked up the rifle. He became Ka Marwin in the New People’s Army (NPA), which has been waging an agrarian revolution since its establishment on March 29, 1969.

Ronel Batarlo met his fate in an encounter last February 5. Like Rommel Torres, he was a martyr of the people. Like Leo Mangubat, he risked everything he had for his fellow farmers. He may have died, but he died a hero for all farmers, and for all the country’s oppressed.

Unless something is done in the way of genuine land reform, these stories of struggle will continue. So long as corporations like Ayala Land and Royal Moluccan continue to take away land for selfish interest, farmers will continue to fight back. (

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  1. In relation to the above article, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently introduced a UNEP report entitled “Making Peace With Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity, and pollution emergencies,” and said the following:

    “Human well-being lies in protecting the health of the planet,” said Secretary-General António Guterres. “It’s time to reevaluate and reset our relationship with nature.”

    Karl Marx had this to say about nature’s use by humans, specifically land as private property, whereby “rent” accrues to its owners who, without much effort, gain a tribute which comes from the sweat of workers, and yes, also from other capitalists who risk capital to operate enterprises, whether these assets come from them or other investors:

    (from Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 46, pages 908-911, Penguin Classics)

    “…Whenever natural forces can be monopolized and give the industrialist who makes use of them a surplus profit, whether a waterfall, a rich mine, fishing grounds or a well-situated building site, the person indicated as the owner of these natural objects, by virtue of his title to a portion of the earth, seizes this surplus profit from the functioning capital in the form of rent. (p. 908)

    …It is necessary to distinguish whether the rent flows from an independent monopoly price for the products or the land itself, or whether the products are sold at a monopoly price because there is rent. By monopoly price here we mean any price determined simply by the desire and ability of the buyer to pay, independently of the price of the product as determined by the price of production and value. A vineyard bears a monopoly price if it produces wine which is of quite an exceptional quality but can be produced only in a relatively small quantity. By virtue of this monopoly price, the wine-grower whose excess over the value of his product is determined purely and simply by the wealth and preference of fashionable wine-drinkers can realize a substantial surplus profit. This surplus profit, which in this case flows from a monopoly price, is transformed into rent and accrues in this form to the landowner by virtue of his title to the portion of the earth endowed with these special properties. Here, therefore, the monopoly price creates the rent. Conversely, the rent would create the monopoly price if corn were sold not only above the price of production but also above its value, as a result of the barrier that landed property opposes against the rent-free investment of capital on untilled land. The fact that it is only the title a number of people have to property in the earth that enables them to appropriate a part of society’s surplus labor as tribute, and in an ever growing measure as production develops, is concealed by the fact that the capitalized rent, i.e. precisely this capitalized tribute, appears as the price of the land, which can be bought and sold just like any other item of trade. For the buyer, therefore, his claim to rent does not appear as something obtained for nothing, without labor, risk or entrepreneurial spirit of capital, but rather as the return for his equivalent. Rent seems to him, as we have already noted, simply interest on the capital with which he has purchased the land, and with it the claim to rent. In exactly the same way, it appears to the slaveowner who has bought a Negro slave that his property in the Negro is created not by the institution of slavery as such but rather by the purchase and sale of his commodity. But the purchase does not produce the title; it simply transfers it. The title must be there before it can be bought, and neither one sale nor a series of such sales, their constant repetition, can create this title. It was entirely created by the relations of production. Once these have reached the point where they have to be sloughed off, then the material source, the economically and historically justified source of the title that arises from the process of life’s social production, disappears, and with it all transactions based on it. From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias.*” (end of quote from p. 910-911)

    *Good heads of the household.

    Note that in the above passages, there are concepts that may not be known well, unless one has been avidly reading Capital Volumes 1 to 3. For now it is sufficient to know that: (1) value is equivalent to the value of capital, both constant and variable, plus the surplus value produced by unpaid labor, as a function of the productivity of labor. So that for a capital outlay of 75 in constant capital, 25 on variable capital, and a surplus value of 25, given a rate of surplus value of 100%, for a total value of 125, nominal units which could be thousands of currency in dollars or pesos, e.g., (2) Price of Production is the capital outlay of 100 plus the average profit in the specific sphere of production, e.g. agriculture, which at 10% comes up to 110 in the above example, (3) Surplus Profit is the difference between the market price and the price of production. In agriculture that has not reached a high level of development, such as in the third world countries, there is more use of human labor than machines, thus the value of the products stand above the price of production, which is a function of the general rate of profit for the economy as a whole, so that in our example, the value is 125, while the price of production is at 110. The market price can be above or below the value of the product, but above the price of production. IF the market price is barely above the price of production, which is not unusual, and if the difference is not sufficient to pay the full amount of rent in the leasehold contract with the landowner, then the farmer will sacrifice his profit or lower the wages of workers or both, in order to pay the full rent to the landlord, which technically is not really rent, as we define terms, here. This is the situation, as such, in many third world countries, where low wages are prevalent in agriculture. There is more to be explained here, insofar as the mechanism of the equalization of surplus value as profit is a mechanism that CONCEALS how worker exploitation actually occurs, since capital would appear as the entity producing wealth, rather than the labor of workers.

    I’ve made an effort to explain a few things, not to impress readers with what I have learned, but to emphasize the importance of reading Marx’s Capital. If possible, all three volumes, and I would even recommend reading Volume 4, Theories of Surplus Value, as it is a fascinating journey into economic history. But admittedly, this is not an easy undertaking. It requires patience and perseverance.

    Take care.

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