Why Isabela women farmers are fighting for right to food, land

(Photo courtesy of AMBI Isabela)

with reports from Rein Tarinay and Marya Salamat

MANILA – About three years ago, Nenita Apricio began their collective tilling of land with 19 other women farmers in Tamauini, a town in Isabela, located in the northern Philippines. But little did she know that in that short period, their membership would expand by nearly a hundredfold.

“This (collective tilling of land) has helped us put food on our table. We no longer need to buy vegetables because we are now growing them in our garden. They are fresh and it is good for our health,” Apricio told Bulatlat.

Apricio and her neighbors began to till the 1,000-square meter land in their community back in 2018 not just to make ends meet but also as a way of asserting their rights. Soon, neighboring communities began their own collective and backyard farms that Asosasyon Dagiti Mannalon a Babbai ti Isabela (AMBI) is now 1,500-strong.

Farmers have since been helping each other cultivate the land, and the sales of their produce are divided accordingly. Each family-member in Apricio’s community would get at least P500 ($10) per harvest – a small amount that would goes a long way in times like these.

Drought, lack of support

Of late, farmers are reeling from very low farm gate prices of their produce, particularly of rice and corn, the latter only pegged at P16 ($0.32) per kilo. It is not helping that they are also affected by long spells of dry season.

The province of Isabela is not a stranger to dry spells. Just before the pandemic, drought destroyed P101 million ($2 million) of agricultural crops, of which P92 million ($1.8 million) is corn and P9 million ($176,000) is palay. This affects access to food as Isabela is among the top rice- and corn-producing provinces in Region 2.

This year, the whole of Region 2 was slated to receive a P2 billion ($39.4 million) budget under the National Rice Program and P145 million ($2.9 million) for the National Corn Program. Still, farmers are decrying the lack of support and meaningful programs to address the difficulties they are in.

Apricio said their farms are yielding low harvests due to drought, as half of their members rely on rainfall for irrigation. From 120 cavans of corn per hectare, they were only getting roughly about 20 to 30. This, she said, is the predicament of their members from other villages.

“The harvest is too low, it is even worse than being hit by a typhoon. Sometimes, you would see the plant standing upright but when you check it, the kernel is too small,” she added.

Other villages with access to a deep well were faring better but the produce was still too low to cover the expenses in tending the farm as it yielded about three-fourths of what they would get on better days. This resulted in farmers being buried deep in their loans and its corresponding interests.

Financial aid could have provided them with a sigh of relief. But since the pandemic began, Apricio said many were not able to receive the Social Amelioration Program of the national government.

“(Calamities) do not discriminate. But the aid and help we should be getting,” Apricio said.

Land problems

Farmers said they went from one government office to another, asking for help over the land ownership issue.

“They would look into our case when you are there. But they would stop attending to our case days later,” said Apricio.

According to Danggayan Cagayan Valley, a grassroots organization of farmers, the land was covered by the Presidential Decree No. 27 of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which supposedly transferred the ownership of land to its tillers. However, since the parcel of land is along a national road, developers have been eyeing it to reportedly construct an agro-industrial area.

Instead of selling the land at a price that is apt for land reform, the home lots were instead sold at a higher price. As such, the land’s original tenants have since been unable to have their lands titled to their names, even the retention area where their houses sit as it was earmarked as a “vacant lot” even when there are families residing on it.

FOr now, residents are paying P800 ($16) for every 1,000 square meters of land for their annual local taxes. But since it will not translate to land ownership, Apricio said it “remains a problem for us.”

“ Every year, we feel like we are back to zero,” she added.

They were told that Chinese investors were eyeing their community. Surveyors have already come in, looking into the residential areas of the land.

Apricio said there have been attempts to grab even the half-hectare land where houses of 21 families have been sitting. But she said they remain persistent in their call and that their community organizing paid off in their efforts to enlighten the rest of the village.

Asserting rights amid pandemic

With a still raging pandemic, Apricio said they continue to demand for their rights and due services that they should be receiving. The aid, she added, was “more seldom than Holy Fridays.” Since the pandemic broke, she said they have only received two bags of rice, several pieces of okra, and about five rice seedlings.

“It has been difficult to move around and make a living, especially when you come from far-flung communities. Authorities will look for documents and those not yet inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines you are not allowed to move around,” she said.

Despite the mobility restrictions in place, Apricio said they continue to make a living from their small farm plot, because there are “no factories here that are big enough to employ us. We only have land to till.”

But instead of getting assistance from the government, women farmers who are leading collective tilling of land are facing attacks. Leaders like Apricio have been repeatedly red-tagged, with their names being written in DIY posters made of rice sacks, and subjected to surveillance.

At times, there would be vehicles parked across their land, looking at what they have been doing. Apricio said they are perhaps looking for “something irregular” but time and again, she said, they have proven them wrong.

“What is there to see?” she asked, “We are just here making a living.”

She recalled how people were “shocked” when the local chapter of Amihan was launched into their community and about 400 people attended. It was then, she added, that they saw the powerful role that women play. And they continue to put up with the challenges.

“We talk to our members, and we ask them to remain united and to continue organizing. This way, we can reach more people. We tell them not to be intimidated by what is being said about them because the truth will eventually prevail,” Apricio said.

The threats and harassments that Apricio is subjected to were among the cases brought before the attention of the House of Representatives when the Makabayan bloc filed House Resolution No. 1812 back in June, where they sought an investigation on the increasing attacks on peasant women in the country.

Apart from Apricio, other leaders and members of Amihan are also being routinely red-tagged, particularly following the passing of the terror law, with the bank accounts of Amihan National and Northern Mindanao Region among those frozen by the Anti-Terrorism Council. In a related development, the Court of Appeals has recently lifted the freezing of Amihan National’s account after they challenged council order before the appellate court.

Leading food production, rising together

Apart from their communal farm, they also have backyard gardens. The produce they are able to harvest from it, Apricio said, helps their families to get by. Through the help of the National Council of Churches of the Philippines and the Citizens Disaster Response Center, they were able to acquire farm tools and seeds to jump-start their farms.

Women farmers, despite having to deal with their own share of struggles, still reached out to others in times of needs. When Typhoon Ulysses hit their province, they tapped their networks to help provide relief goods and hygiene kits for women farmers.

They also put up a community pantry, where they shared their produce from their backyard gardens to the rest of the village.

For Apricio, everyone has their own share of struggles and why they continue to carry on with their fight. But for her, when the fight includes her family and their right to decent living, there is no turning back. “We still have many things to do for this cause.” (RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.com)

This report was published with assistance from APWLD Media Fellowship

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