New Internationalist

Tales from Tagalog

Issue 363

The odds may be against them, but the people of a village in the Philippines are determined to reclaim their land from sugar. Devlin Kuyek and Andrew Skinner report.

The ride home through the sugar hacienda can be disheartening for the residents of Buntog, a small village within the Canlubang Sugar Estate in the Filipino province of Southern Tagalog. The jeepneys (the distinctive national mode of transportation) that travel across the Estate pass through lands where neighbouring villages and sugar fields recently stood. These lands are now home to an industrial zone for multinational corporations such as Monsanto and BASF – their paved properties and air-conditioned buildings contrasting starkly with the mud road of the hacienda.

The people of Buntog have lived here since 1911 when the area was unoccupied virgin forest. They cleared it and planted coconuts and other crops. But political forces were at work. The US had replaced Spain as the colonial occupier of the Philippines. A group of American industrialists purchased the lands near Buntog from the Spanish church and established the Calamba Sugar Estate. When the Philippines was granted independence in 1946 those lands were transferred to the Filipino élite, eventually ending up with the Yulos, a wealthy family with strong political connections and extensive land holdings, who took over the hacienda in 1948 and renamed it the Canlubang Sugar Estate.

At independence, the people of Buntog made their first formal petition for title to their lands under the new government’s agrarian-reform programme. They were shocked to learn that the Yulos’ claim extended beyond the sugar estate to encompass 9,279 hectares in all, including Buntog. Their petition failed – their lands and all they yielded became the property of the Yulos. The people of Buntog were left with little choice but to seek work in the plantations and mills of the Canlubang Sugar Estate – the Yulos’ fiefdom.

They filed a second petition in the early 1980s. This time they were denied on the curious grounds that the lands were designated as a forest reserve.

When, in 1986, the Aquino Government came to office on the back of a popular revolt, the people of Buntog decided to try a third petition. Aquino’s agrarian-reform programme, however, had many loopholes – most importantly the possibility of exempting lands by converting them to industrial or commercial projects.

The costs of resistance

The Yulos took full advantage. The 9,279 hectares encompassing the Canlubang Sugar Estate were slotted for conversion. With the assistance of the Filipino military, some villages and lands were cleared to make room for an exclusive 36-hole international golf and country club – as well as an export-processing zone where transnational corporations could use the cheap labour made available by the closing of the sugar mill. The conversion of the other sections of the hacienda, including Buntog, is not far off.

The Yulos have still not announced their intentions, but they are already employing a range of tactics to encourage the residents to vacate. The people of Buntog are prohibited from cultivating fruit trees; they cannot harvest coconuts from the trees they themselves planted; they have to pass through an armed checkpoint to leave or enter the hacienda; they are not permitted to install electrical or water facilities.

They have now joined the national Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP). Villagers, both men and women, meet regularly. Many of them feel that a confrontation with the military is imminent. As one resident put it: ‘It is very clear in my mind and with my family that some day we will have to carry guns.’

Buntog is not an isolated case. There are hundreds of similar situations across every province and every island in the country, whether in sugar hacienda, farming areas, fishing towns, or in the regions inhabited by the indigenous Mangyan. Land is the critical issue. Eighty-five per cent of the peasants in the province of Southern Tagalog are landless, despite decades of promised land reform.

And yet, even with the power and military strength of the big landowning élite against them, most peasants are not willing to give up. The costs of resistance are escalating – over 1,000 human-rights violations against peasant leaders and social activists have been documented in the Southern Tagalog region since the most recent government came to power in 2001. So far this year, two human-rights activists and a peasant leader have been assassinated.

As Ladislao, a resident of a fishing village in Southern Tagalog, puts it: ‘To accept eviction is to begin a slow death by hunger and homelessness. It is instead better to die protecting one’s land and family.’

Devlin Kuyek is a researcher with Genetic Resources Action International and a member of the research group Technosciences du vivant et société at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Andrew Skinner is a mining engineer from Northern Ontario. Both recently spent time living with and learning from peasant communities in the Philippines.

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