Solidarity and the plight of Philippine farmers

In the fight for agrarian reform, too many of us quietly sit on the sidelines
Solidarity and the plight of Philippine farmers

Women farmers have their heads shaved last month to call on the Philippine government to fully implement land reform and distribute land to landless peasants. (Photo by Jimmy Domingo)

One of the key themes that often finds its way into Pope Francis' message is that of solidarity. He probably often talks about it to challenge people because as he himself said, it is a word that makes a lot of individuals in comfortable situations "uncomfortable." He has referred to it, too, as a "dirty word" as far as the economically developed countries are concerned. Solidarity unsettles people because it goes beyond charity, it compels one to help correct injustice, says Pope Francis.

It is difficult to sustain solidarity around an issue that seemingly doesn't get resolved. There have been triumphs in agrarian reform, yes, but whatever victories claimed by the farmers have always been under threat of reversal. One activist has intimated that even donors have gone cold on their support for agrarian reform struggle.

"Woe to those who enact unjust statutes and who write oppressive decrees. Depriving the needy of judgment and robbing my people's poor of their rights."

That's Ka Jaime 'Jimmy' Tadeo quoting bible verses (from Isaiah Chapter 10, verses 1-2), as he is wont to do when he speaks of problems of farmers like him. Ka Jimmy infuses farmers' struggle in the Philippines with faith-based perspective, but citing the biblical passages might as well give one also a sense of how historical their problem is (though maybe not as old as the bible).

Ka Jimmy and other members of Save Agrarian Reform Alliance (SARA), all veterans of the struggle for social justice for the Philippine peasantry, are still fighting. They fight against continuing problems related to agrarian reform as well as new ones arising from efforts of those who want to take away what the farmers fought for and won to give way to business interests.  

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The sacrifices and the laments persist, making it more difficult to get sustained solidarity from supporters. The life of Filipino farmers, much like Lent, is a never-ending reenactment of age-old suffering. The crucifixions are repeated; though the promised salvation, by human law, is never fully achieved.

Ka Jimmy talks about a new cycle of passion and crucifixion, this after owning his land through a hard-fought battle. The old man remains tenacious as ever in carrying his cross, augmenting his strength through fellow farmer leaders and young activists, and from his bible verses and lines from poetry. 

The latest "treachery" Ka Jimmy talks about is the threat of land conversion, which would see his small farm taken to give way to socialized housing being developed by a real estate company. The government’s National Irrigation Authority (NIA), claims Ka Jimmy, is easing its passage — an act of betrayal of farmers' interests.

"The land use conversion will block the irrigation and water flow to other farmlands. Worse, it will submerge 34 hectares of land during the rainy season from July to October and affect 45 small farmers. During the dry season, 12 hectares of land will be deprived of irrigation, affecting 12 farmers. But once the socialized housing goes on full swing, almost all the agricultural lands will be gone, affecting 85 percent of the community’s population who relies on farming," he recites as if in a litany.

Ka Jimmy says he is supportive of socialized housing, but not if it will impinge on agricultural lands and affect farmers' livelihoods and their community's food security.

In the province of Bataan, farmers embroiled in numerous complaints have not been given any documents or status report by the Department of Agrarian Reform. They claim that even those who already have their papers have no clear status as to when they can own their lands. 

One of the land cases involves 110 hectares that South Korean company Janghun Corporation plans to convert into a golf course in Abucay.

The sacrifices have not only been in sweat and tears, but at times in blood.

In the contested Hacienda Dolores in Porac, Pampanga, two were killed last year. Arman Lumibao Padino, 34 years old, was shot in January in a melee between the farmers and the private guards of the company that claimed ownership of the lands.  Menelao “Melon” Barcia, 54, secretary of the farmers' organization and a village official of Hacienda Dolores, was ambushed in May as he was driving home with his wife. No suspects have been arrested for the killings. The threats and harassments have not stopped.

Who are willing to help carry these farmers' crosses; to walk alongside them in their land struggle? This is not easy to do. Would legislators in a sudden moment of enlightenment and bravery pass laws that would create an Agrarian Reform Commission to investigate circumventions of the land reform law, as an act of solidarity? 

Solidarity is often a political act, and thus incompatible with the status quo. Yet it does not always easily bring forth the desired transformation. Solidarity is therefore not a one-time act; it is a mission as much as it is commitment. Apart from the Catholic Church, whose mandate is to be with and of the poor and marginalized, and organized groups of workers, of women, and allies in social movements, solidarity for farmers' issues is hard to come by.

The dominant view that makes sense especially to urban dwellers and a majority of the middle and upper classes is that development is all about real estate development and urbanization and the conquest of space for business and commercial purposes. The idea that farmers should earn from the lands they till; should live with dignity as owners of lands and not just as paid labor; should be able to give their kids a better future, seem to be strange or remote.

But even in this age of solidarity-through-fingertips where the prominent space for social causes and political acts is social media, one does not lose faith that young people continue to embody hope.

Students have been helping farmers in their agrarian reform advocacy, willingly going on exposure trips to farming communities, even those that are under threat of harassment, in an attempt to understand the latter's plight. They have been launching their own campaigns in campuses to raise awareness about agrarian reform and why it is important to express solidarity with the farmers. 

As Easter approaches, let us take hope in their efforts and reflect on how we, too, might truly show solidarity with those in need.

Clarissa V Militante works at Focus on the Global South and is author of the novels Different Countries published in 2010 and We Who Cannot Be Daughters published in 2014.

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