Filipino farmers are fighting—and dying—for land to till

Decades of half-hearted redistribution have not brought peace to the
island of Negros

(Print edition | Asia)

22 Jun 2019

BACOLOD, NEGROS OCCIDENTAL – THE MAN brushes away tears. He survived a
massacre of nine sugarcane workers in October, he explains, simply
because he had popped away to charge his mobile phone. The victims were
part of a larger band of labourers who, fed up with endless legal
wrangling over the redistribution of land from a plantation called
Hacienda Nene, decided one day to start cultivating part of it. The
murders took place that very night. The authorities say they suspect
communist insurgents, implying they killed their own to generate
sympathy for their cause. The survivor scoffs at this, arguing that it
is landowners who benefit from the intimidation of the landless. “The
irony is that the people feed those who kill them,” he remarks bitterly.

Since 2016, according to the National Federation of Sugar Workers
(NFSW), an activist group, 69 agricultural labourers have been murdered
on Negros, an island where around 300,000 workers produce about half of
the Philippines’ sugarcane. Workers are supposed to earn around 300
pesos ($5.75) a day. In practice, activists say, they often receive 100
pesos or less. And from planting in April until the harvest in
August—the tiempo muerto or dead time—they often earn nothing at all.
Redistribution of land from big estates to landless peasants should
provide a way out of this penury. Indeed, the constitution enshrines the
just distribution of farmland as a fundamental goal of the state. Yet
progress is slow and agitation for more vigorous reform often deadly.

Under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme, adopted in 1988,
tenant farmers and landless agricultural labourers were entitled to
apply to the government for land of their own. The land was to come from
acquisitions—forcible if need be—from the owners of big estates, who
were supposed to keep only five hectares of land, plus three more for
each heir. Between 1987 and 2016 the government spent 286bn pesos on the
programme. It distributed 4.8m hectares of land to 2.8m beneficiaries.
Although the programme was supposed to end in 2016, the government is
still working on a big backlog of cases, with some 600,000 hectares
still to be parcelled out, much of it on Negros.

President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power three years ago, promised
faster action. Initially he picked an agricultural activist to head the
Department of Agrarian Reform, delighting poor farmers. But a
congressional committee full of landowners blocked the appointment.

The problem is partly administrative. Myriad government agencies and
departments have struggled to work together to determine who should
receive land and what it is worth. Records are patchy and
landowners—naturally—resistant. Loopholes abound which allow the rich to
keep their land. They are exempt, for example, if they can claim to be
using their land for aquaculture, ecotourism or keeping livestock,
according to Rolando Rillo of the NFSW. Another loophole involves using
agricultural land for construction projects—a process Mr Duterte has
said he wants to make easier.

Moreover, even when redistribution goes ahead, beneficiaries can
struggle. It can be hard to earn a living from just a single hectare of
sugarcane—the size of plot many farmers on Negros have received. Some
cannot afford inputs such as seed and fertiliser, let alone install
irrigation systems. Successive governments have not kept promises to
provide money and technical support. The NFSW estimates that 70% of
redistributed land from sugarcane plantations on Negros has been leased
back to the original owner.

Nonetheless, land reform has done some good. A study from 2015 found
that households that had benefited from redistribution had higher
incomes. In 2009 the World Bank found “some significantly positive
welfare impacts on its beneficiaries”.

Other counter-poverty schemes, however, are more effective. When it
comes to improving the wellbeing of the rural poor, “conditional cash
transfers blow all other programmes away,” says Roehlano Briones of the
Philippine Institute for Development Studies. And land reforms seem to
foment conflict. The authorities contend that the activists who campaign
for it are closet communists who recruit farmers to the New People’s
Army (NPA), a 50-year-old insurgent group which America labels as
terrorist. One activist admits: “There’s some crossover.” There are
perhaps 300-400 NPA guerrillas on Negros, ranged against some 2,000

The president has started a campaign to pacify the island. “It’s much,
much worse under Duterte,” says the former head of a farming
co-operative near the town of Toboso, describing a recent spate of night
raids by soldiers on his hamlet. On-again-off-again peace talks with NPA
leaders have not stemmed the fighting.

Through locked gates in Bacolod, the biggest city on Negros, an activist
says that he and his family have talked about how likely he is to be
killed. He expresses optimism, however, that whenever his murder comes,
it will at least serve to inspire other campaigners.