Amid COVID-19 lockdown and land conflict, a village wages struggle to live

Some farmers in a village in Norzagaray, Bulacan (some 49 kilometers north of Manila) sneak away their own harvest from the land now taken over by a real estate company. Since the COVID-19 lockdown began, transport of goods and foodstuffs into and out of their community have been delayed, threatening how they can pull round the days ahead. (Photo by Nikki Teng / Philippine Collegian)

How would a small poor village be faring in the time of the coronavirus? In a community in the central Philippines, the farmers’ struggle against land grabs amid threats of food insecurity has taken on greater urgency.

By RICHARD CALAYEG CORNELIO
Bulatlat.com

NORZAGARAY, Bulacan — While the government scrambles to cushion the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cities, not much has been clamored, at the same pitch, about relief for rural communities where the crisis has also rippled across. Their vulnerabilities are doubly sharpened in light of startlingly deficient aid and inequalities in access to resources that, in the first place, they have been grappling with for so long.

In lieu of an inclusive and humanitarian response to take care of the most vulnerable, blanket restrictions have been in place in entire regions. What is perceived by some sectors as an ill-coordinated Luzon-wide quarantine imposed since March 16 has slackened the flow of goods. Trucks bearing farm produce from provinces now form long queues at police and military checkpoints on the borders of city centers.

This is also true, the other way around, for the likes of San Mateo, a poor village in Norzagaray, Bulacan where scores of families have been eking out paltry wages since a mass eviction last October forced them out of their homes on lands they had been cultivating for decades.

The COVID-19 lockdown left them with uncertain prospects. Those who had found jobs like construction work in Metro Manila now find themselves stranded from their only source of income. With nonessential work shut down, to get by each day would be a tall order until the lockdown is lifted. Farmers turned vendors lament how even food supplies coming in from other farms have reportedly been denied entry.

It is no less than a tragic irony that some of the country’s food producers would now have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for food they could have grown. To blame this misfortune on the COVID-19 pandemic, however, would be to discount the long history of land grabs and displacements that have exacerbated the precarity of the farmers’ lives, to begin with.

Their struggle for land and resources has taken on greater urgency in the face of a public health emergency that threatens to fray the threadbare support they rely on to brave out daily disasters.

Fat of the Land

Amid the lockdown, admonitions against staying out of the streets lose touch with the reality for farmers in Norzagaray who have no homes to return to. Their land had carried them through dire straits long before a real estate developer swooped in and dragged them through a dispute over legal titles and tenancy.

It was a puzzle to Andres* how the 75.5-hectare land in Sitio Compra in San Mateo village, which he had helped till for as long as he could recall. His parents and other farmer tenants continued to work the land and taught the next generation to keep it on.

Soon, settlers arrived and learned to take on farming, too. Andres met and married one of them, Karen*, in 2005. They grew on a plot of land at the foot of the mountains all manner of fruits like bananas, soursop, and guava, and would bring their kids with them during harvest season.

“We’d bring plastic bags and umbrellas,” Karen said. “Even if it was raining, we’d still go on. I’d just drape a jute sack over my kids’ heads and tell them to wait for me in the shade.”

They shared the land with a host of other peasant households who, until 2005, when Royal Moluccan Realty Holdings, Inc. (RMRHI) came and staked its claim, developed the land as theirs. It was a company they had not heard of until lately. What followed was a series of land rights claims, appeals, and a drawn-out engagement with courts.

“We have something concrete to hold on to,” Karen said, referring to the notice of coverage issued by government’s Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) that identified the land as up for distribution to beneficiaries, as part of the government’s comprehensive agrarian reform program (CARP). “We’re confident, because all these documents favor us. How can they say we have no rights, that we’ve lost?”

RMRHI reasoned that CARP beneficiaries — including those for portions of the land developed before the program was signed into law in June 1988 — could only be farmers who have lived in the area since before the 1980s, including their descendants. Settlers and so-called outsider farmers, or those who worked the land but resided outside the community, could not rightly own the land, then, according to RMRHI.

In 2018, the DARAB’s sheriff decided in favor of the developer and later released a writ of demolition. The order went on to set a dangerous precedent for the state-supported violence the farmers would confront in defense of the land that they thought, all along, the law had agreed to be theirs.

Law of the land

Together with more than 50 personnel of the Philippine National Police (PNP) Norzagaray, armed goons of RMRHI, and DARAB officials, a 30-strong demolition team tore down 26 houses and destroyed other properties of the farmer families in the area, in February 2018.

Andres’s cousin’s house was one of those first razed to rubble. “He was still inside when it happened. He didn’t understand what was happening even when they were ripping everything to pieces around him. He had this sundry store next door that they emptied out,” Karen said. “Even money and jewelry were not spared. It all happened so fast.”

The 75.5-hectare land in Sitio Compra in San Mateo village boasts of sloping fallows and flatlands suitable for a variety of fruits and crops. The land has also born witness to the longstanding dispute between small food producers and a commercial developer. (Photo by Nikki Teng / Philippine Collegian)

A seven-year-old child was still reportedly inside another house when the demolishers carried out the wipeout within just a few hours. Other kids shook in fear as they looked on helplessly. Local media reported that a teenager suffered seizures in the middle of all this and was rushed to the hospital.

Marie’s house up on the hill proved too much of a trouble to reach for the demolishers. She recalled how, even without a court order, the operations pushed through. Some community members who RMRHI had frightened into surrendering their land had had their signatures attached to an attendance sheet, which was later used as proof that a pre-demolition conference had supposedly taken place.

“My sibling was one of them… P30,000 (about USD 580) was hard to turn down,” Marie said, referring to the compensation that RMRHI had offered for every household. “Plus, of course, we only have machetes. That’s no match to the goons’ guns.” Most others who had taken up RMRHI’s offer only built a house on the land, Marie said. “Those of us who stayed are farmers. We need the land to survive.”

Yet the demolition had since crippled their earnings. A checkpoint at the main road barred the delivery of harvests into and out of the farm. Private security guards of RMRHI were deployed and roamed the area. They tacked “No Trespassing” signs onto the barbed wire strung all around, except on the hilly side that some farmers later discovered they could cut through to get to their crops and still sneak away harvest.

They found a small portion of the land they could still till. “But it was just like ‘guerilla warfare,’ as we call it,” former lawmaker Ariel Casilao of the pro-peasant partylist Anakpawis quipped, citing how farmers had to be extra-careful not to get caught by the guards or on the CCTVs installed around the perimeter.

In September 2018, Casilao joined other farmers’ rights groups in a fact-finding and solidarity mission in the area and launched bungkalan, a land occupation and cultivation campaign, on a one-hectare land. No sooner had the mission ended than the goons rooted out the crops and demolished the makeshift hut the farmers had assembled to house the bungkalan participants.

“Bungkalan is one of the highest forms of collective action to assert the right to land,” Casilao said. “We strive to raise the farmers’ consciousness about the struggle for land that is not confined to just the legal aspect. It should be complementary. We confront the legal issues, all the legal needs of the case — whether in court, before DAR, or at the local government level — until we get to wherever it takes us, be it in the Supreme Court or the CA.”

In January 2019, Casilao co-authored two resolutions to urge Congress to conduct an investigation, in aid of legislation, on the lethargic implementation of land distribution to the prospective peasant beneficiaries and on the violent demolition the latter had faced the year before.

The cogs of parliamentary bureaucracy, however, squeaked into motion so belatedly that, before the congressional committees could begin any inquiry, another wave of demolition swept the community.

Lay of the land

Marie found her house burned to smithereens. It was a complete turnaround of fortune from a few days before. She and several other women farmers had earned handsomely from selling vegetable produce at a pop-up market in the middle of a park in Quezon City, a one-and-a-half ride away from Norzagaray.

“I’ll never forget the faces of those who did it,” Marie said. “They’re still around.” The RMRHI security guards assisted a demolition crew comprising more than 80 individuals who had been paid and sent in from Sapang Palay, a village in the nearby city of San Juan Del Monte, Bulacan. They burned down two houses along with Marie’s, while a row of others was demolished in the morning of October 23.

Farmers from Norzagaray worried of their harvest left hanging to dry or rot on the land they could no longer access, for fear of retaliation from armed goons roaming the area. (Photo by Nikki Teng / Philippine Collegian)

No court order, however, was presented to justify the hasty clearing operations. Neither did the residents receive a prior notice which they should have been furnished at least a month before the date of eviction, per the Urban Development and Housing Act (UDHA) of 1992. The demolition team instead presented a permit from the Municipal Engineering Office, citing supposed violations of the building code.

Yet the farmers argued that it was not, in the first place, within the ambit of the municipal engineer’s power to allow the demolition of houses built on lands classified as agricultural instead of residential or mixed-use. “We don’t own mansions, just thatched huts. Why would they demand building permits from us?” said Karen, whose house similarly fell prey, alongside 11 others, to the illegal wipeout.

For Ester, there was no way to recover the USD 250 that the goons stole before ripping her house down and setting it afire. She said she would have spent the money on a carabao. The thought of another cropping season, though, seemed too far-fetched, then, as she and her neighbors watched demolishers ruin their belongings. Some even slashed open a sack of unmilled rice and scattered it all over the place.

Several residents looked to the local police for help, to no avail. Meanwhile, the village authorities said they only received the report at midnight. “Is that even possible? What kind of office receives paperwork at midnight?” Marie said.

Only because she had nowhere else to turn to did she again approach the village chief several months later. It was Christmas. Her 11-year-old son accompanied her husband on an errand back to the shell of their old house, now enclosed within an area fenced off with galvanized iron sheets. The child stayed put while his father went off to herd back and tether their cow. Before long, gunshots rang out. He ran crying into the woods till he chanced on an old neighbor. He said he thought his father had been shot to death.

Just like before, however, the village authorities left Marie waiting for a few hours before accommodating her complaint. She feared, too, that where they had relocated, in a rental apartment near the village hall, was no help in appeasing her son’s anxiety and trauma.

“Just the other night, at midnight, we couldn’t sleep. Gunshots could be heard coming from just across the village hall,” she said, having counted seven blasts. “Nobody even bothered to tell off those goons.”

In Ester’s case, a farmer household from a village close by took her family in as tenants. She continued to farm but could no longer sell her produce at a profit. Karen’s family, in the meantime, settled not far away from their walled-off farm in Sitio Compra, tightening the purse strings to squeak by on Andres’s USD 10 daily salary as a construction worker in an adjacent city. He worried his contract would expire soon.

In celebration of Peasant Month in the Philippines, farmers from different provinces flocked to the Quezon City Memorial Circle to set up a makeshift market for their produce, October 20, 2019. Farmers from Norzagaray traveled to the capital as well, but would later find their homes wrecked and torched by armed goons and a demolition crew. (Photo by Kent Ivan Florino / Philippine Collegian)

Still, many of them believe they could still return to their old ways. All hope is not lost, even on the legal front, said former DAR Secretary Rafael Mariano. All the authorities that should have safeguarded them against attacks could still rectify bureaucratic lapses and deliver redress for all peasant victims, according to Mariano, who also used to chair the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC).

The peasant leader cited, for one, the first ocular inspection report that DAR has yet to release. Should it find that there had been illegal and premature land conversion in the area, the regional office must issue a cease and desist order against RMRHI. Whether the farmers could be considered tenants is moot, for the case, he said, should rather center on their legitimacy as potential agrarian reform beneficiaries.

“That’s why it’s crucial that the entire process of acquisition and distribution continue, as stated by law,” Mariano said, “despite whatever concurrent case is being sought in the courts.”

During his stint as the DAR chief, Mariano made it a point to emphasize during dialogues with farmers’ groups that the government, while bound by its mandate, could only actually endeavor to guarantee that those who have less in life would have more in law. Ultimately, the first port of call should come from within the consolidated ranks of the rural people.

“The peasant sector, as a mass movement, with their organized struggles, should be the decisive force in advancing the people’s right to land,” Mariano said.

Indeed, the Norzagaray farmers only have one another to pull through this ordeal. When, once, the armed guards caught one of them “stealing” away her harvest, the rest went to the police station to clamor for her release. They learned some village officials tried to force her to sign off on an affidavit withdrawing the charges of theft, arson, and malicious mischief that they had filed against two of the RMRHI goons.

“They thought they could fool us,” Marie said. “If they’re looking for criminals, it’s those land grabbers!”

There is no shortage of support they gather from even the seemingly unlikeliest groups. A local church has gone so far as to open its doors to them, offering to host their meetings now that they have been driven out of their lands.

In the days ahead, they also hope to get enough relief and financial subsidies to set up a community kitchen at the church. There they could feed farmer families who can neither work at their farms anymore, nor transport supplies to and from the province, amid the lockdown expected to last for at least a month.

The pandemic looms like another crisis they have to ride out until, once the dust settles, they will carry on standing their ground for the land that is, after all, theirs for the taking. ()

* All the names used are not real. They were given anonymity for security purposes.

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