The Struggle for the Land: A View from the Philippines

Cenona Estrada, Chairperson of the Kaugmaon (Photo Credit: Martha Roberts)

This weekend Cafe Rebelde will be hosting The Struggle For the Land, an event that combines a photo exhibit, food, community theatre, followed by a discussion about the intersection of food sovereignty, global land struggle, and state repression. On this occasion we are publishing a new piece by Aiyanas Ormond, an organizer of the event. Over the years Ormond has spent time integrating with urban poor and peasant communities in the Philippines, most recently in the fall of 2015. Below is an account of Kaugmaon, an organization fighting for the land and community control on the Filipino island of Negros. For more information about the event see the bottom of this article. –Editors

“The principle of Kaugmaon is embedded in the struggle for the land. It is a struggle for survival for the members, and it is the undying hope of freedom and of victory at the end, that allows it to survive.”

Cenona Estrada needs to take courage where she can. She’s the chairperson of Kaugmaon, the peasant farmer’s organization on the island of Negros in the Philippines. Enrik Colago, the previous chairperson, was murdered along with his wife in an extrajudicial killing involving the Armed Forces of the Philippines, police, and paramilitaries. Toto Quirante, Enrik’s predecessor, was also killed by the military and his sister, Emilia Quirante – also once a Kaugmaon chairperson – spent 18 months in prison on trumped up charges.   

This militarization and repression, familiar in so many other parts of the Global South, is driven by a basic conflict over land. It is part of a sharp struggle between, on the one hand, some three billion human beings who procure their livelihood through subsistence farming, fishing and hunting, and, on the other, the imperialist conglomeration of landowners, capitalist agribusiness, corporate resource extraction (particularly mining) and various forms of real-estate speculators.

It’s not a conflict that is much talked about or very well understood in the heartlands of the imperialist metropole, but globally it’s the central conflict fueling some of the boldest and most transformative struggles for liberation – as well as many of the worst instances of state repression.

Sugar workers in Negro, Philippines (Photo Credit: Martha Roberts)

There are painful indicators of the tremendous toll that ‘integration’ into the imperialist political economy takes on these communities, such as the elevated suicide rate of debt-burdened farmers in India (47% higher than the national average & 300,000 farmer suicides in the last 20 years) or the permanent condition of poverty in the slums of Cairo, Sao Paulo, Delhi and the other big cities where those driven off the land end up.

On the flip side is the struggles of rural communities for the right to survival, which in this case means land. From the militant organizing and land occupations of the Landless Peasants Movement (MST) in Brazil, to the struggles of rural and Adivasi people in India, to the Zapatista liberated communities, these struggles are a powerful challenge to imperialist hegemony, in part because they pose a concrete alternative to capitalist models of ‘development.’

A view from the Philippines

The immediacy and urgency of the struggle for the land is crystal clear in the mountains of the Philippines. In the Vasayan island of Negros, in the rural hinterland of the secondary city Guihulngan, Erlie Calago has lost both of her parents to this struggle. Her mother Rosalie and father Endrik were leaders of Kaugmaon. For families like theirs, land, survival, dignity and hope are deeply intertwined.

The progressive mass movement in the Philippines identifies their enemy as imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. Anyone who visits the area can quickly see that all three forces are in play in Guihulngan. Through feudalism – the old system of exploitation of peasants by landlords – tenant farmers must turn over a quarter, a third, or even of half of all they produce to the rich families that ‘own’ their lan, even though they may have never set foot on it. While this is a system that pre-dates capitalism, it is held in place by the legal framework of the modern Philippine State, whose military and police secure the property rights of the feudal landlords. Over the years Kaugmaon has waged a successful struggle to reduce the amount paid by peasants to their landlords, making the organization a target.

Peasant rally in the Philippines (Photo Credit: Martha Roberts)

Imperialism – domination by foreign governments and exploitation by foreign multinational corporations – is evident particularly in the hundreds of mining claims on the island. Large capitalist mining companies, including Canadian based and financed operations, lust for the rich mineral resources buried within the mountains of the province. Initially these developments require removal of the farming communities. This first wave of displacement is then exacerbated as the runoff from mining operations pollutes nearby farms and coastal waters, undermining the livelihood of farming and fisherfolk communities.

For its part bureaucrat capitalism is exemplified by the Vice-Mayor of Guihulngan, one of the city’s largest landowners. He leverages political power and influence with the police for his own economic goals, which includes displacing peasant families to make way for plantation farming, ‘eco-tourism,’ and other profit oriented ‘developments.’

Kaugmaon and its members continue to resist land-grabbing and fight for genuine land reform but face off against intense repression and militarization. Nearby, in the city of Escalante, organized farmers have taken the next step, occupying and cultivating the lands that they formerly worked as super-exploited day labourers for the benefit of the sugar-baron landlords. These communities with access to land are visibly healthier; teenagers stay in the community (rather than migrating to the city) and the malnutrition, ubiquitous in peasant and sugar-worker communities on Negros, is absent. The farmers of Escalante have created a cooperative and sustainable economy in the midst of a sea of intense exploitation of labour, stifled human potential, and the plunder of the environment.

What has allowed the Escalante farmers to take and hold the land in defiance of the interests of landlords, sugar-barons and mining companies?  Like the MST in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Mexico, these communities are organized and united by a transformative vision that goes beyond resistance to capitalism. This shared vision of liberation allows the community to create cooperative forms of production and to thrive economically, while at the same time resisting attempts by landlords to divide and undermine the community or pit families against one another. Another important factor is the presence of the armed revolutionary movement (the NPA or New People’s Army) in the area, which defends the interests of the poor and prevents the military and police from acting with impunity.

The threat of a good example

The examples of oppressed and exploited people resisting the super-exploitation and displacement of imperialist globalization are still few and far between, but they are indispensable models for any future of substantive social and economic justice. Their fight shows that the struggle for the land must be central to any vision of a just, healthy and liberated world. The increasingly obvious reality today is that the capitalist economy can’t and won’t absorb the further billions of people being displaced as imperialism spreads its tentacles across the globe. Nor can the world sustain the further expansion of capitalist industrial food production with all its negative social and ecological consequences.

Join Cafe Rebelde on Saturday, January 30 for The Struggle for the Land Land Reclamation, Food Sovereignty, and State Repression; with speakers, delicious food and community theatre. Grandview Calvary Baptist Church (1803 E. 1st Ave), doors open at 6pm.