Fighting for Land, a Decent Income, for their Lives and their Livelihood – the Daily Struggles of Farmers of Negros


A government ad extolling farmers as heroes for providing food for our tables has been airing regularly on television.  It also describes what the government is supposedly doing to support Filipino farmers.  But the farmers of Guihulngan, Negors Oriental tell a different story: of fighting for their land, higher wages and farm gate prices, and fighting for their lives and their livelihood as they confront daily harassments and threats from the military, and the impending operations of mining corporations.

BY RONALYN V. OLEA
Bulatlat
Volume VIII, Number 28, August 17-23, 2008

GUIHULNGAN, Negros Oriental – The intensified operations of several units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) here, purportedly to crush communist rebels, have not stopped farmers to fight for their livelihood.

Since the latter part of 2007, the Central Command (CenCom) of the AFP declared Negros as its priority area in its counter-insurgency campaign. The CenCom specifically identified Central Negros, which includes Guihulngan, La Libertad, Vallehermoso and Canlaon in Negros Oriental and Magallon, Isabela, La Castallena, Himamaylan and Binalbagan in Negros Occidental.

Operating in the area are the 303rd Infantry Brigade (IB) and 302nd Infantry Brigade, under which are four infantry battalions 11th IB, 61st IB, 15th IB and 79th IB.  Reinforcing them are special elite forces of the 1st Scout Ranger (SR) Battalion and two Division Reconnaissance Companies (DRC).

Two more companies of the 12th IB supervising more than 2,000 elements of Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit (Cafgu) and almost two platoons of the Revolutionary Proletarian Army-Alex Boncayao Brigade (RPA-ABB) also augment the AFP in its operations. The RPA-ABB is a splinter group of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which has signed a peace agreement with the government.

Elements of the Philippine National Police (PNP), specifically the Regional Mobile Group (RMG)-Region 6 and the Provincial Mobile Groups (PMG) complement the AFP’s operations.

Death threats, harassment

But state security forces are not only conducting operations against the NPA, the Kapunongan Alang sa Ugma sa Gagmay’ng Mag-uuma sa Oriental Negros (Kaugmaon-Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas) said civilians, including their peasant members, have become targets of harassment.

Erwin SabijonIn an interview, Erwin Sabijon, chairperson of Kaugmaon, disclosed that their organization has been affected by militarization. He said the military has issued death threats to their barangay (village) leaders. “Some of our members fear for their safety,” Sabijon said in Cebuano.

Sabijon said that out of the 33 barangays in Guihulngan, Kaugmaon has 27 chapters.

Sabijon replaced Emilia Quirante as Kaugmaon chair. Quirante has been detained since March 2007 for trumped-up charges of child abuse and rebellion.

He himself has been subjected to various forms of harassment. For many months now, he said he could not go home because the military has been looking for him.

The harassment, Sabijon related, started as early as 2004. A certain Lt. Angcog summoned him to go to the barangay hall of Bgy. Mani-ak; the soldiers then were occupying the said hall. Angcog told him that he is included in the military’s order of battle. “He showed me the list,” said Sabijon.

When the soldiers tried to get his bag, he told them, “You don’t have a search warrant. I am not a criminal.” That day, he went away alive.

But Sabijon said attempts on his life continue. Sometime in 2007, Sabijon said two soldiers disguised themselves as farmers and stayed near their house. Cautious, Sabijon took another way out of the place. The next day, a neighbour told him, “There were two soldiers waiting for you. It’s good they did not chance upon you.”

On July 22, after attending the second day of the three-day dialogue with Guihulngan City Mayor Ernesto Reyes on the rice crisis, Sabijon and his colleagues rode in a tricycle on their way home. A private car hit their tricycle. Witnesses said that the car went inside the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP). Another witness said that the car was parked inside the compound of the Mayor’s office before the incident happened.

The next day, Sabijon went to the public market. A man came to him, hit him on the side with a 45-calibre pistol and went away.

In another incident, Sabijon was speaking in a rally in Guihulngan City. He was talking about landlessness as the number one problem of the farmers. A soldier told him, “Dong, may lupa ka. Nakahanda na ang libingan mo!” (Man, you have land. Your graveyard is waiting for you.)

In May this year, Sabijon, together with more than a hundred farmers were on their way to the city on board a government dump truck. They were stopped at a military checkpoint at Bgy. Hilaitan. One of the soldiers told him, “Why are you rallying against the government when you are using a government vehicle?” Sabijon replied in Cebuano, “It is ours. We are taxpayers. Even your underwear is our property. We pay for your salary.”

The soldiers unlocked the safety of their high-powered rifles. They pointed their guns at Sabijon but did not fire. The farmers were not able to pass through the checkpoint and opted to stay in the barangay hall until the morning of the next day.

In Bgy. Linantuyan, Sabijon said Kaugmaon members are routinely being summoned by the military and interrogated for two hours. He said that Kaugmaon members are being forced them to confess that they are members of the NPA. Sabijon said that their denial or admission, however, would mean the same thing for the military whose mind is set that they are members of the NPA.

Fighting for their livelihood

Kaugmaon maintained that the upsurge in the number of troops operating in their areas has greatly affected the economic life of the farmers. Many of the leaders could no longer work in the field.

But Sabijon said their organization is not totally paralyzed. “The military cannot claim that it has successfully crushed our organization,” said Sabijon.

Their campaign for land reform continues, Sabijon said. He cited the campaigns for the increase in farm gate prices of corn, banana, coffee and coconut and for the increase in salary of sugar workers.

He said that sugar workers are paid P45 ($0.99 at an exchange rate of $1=P45.31) for 12 hours of work per day by Mayor Reyes. They have no benefits.

Kaugmaon was able to lobby for a higher salary for sugar workers at the Buenavista plantation owned by William Antepuesto. From P50 ($1.10) per day for clearing or preparation of the land, sugar workers are now paid P70 ($1.54). From P80 to P100 ($1.76 to $2.207) for plowing, it was increased to P120 ($2.648) per day.  The P100 ($2.207) per ton payment sugar workers get for the cutting of the sugarcane has been increased to P150 to P200 per day ($3.10 to $4.41).

The wholesale price of banana, which used to be P0.60 ($0.01) per piece is now pegged at P0.70 ($0.015).

Sabijon said that while the increases are minimal, these mean a lot to farmers.

Sabijon related that they are also campaigning for a shift to organic farming. Chemical inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides are expensive. He said that they pay P2,700 to P3,000 ($59.59 to $66.21) for every sack of fertilizer.

He said they still have so much work to do to alleviate the plight of farmers. Landlessness, he said, remains the number one problem with 1:4 sharing of landlords and peasants. “The farmers pay for everything.”

Mining

Sabijon also talked about their campaign against the entry of mining corporations in Guihulngan. They have formed the Guihulngan Anti-Mining Alliance.

There is a pending application for Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) by Philmet (formerly Western Mining Corporation) for extracting copper and gold covering 88,000 hectares spread over 14 towns including Guihulngan.

The Tañon Strait on the coastal part of the City is under exploratory drilling by the Japan Exploration Company (JAPEX).

The Geograce Corporation, the director of which is former presidential spokesperson Mike T. Defensor, also has a mining project in Ayungon, four towns away from Guihulngan. According to the Geograce website, the Ayungon Project is a 4,717 hectare porphyry copper-gold prospect on the island of Negros, Philippines. The southeastern part of Negros Island is found to have positive indications of precious (gold and silver), base metals (copper, lead, zinc) and other metallic mineralization.

Sabijon deemed that the intensified military operations are aimed to pave the way for mining activities in the province.

Sabijon said he attended a dialogue with the City Council last July. He registered anew their group’s opposition to large-scale mining operations.

He said that while Vice Mayor Caesar Macalua has supported their stance, Mayor Ernesto Reyes has been silent on the issue. Members of the City Council have different views.

Sabijon said that foreign mining corporations are the only ones to benefit. Farmers will be dislocated, he said. “Foreign companies process raw materials from our country and sell these to us as finished products,” he explained.

Survival

Sabijon said there is no other way but to fight for their survival.

He said that while they can choose not to fight and live somewhere else, they are bound to face the same problems.

He said that only through collective effort can they be able to surmount the challenges ahead. “Wala nang atrasan,” (There’s no turning back.) Sabijon said smiling. Bulatlat

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