President Rodrigo Duterte's promise to challenge the deeply entrenched Philippine oligarchy passed a small test Thursday as the government's Department of Agrarian Reform reclaimed a disputed Northern Davao banana plantation from the Lapanday Foods Corporation, allowing rural farmers to occupy the land.
The event, which comes as a win for social justice advocates and Philippine rural poor, comes amid an ongoing peace process with communist rebels and national democratic movements that hinge on the government implementing real agrarian reform across the country.
"This is living proof that we could only achieve our just demands through militant and collective action. We will remain determined in defending the land," said Antonio Tuyak, spokesperson of the Madaum Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association, Inc. Thursday.
Farm workers and peasants have been holding actions for weeks, accusing Lapanday of carrying out a naked land grab. The corporation, owned by the powerful Lorenzo landlord family, has refused orders by Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano — a radical peasant legislator affectionately known to farmers as Ka Paeng — to cede control of 145 hectares of land in Madaum Village, Tagum City.
The company even threatened to engage in an armed confrontation with the government, barricading and booby-trapping the property and hiring 800 private security guards to face off with police and DAR.
Agrarian reform officials backed by police and army personnel accompanied Marbai farmers and thousands of supporters Thursday, who surrounded the plantation's fortified gates and demanded the return of the land, according to local reports. Marbai members successfully entered the Lapanday compound after police cleared the area and the rural militants dismantled the gates.
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas — the Peasant Movement of the Philippines — hailed the reclaiming of the land Thursday, saying it would raise the aspirations of the rural poor in the country. The group represents over a million rural workers, fishers, youth and women across the archipelago.
"The installation starts with the actual occupation of the land, followed by the assertion to control and hold firm the 145 hectares of lands grabbed by the Lorenzo family-owned Lapanday Foods Corp.," said Antonio Flores, secretary-general of the KMP. "Farmers should have the control over the lands without any intervention and retaliation from Lapanday and its armed security," the KMP leader added.
Duterte assured picketing farmers earlier this month of his support for their right to the land, assailing oligarchs' abuse of the judicial system and going so far as repeating the militant farmers' mantra — “Pyudalismo ibagsak,” or “smash feudalism” — and invited the farmers to a lavish dinner at the five-star Manila Hotel.
Social movements remain skeptical, however, about whether the famously temperamental president's big words will translate into equally far-reaching deeds, and how far Duterte is willing to go in confronting the U.S.-backed landed, comprador families who traditionally control the country.
“Rather than putting his best effort on the brutal drug war that has left many from the poorer classes disenchanted with his regime, Duterte should go against big landlords and oligarchs by freely distributing land to poor landless farmers and realizing a program of genuine agrarian reform,” national youth movement Anakbayan said in a statement.
Representative Ariel Casilao, a longtime labor militant and congressman with Anakpawis Party-list, echoed the sentiment. “As to the question of whether President Duterte will deliver on his commitments is yet to be proven,” he told teleSUR.
Casilao explained that for all of Duterte's negative tendencies, for over 30 years as mayor of Davao City he was an ally to progressive organizations of the masses. During his election run in 2016, Duterte even criticized the infamous past attempts at land reform such as former President Corazon Aquino's 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, a pro-landlord failure that he promised to replace.
Duterte also committed to fast-track land redistribution to farmers while implementing free irrigation for farmlands nationwide, according to Casilao. While such bold talk can be dismissed as the hollow campaign promises most successful elections are won with, social movement leaders see room for cautious optimism.
“Unity and struggle is the main attitude in how we relate to him when was still mayor and now as the president,” Casilao added. “Presently, there are issues and policies that are pro-people that we support, which includes land-agrarian issues (and) based on my personal experience, (this) is one of the common grounds that we can work together on.”
While dialogue between social movements and the government continues, working-class militants hope that Thursday's restitution of the 145-hectare plot will encourage dispossessed farmers and peasants to continue their wave of direct actions and occupations, pressing the government to adopt further social measures and to agree on peace terms with Philippine communist guerrillas and allied national democratic movements. Farmworker leaders note that the Lapanday plantation only comprises a small sliver of land that was illegally seized by Lapanday, which amounts to nearly 6,000 hectares.
“There are more Marbai-Lapanday exploitative arrangements in Mindanao. We expect more agrarian reform beneficiaries to launch protests and resistance against (the) plantation lords,” Flores said.
In the meantime, legislators like Casilao hope that dialogue with the president remains fruitful. “The tactical alliance of the progressive movement with President Duterte will continue so long as he delivers on his commitment, he continues the track of achieving major agreements of the peace negotiation,” Casilao said. “Likewise, we will continue to challenge and criticize him on anti-people policies.”
“The unfolding process of President Duterte — whether he will continue to serve the interests and welfare of the people by abandoning the neoliberal economic policies. or in the opposite direction, abandon the peace negotiations, is yet to be seen,” Casilao concluded.
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