Criminalization of peasant land rights claimants and redistributive agrarian reform:
The case of Bondoc Peninsula (Part 1 of 3: Tesalona Case)
This is an excerpt from “Backlash and Beyond: The Criminalization of Agrarian Reform and Peasants” by Danilo Carranza and Jennifer Franco
Bondoc Peninsula is a good example of a rural local authoritarian enclave that was consolidated during the dictatorship during the 1970s-80s, before surviving its collapse and the subsequent re-inauguration of a clientelist electoral regime. Until the early-2000s, most of the land and labor (mainly share-cropping peasants) in the region was under the control of a handful of big landlords. Large areas of the peninsula were locked up in large coconut haciendas lorded over by a few elite families backed up by private armies. In some cases, these private armies overlapped with the underground Maoist rebel movement through ‘unholy alliances’ (as they are known locally). Economically, the region’s life-blood is agriculture and specifically the production of coconut, a relatively low-value crop mainly grown for oil for domestic use. Although most of the region’s land is used for agriculture (including grazing), a large portion is classified as (state/public) timberland, adding complexity to the agrarian reform process, given that timberland, by definition, is not alienable and disposable and therefore not subject to agrarian reform. De facto private ownership and land titles have emerged throughout the region over time. Some of the region’s land was titled during the Spanish colonial period. During the American colonial period, large areas came under the control of prominent elite families through pasture leases. By the late-1950s, the latter began to develop some areas for cultivation, recruiting landless farmers inside and outside the region as tenants and laborers. Many of these elite families managed to change their legal relationship to the land by securing titles through judicial application.20 It was through this dubious titling process that lands within forest or timber zones were effectively ‘privatized’ despite not having been declared alienable and disposable. Therefore, much public (state-owned) land came under private control.
One of the most common forms of criminalization in Bondoc Peninsula has been the filing of ‘estafa charges against impoverished, share-cropping tenant farmers who either deliberately withhold or fail to turn over the required share of the coconut harvest’. Under Article 315 (1b) of the Revised Penal Code, estafa (or swindling) refers to ‘misappropriating or converting, to the prejudice of another, money, goods, or other personal property received by the offender in trust, or on commission, or for administration, or under any obligation involving the duty to make delivery of, or return, the same, even though such obligation be totally or partially guaranteed by a bond; or by denying having received such money, goods, or other property’. Despite its ‘utter lack of legal or moral basis’, the practice of charging peasants with the crime of estafa increased during the 1990s.21
Activist agrarian lawyers have argued that the validity of the charge is automatically limited by the operation of leasehold law on all tenanted lands. Under leasehold law, ‘the pertinent liability of the tenant to the landholder is a mere monetary civil obligation to pay lease rentals’, with failure to do not in the nature of ‘conversion or misappropriation of such money or goods received’, which is the essence of estafa (Arias 1998, p. 3). Charging tenants with estafa thus constitutes a ‘crooked legal maneuver’ by elite landholders, resisting redistribution under the government agrarian reform program (Arias 1998, p. 1). It is even more legally and morally ‘crooked’ (not to mention untenable) in instances whereby the landholder does not legally own the land, but rather is just pretending to own it to collect share payments from impoverished peasants, as is the case in much of Bondoc Peninsula.
3.1. Tesalona Case
One of the earliest known cases of criminalization dates back to the early-1960s, pitting several small farmer-settlers occupying a 200-hectare site (near the boundary of San Narciso-Mulanay) against elite claimant Sofronio Tesalona. When the farmer-settlers petitioned the Bureau of Forest Development in 1961 for the land to be awarded to them as the actual occupants, Tesalona suddenly arrived in the area, introduced himself as the owner and began demanding a share of the farmers’ produce. Knowing that the land was public land, the farmers asked Tesalona to show his title. When Tesalona failed to show any proof of ownership, the farmers ignored his demand for a share of the harvest. In response, Tesalona filed criminal charges against the farmers, including arson and forcible entry. While none of the charges ever went to court, they were aimed at harassing the farmers into submission. Ultimately, this strategy failed. After twenty years, the Court of First Instance finally ruled that neither the farmers nor Tesalona could own the land, since the land was within a timberland zone and was not disposable for private ownership. Although the legal ruling was not in their favor, the farmers still won the battle, managing to maintain peaceful possession of the land throughout this time and until the present.