Criminalization of peasant land rights claimants and redistributive agrarian reform:
The case of Bondoc Peninsula (Part 3 of 3: Uy Case)
This is an excerpt from “Backlash and Beyond: The Criminalization of Agrarian Reform and Peasant” by Danilo Carranza and Jennifer Franco.
The next case reveals a far less optimistic outlook than the previous two. The tenant farmers’ collective struggle for the land located in Sitio Libas, San Narciso began after the landlord Uy filed criminal charges of estafa against a father and son in June 1997, with the two arrested and jailed for allegedly stealing two sacks of copra (smoked dried coconut meat). When estafa charges were filed against the two tenants, they were not aware of the illegitimacy of the charges, much less the underlying possibility that the landholder did not even possess a valid land title. They did not personally know any private lawyers who could help them out of their immediate predicament, nor were they familiar with the office of the public attorney (PAO), whose job it is to take up indigent cases. Instead, they reached out to the local guerrillas to ask for assistance, since the rebels had once mentioned providing free lawyers to peasants in trouble with the law. The rebels reportedly responded by saying they would only discuss the matter with them after the two men were released from jail. The two men ended up staying in jail for fifty-nine days, and were only released after the municipal judge reduced the bail and let them go.
In the meantime, some of their fellow tenants had stopped harvesting in their assigned villages, out of the fear that they would be next to suffer the hardships of being thrown in jail. A group of community organizers learned about the developing situation during a visit to a nearby village. Another Sitio Libas tenant and close relative of the two men met the activists and arranged for a meeting with the others to discuss the situation. Through this connection, the tenants were able to persuade a volunteer lawyer to take on the estafa case. After several hearings, the case was dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence in January 1998.
Learning about the struggles of farmers elsewhere in the peninsula, the emboldened tenants began to take steps to claim the land. They organized themselves as the Free Association of Farmers in Sitio Libas (Malayang Samahan ng mga Magsasaka sa Sitio Libas or MSMSL), and petitioned for agrarian reform coverage in October 1997. In taking this step, the tenants signaled their dissociation from both ‘hacienda law’ and ‘guerrilla law’; indeed, their place at that time was in fact still a stronghold of the underground guerrilla movement. Tragically, they would soon learn that such action would not be tolerated by either, while at the same time the local military would suspect them, ironically, of being anti-government rebels.
The agrarian reform case moved slowly, mainly due to landlord resistance and difficulties in locating a title, which few believed existed anyway. Whether or not there was a title mattered little for the tenants’ land rights claims, given that state-sponsored redistribution of the land to them could proceed with or without a title. However, the lack of a title had to be verified in order to determine which set of administrative rules and procedures would apply, which, in turn, required conducted extensive research that involved physically locating and subsequently analyzing numerous official land classification and land registration documents from numerous government agencies and offices. Unwilling to rely on DAR alone, the tenants became directly involved in interviewing local DENR officials and conducting archival research at the DENR’s regional land management office, the office of the Tax Assessor and the Land Registration Authority. They eventually discovered that the property fell within a zone of alienable and disposable public land, but found no evidence that a homestead patent had ever been issued for it, casting new doubt on the legality of the landholder’s ownership claim, while further strengthening their own.
In June 1998, the Uys retaliated, with MSMSL leader Edwin Vender murdered in broad daylight by a group led by the Uys’ overseer, after the latter accused him of withholding his share payment.43 Vender’s family filed murder charges against the perpetrators and were eventually placed in the state’s witness protection program in preparation for a trial. However, the case stalled after a few months when the local police effectively refused to serve the arrest warrants. The killers were left free to roam, maintaining a threatening presence in and around the contested area. Nonetheless, instead of retreating and taking a lesson from the farmers’ struggle in the Aquino estate, the Uy tenants launched a collective share payment boycott. This move caught the landholder in a legal trap: he could again file dubious criminal charges and be required to show proof of ownership, which could then be used by the tenants to facilitate coverage of the property as private land, regardless of the outcome of a criminal case; alternatively, he could avoid pressing legal charges and accept the loss of share payments, which would also undermine his legal claim of ownership, but unleash an iron fist to defend his claim. In the end, the landholder chose the latter option. Violence again was unleashed to cow the farmers into submission. In March 2000, men armed with bolos and guns attacked another MSMSL leader, Reymundo Tejeno. While Tejeno managed to defend himself and survive his injuries (and narrowly escaped a second attempt on his life while in hospital recovering from his wounds), he was killed two years later. The underground guerrillas claimed responsibility for Tejeno’s murder, although by then it was was clear that an alliance had been forged between the Uys and the guerrillas to prevent the 3,500-hectare hacienda from being redistributed.
The Tejeno murder marked the start of an intensive joint campaign against the tenants in all Uy claimed landholdings. This campaign aimed at undermining MSMSL’s (and others in Uy-claimed landholdings elsewhere who followed suit) access and control of the land, as well as the harvest that they had painstakingly tried to construct using an innovative combination of direct action and administrative mobilization of state law. Since then, more farmer leaders in Uy landholdings have been killed. The farmers in Sitio Libas as well as neighboring Uy-claimed holdings are routinely threatened and harassed by both the guerrillas and members of the landholder’s private army, such that the leaders have been forced into hiding and most families temporarily pulled out of the area (Task Force Bondoc Peninsula 2003). Meanwhile, the coverage proceedings have dragged on, especially after a survey revealed more overlapping claims to be verified before free patents could be issued in favor of the tenants. Nonetheless, the real problem is whether and how the state mobilize to effectively re-install the farmers on the land once it has been officially awarded to them on paper.
The three cases discussed above represent the tip of the iceberg insofar as documented cases are concerned. Table 1 summarizes cases that have been documented by the NGO Quezon Association for Rural Development and Democratization Services (QUARDDS). Criminalization of peasants’ rights in Bondoc Peninsula has continued and perhaps even widened over the past decade. As of February 2010, there were 57 documented cases involving 10 different kinds of criminal charges, filed against 249 farmers by just eight of the region’s landlords, most of them based on dubious land ownership claims and linked to land conflicts. While some are more like relics of past land conflicts that have been more or less resolved in favor of the peasants, leaving just the criminal cases to be dismissed, the vast majority are still active land conflict cases.
These cases of criminalization reveal gaps and flaws in the prevailing political-legal institutional context; problems rooted in the fact that large tracts of land remain concentrated in the hands of a few, even after years of efforts to implement CARP. The social, political and cultural aspects of successful land redistribution are difficult to measure and assess. Some see a straightforward breaking of the nexus between peasants and landlord and the transformation of the former into relatively ‘free-er’ agents, with a greater degree of autonomy in social and political decision-making and action vis-a-vis both state and non-state actors. Meanwhile, others observe that while tenant-landlord ties might be cut through land reform, other unequal relationships can emerge to take their place, such as between government officials and merchants on the one side and newly created small family farmers on the other. In other cases, a peasant’s key relationship might shift from being with a domestic landlord to a transnational company, with the underlying issue of who controls the land and its products not resolved in their favor. In the Philippines, the overall picture is mixed. While power of the country’s landed elite has certainly been eroded to an unprecedented degree, the criminalization of rights-holding peasants perhaps illustrates both the progress made in eroding landlord power and the failure to complete this process to date. In the next section, we turn to examine how the ‘criminalized’ peasants responded to this situation in an effort to force higher state authorities to intervene in defense of their right to have land rights.