Criminalization of peasant land rights claimants and redistributive agrarian reform: The case of Bondoc Peninsula (Part 3 of 3: Uy Case)
March 21, 2017
Agrarian justice: Land in the hands of the tillers
March 22, 2017

Organized peasants’ political response: KMBP’s mass surrender

This is an excerpt from “Backlash and Beyond: Criminalization of Agrarian Reform and Peasant Response in the Philippines”

by Danilo Carranza and Jennifer Franco

The mass surrender strategy drew inspiration notionally from the idea of ‘rightful resistance’ (O’Brien 1996, O’Brien and Li 2006), whereby peasants mobilize central state law as leverage in their face-to-face struggles against erring local officials and political corruption. The actual campaign was shaped by several factors, including growing physical, financial and emotional distress of the peasants (and their families) facing criminal charges, as well as land reform activists’ growing perception of the need to undertake not just ‘legal defensive action’ but also ‘legal offensive action’ targeting the state law field itself through an action designed to achieve both remedy and reform. In this section, we examine how Bondoc’s organized peasants undertook the mass surrender as a form of rightful resistance intended to address the multifaceted problem of criminalization.

In 1999, various landholding-based tenant organizations from among the region’s haciendas came together to form the district-wide Kilusang Magbubukid ng Bondoc Peninsula (KMBP or Peasant Movement of Bondoc Peninsula). The peasants were assisted in this step by the community organizers from the non-governmental organizations PEACE Foundation and QUARDDS, who had been working with them in their land rights claim-making initiatives since the mid-1990s. Organizing share tenants facilitated the building of peasant unity around seizing the opportunities under the law and confronting the potential risks of going against the landlords. Even in situations in which they have been aware of their rights, some tenants in large haciendas have been hesitant to lead or join petitions for land redistribution due to a deeply entrenched, feudal sense of debt of gratitude (utang na loob). Others fear landlord retribution, especially in those haciendas with a history of violence against tenant communities. Based on the past experience of PEACE and QUARDDS community organizers, informing and organizing the tenants is taken as a crucial first step in breaking the tight social control of landlords. The tenants’ ‘daringness’ to claim their land rights partly depends on knowing and understanding what those rights are, whereby not knowing or understanding poses a serious obstacle to actual claim-making. Moreover, legal and human rights education and training, as well as concrete legal assistance from progressive agrarian lawyers also play a key role in being able to claim their rights. This is due to intense legal contestation by landlords aimed at evading agrarian reform, coupled with the lack of effort by some government officials to recognize, respect and protect peasants’ rights in situations in which landlords try to evade agrarian reform and retaliate against peasant claimants. Worse still, some government employees connive with landlords to keep land rights beyond the reach of the tenants in practice. For this reason, social mobilization is constantly required to pressure the government and push it to execute the pro-poor provisions of the agrarian law. The new tenant farmer organizations have played a key role in all these processes, emerging as the main vehicle for pushing forward their land rights claims through local and national level engagements with various government agencies.

Interestingly, despite the downturn in overall agrarian reform momentum after 2001, the new peasant movement, led by the KMBP, gained momentum in Bondoc Peninsula. In 2001, 89 tenant-families petitioned for coverage of the 8,000-plus hectare Hacienda Villa Reyes. By the end of 2002, the number of petitioners had ballooned to more than 300. In 2003, 300 more tenants petitioned for coverage of the 2,000-hectare Hacienda Matias in San Francisco. This expansion of reform-oriented organizations and land rights claim-making in the region was inspired by several earlier ‘small victories’ in relatively smaller haciendas. The first major breakthrough in land redistribution in contested private land was achieved in a 174-hectare estate owned by the Reyes family, which was distributed to 55 families after a lengthy struggle. Before taking over the land, the farmers had been forcibly evicted, with their houses bulldozed and the land fenced to prevent evicted tenants’ entry on the land. Pressuring the government to support their claim, the evicted tenants set-up camp in front of the Department of Agrarian Reform central office in Quezon City, remaining for ten months from December 1998 to September 1999. They eventually gained a favorable decision for peaceful possession from the DAR. Next, they demanded full protection from a community-based security force in retaking physical possession of the landholdings. This case led to the establishment of the high-level Inter-agency Task Force (mentioned earlier), whose first task was to plan and carry out a high profile re-installation of the former tenant-farmers as the new owners of the land in the Catulin case. They were indeed installed by a combined contingent of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP). Two Armored Personnel Carriers and two military helicopters were used in the installation to discourage landlord resistance, in a show of full state power. The DAR was led by a high ranking official while the security forces were led by the Commanding Officers of the Southern Luzon Command and the Chief of Police of Quezon province. This case thus clearly demonstrated to peasants throughout the peninsula (and beyond) that the government’s agrarian reform program was feasible, prompting many more to launch their own land claims.

After the program became paralyzed, especially ‘at the top’ in the early-2000s under a new government, the tenants in Bondoc Peninsula turned to more ground-level initiatives. In the 8,000 plus hectares Villa Reyes, they challenged the legality and persistence of share tenancy after discovering that a good part of the hacienda was classified as timberlands (and therefore should never have been allocated to anyone). Based upon this knowledge, they initiated a campaign to boycott the share payment, starting with 89 families in 300 hectares in one sub-village or sitio. While harassment and threats ensured, the campaign spread like wildfire, with more than 300 tenants in 13 more sub-villages cultivating an estimated 4,000 hectares inside the hacienda following suit in open defiance of the landlord. In response, the Reyes’ deployed armed goons to forcibly confiscate and take away the tenants’ harvested copra. The armed men initially succeeded in doing so, with some losing their harvest. However, the tenant-farmers reacted by drawing on their organizational resources to develop a community system of urgent response that could be activated whenever someone was threatened with confiscation. Once the presence of the landlord’s armed goons was detected, an alert circulated across the villages and the organized tenants mobilized in numbers to reinforce their fellow tenants under duress, ensuring that they would significantly outnumber their opponents, before confronting the goons in the field.

Meanwhile, in the untitled coconut lands claimed by the Uy family in the town of San Narciso, two tenant organizations also initiated a campaign to boycott share payments in defiance of cacique law and force the Uys to produce documents of ownership in order that the land could be distributed under the existing agrarian reform program. The tenants had been emboldened to take this action after discovering through their own research of government land records that the holdings in question were not officially listed as Uy properties. In response to the tenants’ pressure, the Uys mobilized armed men to harass the tenants, with five of the organized tenants’ leaders killed by the Uys armed goons during the course of this struggle over the land. To date, none of the perpetrators of these murders have ever been caught or prosecuted, but the tenants have still been able to hold on to the land through a sustained public campaign that exposed the Uys’ ‘unholy alliance’ with the underground guerrilla movement in the region, as well as their complicity in violating the tenants’ human rights, especially the right to life. The Uy tenants, together with other KMBP members, also publicly campaigned against the underground guerrilla movement’s violation of their human rights and international humanitarian law. This defiance of landlords rule drew inspiration from earlier initiatives by tenant-farmers in the town Mulanay, who launched a boycott of payment of shares in the 201-hectare Aquino property in 1995 after the government rejected their petition for land redistribution (and later for leasehold implementation). In that earlier case, the tenants’ campaign was bolstered by the discovery that the contested landholding was within a non-alienable timber zone and thus was public land that should never have been taken as private property by anyone, thereby enabling the tenants to shift to claiming the land under the government’s Community-based Forest Management Program (CBFMP).

Finally, in the 2,000-hectare Hacienda Matias, tenants petitioned for agrarian reform implementation in late 2003, as well as for leasehold implementation as a transition phase to change the existing share tenancy in early 2004. When the leasehold application was approved in early 2005, more than 100 tenants initiated a campaign of organized harvesting, partly in response to the continued presence of armed men inside the hacienda. This was after having previously been unable to harvest the coconut on the strength of the provisional leasehold rentals that had been processed at the local DAR office in the municipality of San Francisco. The petition for leasehold had placed them in a difficult position when the 24 tenant-petitioners were forcibly evicted by armed men associated with the landowner, which meant that the tenants would have to campaign for their reinstatement as tenants protected with peaceful possession under the existing agrarian reform program.

As ground level social pressure increased, landlords in Bondoc Peninsula employed various forms of retaliatory action to curtail the defiance of tenants and derail agrarian reform. Physical attacks on reform-oriented tenants escalated, resulting in scores of physical injuries and the displacements of dozens of families, as well as the deaths of the five peasant leaders in the Uy properties. Beyond extra-legal measures, the landowner also used the state and criminal justice system to harass organized tenants through the indiscriminate filing of criminal cases against the tenant-farmers who dared to try to claim land rights under CARP. Many tenants had already been jailed due to the criminal cases filed against them, despite their cases being the result of agrarian conflict. The criminal justice system, including the police, prosecutors and judges, thus came to be clearly perceived as forming part of the long arm of the landlords, aimed at blocking the reform and harassing tenants who were pushing for land rights in the biggest landholdings owned by the influential Reyes, Matias, Uy, Tan, Zoleta-Queblar and Aquino families. Criminal charges (or the threat of such) came on top of the harassment and economic pressure already being exerted on them by landlords, their private armies and the guerrillas. By May 2006, there were around 198 cases pending against 189 share tenants. The overwhelming majority of these cases were for qualified theft of coconuts (186 cases), followed by estafa (3 cases), libel (4 cases), other forms of trespass (2 cases) and finally, attempted murder, malicious mischief and grave threat (with 1 case each). In terms of the court level, the majority of the cases were pending before the RTC (177 cases), while the remainder were with the MCTC (5 cases) and the Office of the Provincial Prosecutor (13 cases). The number of criminal cases in this context would shoot up to more than 300 counts against 232 farmers by 2007.

While the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) lawyers could and indeed did lend assistance to the farmers in DARAB cases, none of them would represent the farmers in criminal cases. In the resolution of the provincial prosecutor, the agrarian aspect of the conflict was routinely and completely ignored. The cases were filed and resolved piece by piece, obscuring the underlying pattern of systematic filing over a period of time by just a few complainants who happened to be parties to a land case under CARP, as well as against defendants who all happened to be the peasant land right claimants in these cases. The agrarian conflict that gave birth to these cases could only be gleaned by linking all the cases filed over the years. A finding in the agrarian case that the land is public would negate culpability in estafa and qualified theft cases. Even if the land was found to be private, a finding that the farmers are share tenants or leaseholders would likewise negate criminal liability. Under the agrarian law, a tenant or lessee has the right to harvest and appropriate the coconuts in the land s/he is tilling. The obligation to the landowner would only be civil in the form of the rent due for the use of the land. The same reasoning could apply to the crimes of Other Forms of Trespass and Malicious Mischief. As legal occupants of the land, tenants/ lessees clearly have the right to enter and work therein.

Due to the large number of cases filed, the amount required for posting bail was enormous and beyond the reach of the tenant-farmers. For 50 tenant-farmers in Villa Reyes facing qualified theft cases, the total bail fixed by the courts amounted to Php 3.484 million, while the amount of bail for 68 farmers in Hacienda Matias facing two counts of qualified theft amounted to a staggering PhP 4,080,000 each. Indeed, these figures did not take into account the cost of the services of lawyers and paralegals to take up and maintain the cases, transportation (the town of Gumaca where cases are heard is 4 to 5 hours away from the farmers’ residence), meals, communications, photocopying and other administrative expenses that could easily run to hundreds of thousands or even millions of pesos; moreover, nor does it include the cost to the farmers of their economic dislocation due to the pending of the cases. As a result of these enormous costs, the filing of criminal charges, which was also frequently followed by harassment and arrest, ended up forcing many them to evade capture by hiding from the police. Fearing that their houses would be raided at dusk, many slept on the grassy and forested part of their farms. The problem of criminalization soon grew to such a proportion that the farmers, the KMBP leaders, the community organizers and their NGO allies knew that something had to be done, which prompted the mass surrender strategy being devised.

To counter the landowners’ legal offensive, the tenants initiated an unusual campaign, which they called a ‘mass surrender’. In a meeting among key leaders of the KMBP and other affected farmer organizations, the farmers realized that the landowners were succeeding in utilizing the openings within the state’s legal structure to harass and undermine them. To confront this, they agreed to use the same openings through an organized and collective campaign. By voluntarily submitting themselves collectively to the custody and protection of the government, the tenants sought to: (1) end the anxiety arising from fears that they could be arrested at anytime due to the pending arrest warrants issued against them; (2) avoid being arrested by heavily armed men during unholy hours and away from the public gaze in remote areas where anything would be possible; (3) bring to the attention of policy-makers and concerned government agencies how the justice system is being manipulated to harass and discourage farmers from availing of their rights under the state’s own agrarian reform laws; and (4) bring to public attention the new trend of criminalization of agrarian reform.

Surrendering collectively to the criminal charges in this way proved more difficult than some had perhaps imagined. In March 2007, one hundred and twenty-three farmers with warrants of arrest, accompanied by a former congressman, attempted to surrender at the national office of the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Manila. However, they were refused by the DOJ officials, despite showing their respective warrants of arrest, and were instead advised to surrender to their local police. However, one of the strategy’s aims was to generate as much publicity as possible at the national level to highlight the problem of the criminalization of peasant land rights claimants and, in effect, that of the government agrarian reform program itself. Therefore, the farmers withdrew from the DOJ and proceeded to the DAR central office to involve DAR officials in negotiating their collective surrender. A dialogue with the DAR central office officials ended up lasting for hours, before an undersecretary agreed to negotiate with officers of the Philippine National Police (PNP) for their surrender at the PNP national headquarters. When the farmers went to the police headquarters the next morning, their collective surrender was finally accept and processed.
The farmers’ ‘mass surrender’ was widely covered by radio, television and print media, which helped to gain the attention and support of lawyers groups and human rights advocates. For example, one political party, a party-list group called Akbayan, convened a team of lawyers to assist the farmers in their legal battles. Meanwhile, the head of the Office of the Legal Aid of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) – the national lawyers’ association in the Philippines – visited the tenants in prison to offer the organization’s services. Moreover, the media sustained their reporting, with the national television station Channel 5 and the most widely read national print news daily, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, both featuring lengthy special reports on the issue. Sustained media reporting even weeks after the surrender contributed to increasing pressure on the national government to pay more serious attention to the problem of criminalization of agrarian reform in Bondoc Peninsula.

In response, and in an effort to immediately free the farmers from prison, the Secretaries of the DOJ and the DAR filed a ‘Motion for Bail on Recognizance’, who were represented in the hearing on this motion by the head of government’s Public Attorney’s Office (PAO). However, the decision to grant the motion filed by the two government secretaries was at the discretion of the hearing judges. One problem was that qualified theft did not fall within the cases covered by recognizance, and thus the farmers and their supporters had lobbied for the government to set aside a fund for cash bond, just in case. At the first hearing for the Motion for Bail on Recognizance, the judge did not render a decision but rather reset for another hearing, which prompted the farmers, not used to the very poor condition inside prison walls, to opt for temporary liberty through cash bond. The DAR had allocated more than PhP2 million to cover the bail bond, which had also been reduced through an earlier motion granted by the judges. The tenants were thus released after the posting more than PhP2 million in bail.

The campaign immediately helped to relieve the distress on the ‘criminalized’ farmers that was previously caused by trying to avoid arrest, while also leading to a reduction in the physical harassment by armed men inside the contested landholdings. Meanwhile, the local police avoided making further arrests, even of farmers with pending warrants. In the longer-term, decriminalization of agrarian-related cases was among the reforms introduced in the recent campaign for the extension of the CARP implementation time period. The case of the Bondoc farmers inspired the introduction of a referral system that was institutionalized under Section 19, of Republic Act 9700, when it was passed into law in August 2009. The lawyers who had been involved in the Bondoc farmers’ case and mass surrender were directly involved in the crafting of this provision during the drafting phase of RA 9700. Since then, the Bondoc Peninsula farmers have been able to successfully use the referral system, with at least 82 criminal cases having been dismissed. While the Bondoc farmers’ mass surrender strategy and collective campaign probably cast a long ‘shadow’ over these particular instances, pertaining to the Bondoc farmers themselves, where the referral system has since been used to counter criminalization, it remains to be seen whether and to what extent the referral system is being used elsewhere in the country, as well as under what conditions it is used successfully by peasant land rights claimants in their search for agrarian justice.

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