Friday, June 3, 2011

Philippines Diaries, Day 3, Part 4 - Land Grabbing

I was recently part of an International Fact Finding Mission to the Philippines. Our group investigated the impact of a biethanol project that uses sugarcane as its feedstock on the local environment, food security, land grabbing, and human rights. This diary covers the afternoon of May 31, 2011, when things sort of went all to hell.

To recap the first part of the day, we woke up in San Mariano, packed our luggage into a truck, made a quick visit to the Mayor, and then split into two groups. My group interviewed farmworkers and the other group visited the bioethanol plant. We were to meet back up at lunch in the barangay (village) of Del Pilar.

My group was driving around in a pickup and another absolutely enormous truck with an open back are where everyone sat. The Filipinos came prepared, with light scarves and blankets to cover their skin. I brought a straw hat and an umbrella, but I was well on my way to a sunburn all the same. Furthermore, the heat and the humidity were utterly exhausting, and I had stupidly left my water bottle in my suitcase, which was in the other truck.

When our truck came to a stop, I was feeling absolutely ill. Fortunately for me, although not for the group, the truck was broken. Our Filipino hosts quickly whisked the foreigners into the non-broken truck, and I was offered a seat in its air conditioned cab. A few moments later, it began raining outside, and I was even more grateful to be inside, enjoying the A/C.

After a longish ride on dirt roads, we arrived at the home of Diony and Shirley in Del Pilar. They had slaughtered a pig earlier in the day, and lunch was just about ready. Nearly every dish contained pork, and I am fairly certain that every single part of the pig showed up in our food over the next few days. For lunch, there was white rice, pork, internal organs cooked with blood, another pork, bean, and veg dish, and a pineapple. Later, they served up green mangoes with bagoong (fish sauce) for dipping.

Diony and Shirley's home.

The road in front of Diony & Shirley's home

It was this guy's lucky day: one of his friends became lunch. And dinner. And the next day's lunch too.

Thankfully, we spent the rest of the day in the shade. They had constructed a large, shaded area using bamboo and an enormous plastic tarp in the front yard of the home. After lunch and a quick debrief on the morning's events, we did another round of interviews. This time, the farmers came to us, which meant that we were able to sit in the shade.

Before we began our interviews, Cita explained the terms CARP and CLOA. CARP is the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. This was put in place in the late 1980s with the goal of "the implementation of agrarian reform and sustainable rural development in the countryside through land tenure improvement and provision of integrated development services to landless farmers, farmworkers and small landowner-cultivators, and the delivery of agrarian justice." In other words, the Philippines is trying to distribute land in a fair way and make sure that those who have land have titles for it too. Supposedly, anyway.

A CLOA is a "Certificate of Land Ownership Award." It is not the same as a land title, nor is it as good as a title. Once you receive a CLOA, you must make 30 annual "amortization" payments to the government for your land. In other words, you are paying the government for your own land. For those who do not pay, their land is foreclosed.

Cita explained to us a land scam that had occurred in this area. A lawyer named Nenita Balmaceda Perez showed up in the area a while ago, along with a private survey company that offered to survey people's land for free. All they asked was that farmers provided the surveyors with a pig (for food). The survey was done, and then supposedly the farmers would receive CLOAs... but the CLOAs came back with someone else's name on it. Thus, farmers became tenants on their own land.

The new "owner" of the land then offers to sell the land to the country's Land Bank for P70,000 (US$ 1,628) per hectare or P546,000 (US$12,697) per 7.8 hectare lot. (Selling to the Land Bank like this is called a Voluntary Offer to Sell, or VOS.) When the farmers who actually own the land complain, they are given P2,000 (US$47) or P5,000 (US$116). This is all done with help from corrupt government officials in various branches of the Philippines' government.

There are other means by which the farmers are tricked or manipulated out of their land.

The peasant advocate said that the Land Bank announces that the farmers’ lands are under CLOAs and that they owe P35,000 (US$ 814) per hectare or P273, 000 (US$ 6,348) per lot plus interest for the next 30 years. Since most famers cannot afford this, their lands end up being foreclosed.

The lands under foreclosure for non-payment of CLOA will then be sold to land grabbers with fake titles. Inevitably, most of the titles end up with the bio-ethanol project. Currently, some 6,240 hectares of land have been placed under fake land titles and the over-all amount generated by the fake VOS scam has reached P448M (US$111,628).


With that background in mind, we began our next round of interviews. I sat with a group of Filipinos and we interviewed a man I will call Marco. In most cases, I am using people's real names, but in this case I will not (for reasons that will become apparent to you when you read what happens when we visited Marco's land on June 1).

Our group sat together with Marco, and the woman from Radyo Bombo (a major radio station) sat with us, recording the interview. Marco, who spoke English fluently, told us how his land was surveyed. When the CLOA came back, it had another man's name on it. The Filipinos in my group were going crazy. "What?" they asked. "Whose name was it? Do you know him?"

Marco was of the Ifugao ethnic minority. So was the man whose name appeared on the CLOA (I'll call him Pedro). Pedro and his son were local officials and were rather wealthy. As we continued talking to Marco, we overheard Pedro's name from the other interviews taking place nearby. Pedro had grabbed an awful lot of people's land in this area.

My focus for the report was supposed to be food security, so my attention waned as my Filipino friends conducted the interview about a legal system I didn't understand, often in a language I didn't understand. Curious about Marco's references to consulting lawyers about his land situation, not to mention his excellent English, I asked about his education. Marco was college educated.

He was born elsewhere, completed college, joined the military, and then abandoned it soon thereafter. He came to San Mariano to work as a logger (legal or otherwise) and after doing that for a while, he got into agriculture instead. He's been a farmer for a long time now. He has a grown son, and I think he mentioned that Pedro tried to take his son's land as well.

When I tried to get information on Marco's land and farming practices, I got nowhere. He would tell me that he started growing 4 hectares of mangoes several years ago, but his trees were killed by a particularly severe typhoon a year or so ago. He wouldn't tell me how much land he had. He didn't really want to talk about his farm. When I pressed him on which agrochemicals he used, he admitted that his wife did that work and he didn't know what she did. Talking to him about ag was a dead end.

Since we had several others interviewing him about his land problems, I wandered off. I tried to wash my face and arms in the hand-pumped water and went exploring to get a sense of what kind of food crops our hosts grew and to get a good picture of a carabao, the water buffaloes used for plowing all over the Philippines.

Shirley, our very attentive host, pumped the water while I splashed it on my face (it's definitely a two-person job, unless you have a bucket, since you can't both pump the water and catch it as it's coming out at the same time) and offered me a shower in her "comfort room" (the term used in the Philippines for bathroom). She posed for pictures with her pineapples (my god, if only I knew a polite and culturally appropriate way to ask her if I could EAT those pineapples!) and pulled one poor carabao out of the stream so he could pose for a picture for me.

The water pump

Taro (the long stalks with broad leaves growing above the pineapple)

Taro, being prepped for our dinner.

What a pretty boy!

Yay, a pineapple!

Ok, seriously, can I eat that?

Think it would be polite to just pick one of these and sneak off with it? I resisted the urge.

A carabao

I bet that feels really good in this hot, humid, miserable weather.

Oh, what I wouldn't give to spend my day in the stream too.

Banana tree

Coconut palm

Dinner, cooking. I don't envy anyone who has to cook this way regularly. At least they cook outdoors so they don't inhale all of the smoke.

At some point during the interview, the Radyo Bombo lady wandered off too. Only she didn't go take pictures of the carabao like I did. She went to Pedro's house and brought a few of his family members over to meet us. Presumably, she also shared the contents of Marco's interview with them as well.

The end of the day was a bit of a blur for me, since I was exhausted and my body and my brain were just done. I wasn't even hungry for dinner (that's rare for me). I was more or less waiting until it was appropriate to go to bed. At some point, dinner appeared on the table, and before most people even filled their plates, I emptied mine. My new Filipino friends, recalling my interest in their taro, encouraged me to try the dish made with taro (and pork). It was good, I think. I barely remember tasting it.

Somewhere in there, the Radyo Bombo woman called me over and introduced me to Pedro's relatives. They asked - in English - if I would hear their side of the story. I told them that I was not familiar with Filipino law, so it would be best if Edna, a Filipino and a lawyer, spoke to them. Then I sent her over to them.

Not long after that, I wrapped myself up in my mosquito net and fell asleep on a wooden bench inside the house. The night had been planned as an International Solidarity night of fun, but I was out. I remember Shirley helping me move from the bench to a mattress, and I remember nothing else until the roosters crowed the next morning.

From what I heard afterward, it was Not Good that Pedro's family showed up in the middle of everything, or that Marco's interview was recorded by the woman from Radyo Bombo. After all, we wanted the farmers we interviewed to feel comfortable enough to talk to us, and we wanted to use their information responsibly, not in a way that would result in any harm coming to them.

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