In a bid to reassert their right to rural lands, farm workers and peasants in the Philippines have directly seized and occupied property claimed by one of the archipelago’s largest banks and main oligarch families, the Aquino clan. The move is an escalation of a long campaign to dismantle the unjust system of feudalism and landlord rule inherited from the period of Spanish colonialism.
Gathered in the hundreds and carrying signs with slogans such as, “Land to the Tillers, Not to Their Killers,” members and supporters of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas — a militant mass movement of small farmers, landless peasants, farm workers, rural youth and women — converged on a walled-off section of Hacienda Luisita, a massive sugar plantation in the Tarlac province controlled by the Cojuangco-Aquino political dynasty..As hundreds of police and private security guards looked on, 700 farmers took turns destroying a concrete wall enclosing large tracts of land that were illegally sold to the Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation. Eventually, a farm tractor was brought in to pull sections of the wall down. While the farmers dispersed that afternoon, they swore to return and undertake the collective cultivation of the land.
For the farmers, the walled-off enclosure represents the broken promise of land reform that the Philippine rural poor have been fighting for decades to win in the face of illegal and semi-legal methods of dispossession and open robbery by ruling elite families.
“Kadamay expresses its full support for the #OccupyLuisita movement as it echoes our own call for the government to own up to its sins and finally begin to give to people what is due them,” Kadamay chair Gloria Arellano said, noting that the land remains abandoned “simply because the landlords and the government hold on to their spoils rather than fulfill their duties to the people. Just like the idle housing units, the ruling class would rather see homes and land go unused rather than be owned or made productive by the broad masses of the Filipino people.”
The mass action, given the hashtag #OccupyLuisita by the peasant movement, recalled the recent successful takeover and redistribution of government housing undertaken by allied urban group Kadamay in Bulacan province, called #OccupyBulacan.
The destruction of the wall and reclamation of the land marks the next step in a renewed nationwide campaign aimed at genuine land reform, including the free distribution of land and equipment.
“We are taking back what is ours. We are taking back control of the lands that the Cojuangco-Aquinos have illegally usurped for more than half a century,” said Renato Mendoza, secretary general of the Peasant Alliance of Hacienda Luisita, in a statement by KMP.
The hacienda system continues to linger in the Philippines as a remnant of Spanish colonial rule, where families with strong connections to international capitalist markets and overseas interests continue to exploit farm workers in feudal or semi-feudal conditions on vast estates where they enjoy near-monopoly control.
In addition to claiming ownership of Hacienda Luisita, the Cojuangco-Aquino dynasty also controls major financial institutions such as the Bank of Commerce and are highly visible in entertainment and in politics on every level, in addition to having ruled the country on various occasions, most recently under the 2010-2016 administration of former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III.
In fact, the Cojuangco-Aquino family itself spearheaded past failed attempts at land reform. In 1988, Noynoy’s mother and former President Corazon Aquino put forward the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which set the terms for the redistribution of public and private agricultural land to poor farm workers and peasants.
Since then, hundreds of fighters and advocates for rural rights have been killed in paramilitary violence while estates like Hacienda Luisita — which Aquino inherited from her father, “Don Pepe” Jose Cojuangco — were exempted from the reform law and shielded by successive governments from redistribution through a complex system of laws that allowed for rampant illegal and semi-legal land grabs.
Rather than the hacienda being redistributed to the peasants, thousands of hectares were simply kept by the family while other sections were partitioned into non-agricultural illegal conversions with titles “sold” to such entities as Luisita Golf and Country Club, Luisita Realty Corporation and Las Haciendas Subdivisions. According to Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano, the land was sold to “influential personalities and local politicians.”
Now, as agrarian reform is a condition of the peace process between the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, social movements across the archipelago plan on ensuring that this time around, the process is truly implemented.
“There is no better time for the Filipino youth and students to immerse and integrate with the peasants to forward the resounding call for genuine agrarian reform and create a powerful wave of anti-feudal mass movements throughout the country,” said national youth group Anakbayan in a statement released Wednesday, calling for youth to prepare to join rural workers in the wave of occupations envisioned for the coming months.
In the eyes of rural leaders, there can never be a turning back of the clock in regards to their right to stake a legitimate claim to land they break their backs working on a daily basis.
“Farmers can only rely on our collective strength,” said KMP chairperson Joseph Canlas. “Assertion of our right to the land is the way to proceed with actual land distribution.”