Joseph Canlas, detained peasant leader and land defender, dies

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Joseph Canlas, detained peasant leader and land defender, dies
Handout photo shows Joseph Canlas during a rally against the Anti-Terrorism Law at the Supreme Court in February 2021

MANILA, Philippines — Peasant leader and land defender Joseph Canlas has passed away after contracting COVID-19 while under detention for charges his fellow activists said were fabricated.

Canlas, 59, passed away Tuesday morning due to complications of COVID-19, peasant groups said. 

Canlas, vice chairperson of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), was among those arrested in simultaneous police operations on March 30. He was arrested at the same time that Pol Viuya, Kilusang Mayo Uno vice chairperson for Central Luzon, was apprehended in Tarlac.

Both had been constantly red-tagged or accused of being supporters or members of the communist rebellion.

Miserable jail conditions

In a report by The STAR, Canlas’ daughter Jeanette said her father was rushed to the hospital after he experienced difficulty in breathing and speaking. Rights group Karapatan said he tested positive for COVID-19 in an antigen test.

KMP said the peasant leader, who is hypertensive and diabetic, was in stable physical condition before he was arrested. The group suspects that Canlas contracted COVID-19 while under quarantine inside the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology facilities.

"The quick deterioration of his health in less than two months is unquestionably due to neglect of jail authorities, on top of severe and miserable jail conditions," the group said in a statement Monday.

The Philippines has the world’s most congested penal system. Overcrowding, poor ventilation, and deficient hygiene and sanitation condition contribute to the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19 in jails.

Canlas 'instrumental' in community campaigns

Canlas was a prominent peasant leader in Central Luzon who for decades, led campaigns against land grabbing and displacement of farmers

He was “instrumental” in leading community initiatives against large-scale mining and other destructive projects across Central Luzon, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE) said.

The group added Canlas helped farmers and indigenous Aeta communities in campaigns in Mt. Abo, and was involved in fights against other land grabs that put at stake at least 75,500 hectares of indigenous lands in Central Luzon.

Anakpawis Party-list called Canlas an “acclaimed democratic activist with thick contribution to the peasant movement in the country.”

“His momentous life as a veteran peasant leader would be gallantly celebrated by the farmers and fishers in a form of seeking accountability and justice. We hold President Duterte and his entire terrorist machineries responsible for the death of Canlas.”

Canlas was also the chairperson of the Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luzon. — with report from Kristine Joy Patag

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