In Lupang Ramos, resistance and hope after a letdown at polls

Gaea Katreena Cabico, Kaycee Valmonte - Philstar.com
In Lupang Ramos, resistance and hope after a letdown at polls
Children of farmers of Lupang Ramos are aware of and are part of the struggle for land reform and food security. Forty families have been fighting for more than a decade for recognition of their rights to the land they till.
EC Toledo

MANILA, Philippines — In September, President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. signed an order freezing payments of amortization and loan interests of Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries, a move that would let them use the money to develop their farms instead. 

This came as a welcome development for beneficiaries who need to pay the government for land awarded to them under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform program.

The one-year moratorium on payments will cover around 654,000 ARBs but for Miriam Villanueva and her neighbors in Cavite, they cannot benefit from this move.

Villanueva and her neighbors are farmers in Lupang Ramos — a 372-hectare plot of agricultural land in Dasmariñas, Cavite. To this day, they are still fighting for their rights to the land they assert is theirs.

"Paano naman ‘yung mga nakabinbin ang mga kaso sa lupa? Wala namang silbi sa amin ‘yung [moratorium] dahil hanggang sa kasalukuyan ay patuloy pa rin kaming lumalaban para sa karapatan namin sa lupa," said Villanueva, a farmer-leader of Katipunan ng mga Lehitimong Magsasaka at Mamamayan sa Lupang Ramos (KASAMA-LR).

(What about those who have pending land cases? The [moratorium] is no use to us because we are still fighting for our rights to this land until now.)

Colonial troubles, continuing struggle

The struggles of Lupang Ramos farmers date back to the early 1900s, when their ancestors were not able to register the land because they did not understand English.
EC Toledo

Lupang Ramos, sandwiched between commercial and industrial estates, has been the subject of decades-long agrarian disputes and years-long resistance to attempts to evict farmers tilling the land there.

Entry into the community is through a checkpoint manned by residents. This meant to discourage attempts to drive some people out of the land they have been cultivating. The community in Lupang Ramos has had to weather attempts to scare them off, with some of those incidents descending into violence. 

A few meters from the entrance and near the houses is where residents gather to talk or eat meals from crops grown in the community. Overlooking them is a mural of farmers shows their continuing calls: The distribution of Lupang Ramos to farmers and genuine land reform across the country. 

A chronology of Lupang Ramos’ previous owners reflects the country’s colonial history: It was previously held by Spanish friars but is also more popularly and more recently known as “Lupang Kano” for the Americans who planned to turn the land into either a golf course or a memorial park.

"Noong 1903, ‘yung mga magulang namin — ‘yung mga ninuno namin — hindi nakapag-rehistro dahil pagpunta nila ng mga munisipyo ay English ang salita so hindi agad nila maintindihan pag-proseso ng mga dokumento," Villanueva said.

(In 1903, our parents — our ancestors — were not able to register [the land under their name] because when they went to the municipal office, everything was in English and they did not understand how to process the document.)

Emerito Ramos, from Novaliches in Quezon City and who was engaged in livestock, got the multiple titles to the 372-hectare plot in 1965 for agricultural production. The titles were eventually used as collateral under a mortgage program with the central bank to fund operational costs.

Farmers and residents began trying to reclaim the land in the 1990s, forming Buklod ng Magbubukid sa Lupang Ramos in response to growing interest in the area from land developers.

Without a legal title to the land, the organized farmers continued to face intimidation from authorities and from businesses with competing claims to Lupang Ramos. They also had to contend with the challenges of farming that have driven many who till the soil into debt. 

Factions among farming families

When money was tight because of low production, some farming families reluctantly gave up their claim on the land in exchange for cash. This is a common scenario in the Philippines where farmers have to contend with the high price of seeds and fertilizer and low farmgate prices. 

"Nawala ang direksyon ng paglaban para sa karapatan sa lupa. Ngayon mula sa 40 pamilyang naliliwanagan, binuo ang KASAMA-LR para itama ang landas ng tama sa karapatan at muling buuin ang pagkakaisa ng mga mamamayan at pasiglahin muli ang agrikultura," Villanueva said.

(The struggle for land rights was derailed, so we formed KASAMA-LR with 40 families who saw the importance of the struggle. We wanted to get back on track and to work together to bring back agriculture to the area.)

KASAMA-LR was formed in 2010 and the first two years of their existence was spent organizing among themselves and making sure the group was distinct from those who were willing to give up their claims to Lupang Ramos.

In 2017, members of KASAMA-LR reclaimed parcels of land in a bungkalan activity, which is a form of collective land tilling and an assertion of their rights over the land.

Villanueva said the bungkalan had to be planned well and in phases to make sure that the farmers would not waver in the face of local police and pressure from other claimants. Despite tension over their occupation of the land — police initially put up an outpost to keep an eye on the KASAMA-LR families but have since abandoned the area — the residents have managed to prove that they are only on the land their ancestors tilled to continue making a living from the land.

Five years later, they continue to assert their right to the land by keeping it productive and planted.

Land rights vital to survival and to food security

Residents of Lupang Ramos get by with crops they grow such as rice, banana, cassava, gabi, camote and eggplant.  They practice communal farming, which means the harvest belongs to the community, not to a particular family.

This meant nobody went hungry even during the implementation of strict community quarantines due to the pandemic. Residents had enough crops to put up a community pantry for nearby villages affected by lockdowns. 

Landesa, a non-profit organization working to ensure land rights to the world’s poorest, said that secure land rights are a “foundational building block for agricultural productivity as well as for economic and social empowerment of producer families.” 

“Bilang magsasaka, alam namin ang aming tungkulin ay magpakain sa sambayanang Pilipino. Maliit man ang tingin sa amin, ito ‘yung kakayahang aming ipagmamalaki: na kami ang bumubuhay sa sambayanang Pilipino,” Villanueva said.

(As farmers, we know that it is our responsibility to feed the Filipino people. Even though we are belittled, we have an ability that we are proud of: That we are who keep Filipinos fed and alive.)

Struggle for land reform goes beyond elections

Placards and other art materials the Lupang Ramos farmers use during rallies are stored in a room that KASAMA-LR plans to expand into a library. The farmers themseleves made the protest art.
EC Toledo

In the May 2022 elections, KASAMA-LR backed presidential candidate Leni Robredo and her running mate Francis Pangilinan. The believed the tandem and their slate of candidates were the most progressive among those running.

They were saddened by the defeat of the opposition ticket but that they recognized that the struggle for land reform would continue regardless of who won the elections.

“Naniniwala kaming mga magsasaka na kahit sino ang maupo na pangulo, kahit si Leni naman ang nanalo, tuloy pa rin ang laban para sa tunay na reporma sa lupa dahil wala pa naman talagang tunay na reporma sa lupa,” Villanueva said. 

(We farmers believe that no matter who the president is — even if Leni had won — the fight true land reform will continue because we have not had genuine agrarian reform in the Philippines.)

Groups like KASAMA-LR believe that the current land reform program exempts vast tracts of land that should be redistributed to farmers and for free so ARBs will not be forced to borrow money to cover amortization during lean times.

“Kaya hindi naman ganoon kami apektado dahil alam namin alagaan ang aming sarili, alam naming direksyonan kung ano ang pangkakahantungan ng aming laban kahit sino ang maging pangulo.”

(That’s why we were not that affected because we know how to look after ourselves, we know which direction we want to take this fight no matter who sits as president.)

Villanueva said they are not hopeful for genuine land reform under Marcos Jr. despite the moratorium on amortization and loan payments. Marcos, who ran on a platform of unity and a return to a supposedly glorious past, has the backing of the country's biggest political clans and political parties.

The president, who promised to bring down the price of rice to as low as P20 during the campaign period, is the concurrent head of the Department of Agriculture. 

Government support available

Even as they continue to cultivate the land they live on, the community has been engaging government through dialogues and lobbying. 

Arguing that they are engaged in farming regardless of the legal status of their ownership of the land, the community managed to convince the Department of Agriculture to send a tractor for KASAMA-LR members to use in their community planting areas. 

Villanueva also shared the community has an ongoing project to put up a solar-powered water pump that they can use for irrigation and would help with access to water that the local utility company does not want to supply them with.

Like the tractor, the water pump will come from assistance provided by the DA.

“Mahirap ang laban namin pero andyan ‘yung ibang ahensya ng gobyerno kagaya ng DA na tumutuwang sa amin para mapatunayan na ito ay isang lugar na maunlad, na lupang suitable for agriculture,” she said. 

(It is a difficult fight but there are agencies like the DA that are helping us prove that this place is developing and is suitable for agriculture)

Asserting their right to every inch of Lupang Ramos has been a struggle for members of KASAMA-LR and for the generations that came before them. They said that even they will continue to till the land that feeds them despite threats and the long and uphill battle they still face to be recognized as Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries.

“Kaya kami ay nananalangin, patuloy kaming nananawagan na pahalagahan natin ang agrikultura. Hindi lamang ito para sa aming pamilya, kundi para sa kinabukasan ng mamamayan ng ating bansa at ng susunod na henerasyon.”

(We continue to pray, we continue to call on people to see the value of agriculture. This is not just for our families but also for the citizens of our country and for the next generations.)

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