Beyond Violence 

A Never Ending Story- Land Conflict in the Philippines

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Photo reproduced with kind permission of author's friend

The goal of the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) on the Philippines seems promising and simple: achieve social justice by ending the feudal structure in rural areas and empower small farmers through radical land redistribution.

The necessity of this Reform Program is clear given the wide gap between the poor rural population and the elite. Spanish colonial rulers and elites have controlled most of the land areas for centuries. This feudal arrangement has greatly impacted the lives of famers and their families. High crop harvest shares and lease fees given to the landowners leave farmers with little more than a subsistent lifestyle. On Negros Island, for example, farmers explain that due to the high land rental costs, families have to survive on 200 pesos (about $4) a day. Consequently, famers need to take out loans from their landowners in order to pay school fees and medical expenses, increasing their dependency on their “patrons”.

In 1986, before CARP, only 2% of the population owned 36% of the agriculturally usable land. CARP ensured land reform is on top of the political agenda. According to the Philippine Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) it is one of the longest running and possibly even most successful land reform programs worldwide, impacting 7.8 million hectares of land. By 2013, 88% of the land subject to CARP was distributed. However, according to the farmers’ organization Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), the violence associated with the implementation of the CARP is responsible for 664 tragic deaths.

Elisa Tulid, a coconut famer in Bondoc, Quezon Province was a recent victim of the land conflict. The Bondoc peninsula in south-east Manila has been a scene of land disputes for a very long time. 50% of the land area is owned by an elite group of landowners, and the unequal power balance between famers and landowners on the peninsula has made implementation of the CARP a difficult, violent process.

Elisa supported the implementation of the CARP in Barangay (district) Tala, as an active leader of the farmer organization Samahan ng Magsasaka sa Barangay Tala. She died on October 19th 2013 when she was shot by an employee of her landlord while walking home with her husband and daughter. Her husband was able to escape with their daughter and run to a military camp nearby to report the incident. They returned with members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to find Elisa deceased, killed by several gunshots in the head and left thigh.

Elisa’s farmers’ rights advocacy caused tension between her and her landowner. In March 2013 the Department on Environmental and Natural Resources classified the parcel of land that the Tulid family cultivated as public land. Elisa Tulid subsequently ceased stopped handing over shares of her coconut harvest to the landowner. Consequently Elisa and her family faced threats and harassments, culminating in her murder. While the alleged murderer awaits his trial, suspicions linger that the landowner was the actual mastermind of Elisa’s murder.

Elisa Tulid’s death demonstrates the severity and complexity of the ongoing land conflict. Although the CARP successfully established a set of rules and special agencies, its implementation of the CARP is a difficult process. The landowners’ economical and political power has allowed them to create a successful resistance against the redistribution of their proclaimed land areas. Faced with the old feudal structures and unequal power relations in the rural areas, the DAR seems powerless to enforce the official transfer of land ownership.

One year after Elisa Tulid´s death the community remains unsatisfied with the pursuit of justice in her case, as have been no actions in order to investigate the actual mastermind of the case. “No justice for Elisa means no justice for all of us. This could happen to us as well and sooner or later the injustice that killed Elisa will affect other human right defenders as well,” warns another farmer. Fearing harassments, threats and even death, the farmers on Bondoc Peninsula are very well aware that their struggle for the basic human right to own land has become one for life and death.

Meanwhile the government´s endeavor for social justice through the redistribution of wealth in the countryside has come to an end. After more than 25 years of efforts, the CARP expired in June 2014. The DAR, responsible for the implementation of the CARP, views its program as “generally successful”. However, there are still more than 500.000 h of land that have not been distributed, mostly because of the strong resistance of powerful landowners or the inefficiency of authorities. And there is Elisa Tulid, like so many others, who lost their life within this struggle. Considering all those lives, it is difficult to consider the CARP to be as a success and not the government´s failure to protect the weakest among it´s rural population.

Written by M. Gahl and published on 24-November-2014

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