The story of a peasant, emblematic of the oppression and the massacres endured by the Filipino peasantry and its final slow reconstruction.
Josh D. IMESON
“When I was a child, I asked myself why I was poor, and the answer came to me: so that I would love the poor.” These are the words of a 66-year-old Filipino farmer, Jamie SL Tadeo. In spite of the tortured colonial history of his country, the dictatorship that lasted a century, and the subsequent liberal democracy that placed one of the richest landowners at the head of the government, Jamie contemplates the future of his country with faith and energy.
“I am from a country named after king Philip the 2nd of Spain… and after 377 years of colonization, I return to the land of the colonizer to discuss agrarian reform with others from around the world.” Mr. Tadeo explained that the end of Spanish rule did not come with the liberation of Manila by revolutionary forces, but rather with the sale of a small group of islands in the South Pacific to the US 1898 for $20 million under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.
The official end of American rule in the Philippines paved the way for the Marcos dictatorship on September 21, 1972. The dictatorship hosted a series of massive human rights violations and, according to Jamie, peasant farmers “bore the brunt of the dictators rule with 32% of those imprisoned and 73% of those killed being farmers.”
In spite of the staggering statistics and unavoidable risks for the opponents of the regime, the National Peasants Movement and the National Democratic Movement opposed Marcos. This contributed to the collapse of his regime in the 1980’s. Yet Marcos’ opponents asked the question “how can we succeed in a democratic movement if large scale agriculture is for the dictator?” The answer came with the election of Corazon Aquino, owner of 6100 acres who promised to implement massive real agrarian reform.
Jamie, who comes from what he describes as a very poor family, has been a subsistence farmer for 35 years, growing rice on one acre of land, farming to live, living to farm, and harvesting twice a year thanks to a warm climate. He became involved in the agricultural movement in 1980 and his hopes were raised with promise of land reform at the end of the dictatorship. To his great disappointment, the land owning president had little intention of implementing real reforms and the National Peasant Movement decided to practice their new democratic rights and protest against the failings of the Corazon government.
“On a gloomy day in 1986, we decided to march on the Department of Agrarian reform to do a ‘camp out’. I had a strong sense that something would happen. There were 8,000 people and we started negotiating with the police at around 4:00 in the afternoon. When we tried to cross the Mindiola Bridge they opened fire on the crowd. There were so many snipers, so many machine guns on the rooftops. I heard a woman screaming ‘they are going to kill me.’ I took shelter under a small shed-roof and survived. 13 people were killed and 300 wounded, but this day put the government to shame.”
After the Mindiola massacre, Jamie spent 3 years in prison where he discovered his true faith and vocation. “Suffering is the only way to purification. Purity of the heart is to wish for only one thing: work for the liberation of the Filipino people.”
After the massacre, the government’s “shame” led to the introduction of a new law and the creation of “comprehensive” agrarian reform. 8.06 million hectares of land were designated for redistribution of which 77%, or 6.22 million hectares, have today been earmarked for peasants in a country where 60% of lands are still controlled by 6% of the population.
Today, Jamie S.L. Tadeo works his single hectare of land and is chairperson for the organisation “Paragos”. He has discovered that the introduction of “comprehensive land reform” legislation is only the beginning and that his country is facing a new set of problems.
In addition to demands for the government to honour its commitment to distribute the remaining 13% of land originally designated for redistribution, the Filipinos struggling for social justice have become aware of the fact that “it is not enough to distribute land. The distribution must include a significant increase of continuing support.” This support for Jamie includes the provision of basic rural infrastructure: electricity, irrigation, access to post harvesting facilities, access to capital, and access to markets.
The failure to supply this “continuing support” to those who have received plots of land through land reform has led to a collapse of the reform programs, resulting in changing trends among the land holders, from sharing to leasing. This leads to worsening of devastating poverty and hunger both in the countryside where farmers and farm workers suffer as a result of the concentration of resources, and in cities where thousands of rural refugees have fled to find work.
In addition to the structural inadequacies, Filipino farmers are faced with a new challenge: the inequalities of the international marketplace.
“With the advent of the World Trade Organization in the mid 90’s, agricultural reform is under siege,” states Jamie. “You define land in terms of market use efficiency…” and as a farmer this tendency is “parallel with the conversion of land to non-agricultural use and the displacement of people.”
The conversion of the traditional agricultural sector into a commercial market oriented sector has, on the one hand, led to land becoming a valuable commodity for export production. The value of these lands as real estate or for industrial development has, on the other hand, led “speculators to embolden their appetite to control that land, undermining agrarian reform” and often convinced farmers to sell the only way of life and livelihood they know for far below its real value.
Jamie points to a global tendency towards “progress without development”, the process in which countries industrialize but the disparities increase and poverty becomes an endemic element of modernisation. His organisation advocates agricultural reform as the key for maintaining the balance between agricultural development and industry, claiming that through genuine agrarian reform a country’s economy can continue to grow, maintain food security and keeping its active population in work.
He also claims that the root cause of security problems and escalating crime is the exodus from rural communities to urban centres and the inequality, poverty and hunger that this engenders. Conversely, access to land and a vocational pride are the “key to sustainable growth and lasting peace.”