Pasabilis! October 2021 | The virus that plagues the peasant class, more lethal than Covid-19


by Delilah Mirabal, with reports from Pen del Pilar, Elio Estrada and Yagi Makigbisog

DIGOS CITY, DAVAO DEL SUR—Ritoy could only scratch his head after counting the number of sacks of harvested corn from his more or less one hectare parcel of land. He was only able to harvest 25 sacks, even though he had planted during the panuig* the previous year when the yield was usually higher.

To be sure, he was no longer surprised that his harvest fell short this year. He noticed that every cropping, be it pangulilang* or panuig, his yield was consistently dwindling, even with his regular use of commercial fertilizers, the cost of which had likewise increased constantly.

These days, Ritoy chiefly concerns himself over the steady decline of his yield, but the fact that he does not own the land he tills is still the main problem that he chooses to overlook for now. As a tenant, he has worked the land for a decade, which his father also previously tilled for two decades.

“It would certainly be better if there’s another land to farm so that I can let mine lie fallow. But everywhere’s been planted with banana,” expressed Ritoy. Banana plantations for export are aggressively expanding in their barangay. Cavendish banana now sprawl along what used to be cornfields and rice fields.

For more than six years under the Duterte regime, land for food production such as corn has rapidly shrunk. In the latest data, only around 2.5 million hectares in the whole country are planted with corn by farmers like Ritoy. The shrinking space of productive land compounds their problem of the steady decline in their yield, as they are forced to make do with the limited land in order to eke out a living.

Land grabbing and land-use conversion

In Southern Mindanao, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is one of the most ruthless land grabbers.

In June 2020, former AFP Chief of Staff Filemon Santos, Jr. himself spearheaded the formal signing of “agreement” that gave the Eastern Mindanao Command legal claim to 41.71 hectares of the ancestral domain of the Lumad in Brgy. Malabog, Paquibato District in Davao City. The AFP plans to turn this into a military reservation area to intensify its counter-insurgency campaign, which in essence is a means to control the movement of and clamp down on the Lumad’s struggle to defend their ancestral land.

In Mawab, Davao de Oro, the 10th Infantry Division has long been planning to expand its headquarters. Since the onslaught of the pandemic, there has been a widespread “purchase” of farms and land in nearby sitios and barrios in Brgy. Malinawon. There are rumors that the purchased lands will be developed into tourist spots but the farmers have been aware since 2015 of the 10th ID’s plans to build a landing strip in the area.

According to data between 2016 to 2019 of the reactionary Department of Agrarian Reform, the Duterte regime is the slowest among all administrations in allocating and distributing land. Every year, Duterte distributed only an average of 28,561 hectares to peasants while 300,000 hectares of land for rice production have been lost between 2017 to 2020.

Additionally, Duterte has already secured loans amounting to $370 million (₱17.8 billion) from the World Bank for the program Support to Parcelization of Lands for Individual Titles. This aims to divide collective titles into individual ones in order to facilitate the purchase of land by foreign companies for “mega farms” and plantations. It targets around 1.4 million hectares being cultivated by more than one million peasants.

ARAKAN, NORTH COTABATO—Nay Ester read and reread the text message on the cellphone that hung in their kitchen. For several days, she waited for a text message from their buyer so they can finally deliver the 12 sacks of peanuts that had been stocked for three months.

“They’re still not buying because of the lockdown,” she said discouraged, thinking that her family will not be expecting any income again. “Even before, the farmgate price was already so low it’s like our hardwork cost nothing. But this time of the Covid-19 pandemic is worse because no one’s buying our produce anymore. There’s no government to help us so we don’t go bankrupt.”

Decades after decades of implementing neoliberal policies in the country has wreaked havoc in the agricultural sector, especially in the incomes of its productive forces, the peasants like Nay Ester. Under this scheme of imperialist control over agricultural and backward countries like the Philippines, reactionary governments wash their hands off their responsibility to support production of peasants and protect them from being exploited by big buyers and traders when they sell their yields and products.

The 7.8% drop in the agriculture sector’s share in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2018, the lowest in recorded history, is the direct result of neoliberal kowtowing. The Duterte regime’s negligence worsened during the pandemic, where a measly 1.6% of the national budget has been allocated to agriculture.

For several decades, Nay Ester’s family had cultivated rice until the end of 2019 when they abandoned rice farming due to the exorbitant cost of financing (farming bankrolled by usurious loans) and the steady drop of the farmgate price of rice in their town.

Nay Ester is sure that Duterte’s enactment of the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) in February 2019 is the main reason of rice farmers’ perennial loss of income. Around the country, after only a year of the implementation of RTL, it is estimated that rice farmers lost around ₱84.8 billion in collective income or around ₱35,328 individually.

“We see no hope in continuing to cultivate peanuts. We can’t go back to rice farming. We see no choice but to try to earn a living as farmworkers,” Nay Ester speculated. “Maybe we can earn more instead of farming on our own.”

The continued loss in their income because of skyrocketing prices of farm inputs, exploitative usury, low farmgate prices of their yield, and the added difficulties brought about by the pandemic, more and more peasants are being pushed to giving up farming their own land and instead scrape by as farmworkers.

QUEZON, BUKIDNON—Husband and wife Reston and Analie had no choice but to work as farmworkers in a landlord’s sugarcane farm, even though according to Analie, “it’s back-breaking to clear thick undergrowth every day.”

Because traders stopped buying their corn yield on the first few months during lockdown, the couple had no savings for food, daily needs and expenses for the blended learning of their two kids. It took eight months before they received relief from the reactionary government: 25 kilos of rice, ten cans of sardines and 10 packs of instant noodles.

As per the pakyawan (piecework) agreement with their landlord, the clearing job in the sugarcane field would pay ₱14,000, to be divided between the couple and two other farmworkers. In the whole process of production, clearing away overgrown shrubs and weeds in sugarcane fields is one of the most strenuous, as the undergrowth tend to dense greatly after a few months.

“After two weeks of work, we haven’t even covered half of the field,” said Reston. The couple estimated that the entire work would take about five weeks.

According to its own survey, the reactionary government found that the tapasero (sugarcane farmworkers) are the second poorest among all farmworkers in the country, receiving a measly average wage of ₱273 per day. But when computed, Reston and Analie’s daily wage for the estimated 30 days worth of work would only amount to ₱116 per individual.

They also purchase their daily food items on credit from their landlord, including cash for other expenses. Because on credit, rice has a markup of ₱2 per kilo, while sardines has ₱3 per can and salted fish has ₱5 per kilo. Cash loans carry more than 10% interest. After the work is finished, all credit and loans plus interest will be deducted from the ₱14,000.

“There are still three weeks left, but as early as now, I can already see that there won’t be anything left when our payables are deducted,” Analie said glumly.

After the piecework, Reston and Analie will wait again for several months to be able to work in the sugarcane farm during the harvest season. Meantime, the couple will try to find other farmwork such as clearing or planting to make ends meet for the family.

According to one study, between the period since Duterte’s ascension to power in 2016 and 2019, more than one million agricultural jobs were lost due to land grabbing by landlords, capitalist ventures, bankruptcy and other reasons. For the past two decades, this was the sector’s highest drop in job loss in any three-year period.

RITOY SURMISES that Duterte is proving to be far deadlier than the pandemic. “Covid-19 might just be better. At least when you get vaccinated and follow the minimum health protocols, you stand a chance. But there is still no vaccine against the scourge that Duterte has subjected us to. Well, except to wage revolution.”

To him and other peasants like Nay Easter and the couple Reston and Analie, the agrarian revolution remains the answer to their dire poverty, whether there is a pandemic or not.

* Panuig and pangulilang – traditional planting season between August to September (panuig) and between April to June (pangulilang). Yield afterwards is usually high during panuig than during pangulilang.

Pasabilis! October 2021 | The virus that plagues the peasant class, more lethal than Covid-19