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Philippines : reflections on the state of peasant struggles

Interview by Cédric Leterme (CETRI) with Danny Carranza, national coordinator of the NGO «Rights Inc. - Katarungan», which defends the rights of small farmers and poor rural communities in Mindanao, Southern Philippines.

Cédric Leterme: The Philippines has a relatively progressive legal framework for access to land, but it appears that it is not always respected and that it also conflicts with the broader political and economic orientation of the government. Do you agree with that?

Danny Carranza: Yes. The main issue for social movements in the Philippines is how to deal with the state and its laws. I think they have not yet realized that laws are a contested terrain, now captive to traditional power-holders. State leaders are not immune to corporate pressure. And there are also internal weaknesses. They enforce laws that have loopholes or gaps, and most officials are corrupt. This means that laws are not automatically enforced by the Philippine state. Rural movements must therefore seek to enforce them, but to do so, they must be organized, with the capacity to challenge the power of the state and business. They need to strengthen their organization, develop critical legal awareness and learn about the space with which they interact.
In areas where indigenous or landless peasant communities are not organized, for example, agrarian reform [1] or the law protecting indigenous rights has never really been implemented, despite official reports to the contrary. Mobilization is therefore key. There are elements in the law that can be used to best effect, but there are also gaps that need to be protected against.
This is all the more the case as the current government is moving toward even greater liberalization and commodification of land. The Philippine state is in the midst of a transition to an even more liberalized form of governance. For their part, landowners and corporations have always resisted land reform because they want to keep their land intact or exploit it for profit. They are therefore the main actors shaping the dynamics of land reform today. In this context, for me the most important thing is that indigenous people and small farmers organize themselves to be able to influence these dynamics to ensure that what comes out of it is good for them.

Are the current rural struggles essentially conducted within the current legal framework or do they also seek to challenge it, for example to better integrate environmental imperatives?

Danny Carranza : I believe that for agrarian and environmental issues to come together, the impetus must come first and foremost from rural communities. Of course, there are already demands to do this: to protect the land, to ensure that food is produced safely, to protect the producers of that food. But today, the main concern of rural communities is to ensure that they have a right to land first.
Most of them have been engaged in struggles for land for more than two decades. As a result, the transition to ecological agriculture often takes a back seat. Many are not even sure that they will win their struggle for land, especially communities living in critical areas where companies are particularly aggressive, where landowners are resisting fiercely with weapons and/or legal means.
So for rural communities in the Philippines, the question of how to integrate access to land and ecological transition is really difficult. When the land is theirs, the struggle afterwards will be to use it ecologically and to hold the state accountable on that land as well. Unfortunately, at the moment, this is another level of struggle that the movement has not yet been able to integrate effectively.
For example, central Luzon is a rice growing area. And the main problem at the moment is the rice tariffication law [2], which removes import restrictions, so imported rice is currently flooding the market. So farmers are trying to resist these imports, which are driving them out of business. But in response, government support takes the form of loans, not agro-ecological support. Farmers who want to engage in agro-ecology therefore have no government support, and they also have to face bankruptcy because neo-liberal policies put them under extremely difficult conditions. So there is a struggle between these two imperatives, and many organized groups find themselves in this kind of dilemma. Some are lucky and can do agro-ecology independently with external support, but this is not the case for the vast majority of farmers.
The main challenge, especially for peasants who have secured their land rights, is to shift their demands from land ownership to ecological transition. This could be done around the issue of climate justice, for example. Poor people, especially in rural areas, are the most vulnerable to extreme weather events. This could be an important issue to formulate vis-à-vis the government in order to force it to be accountable. But at the moment, farmers, especially rice farmers, are overwhelmed by the need to fight against imports. That is the current context. What is needed is a movement capable of including environmental concerns in a meaningful campaign for food sovereignty. This is the challenge for peasant advocacy groups in the immediate future.

Are there links between urban and peasant movements? For example, along the lines of the buying groups that are multiplying in Europe to link urban consumers and producers in the countryside?

Danny Carranza : It has always been a project to ensure that urban consumers absorb the production of the rural sector, eradicating in the process the current layers of middlemen who exploit them, allowing farmers to sell directly to their target markets. The problem is that urban consumers go to the most easily accessible places for their food needs. So for poor farmers to have access to these consumers, they have to organize themselves. Create markets with stalls where they could sell organic or agro-ecological products, for example. But, again, this is not easy to do if those who wish to do so are already caught up in conflicts over access to land.
We are trying to explore these kinds of avenues here in Manila, because one of the candidates we supported in the last elections was elected, but the project has yet to materialize. In any case, it is an ambition that has clearly been present for several years. But there is a real need for support from local governments so that consumers will follow suit. Because, for many, they are not so interested in whether food is organic or not, as long as they have access to food that is affordable and easy to get.
And anyway, most urban consumers are not able to make a financial commitment in advance to support small farmers, because they simply cannot afford to do so. So that obviously hinders the development of this kind of producer-consumer relationship. Not to mention the fact that, for their part, small farmers in the Philippines are very vulnerable to extreme weather events. It’s also a problem because you can’t commit to your target markets to ensure that you deliver the food they need. It’s very difficult to do that here, partly because of this uncertainty. That’s why you also have to organize consumers so that the government is accountable on the issue of the right to food and full access to adequate food. And force it to invest in this area.

I also wanted to ask you about the situation of small-scale fishermen, who generally live in coastal areas that are state-owned. What about their right to land today?

Danny Carranza : The situation is as follows. On the one hand, we have fishermen in urban areas who normally have an easement right within forty meters of the sea line that is publicly owned. But all too often, however, parts of these areas are effectively privatized by large companies or tourist resorts. The problem for fishermen, therefore, is to still have access to the sea, because that is where their livelihoods have been for decades.
In rural areas it is different. One of the reasons is that many fishermen there are also farmers. They have land that they farm, some legally and some not. So the situation is not the same between urban and rural fishermen, even if one thing they have in common is their lack of housing rights. Indeed, since the land they live on is almost always public land where building is normally prohibited, they are always under threat of eviction by the government. Yet many tourist resorts occupy these same areas with impunity, but the rules are only applied to small-scale fishermen to prevent them from having secure and permanent access to the land. And this is even more problematic in urban areas, because there is no more space available for fishermen. This is in contrast to rural areas, where there are more opportunities for relocation in the event of eviction.

Therefore, is one of the demands of the fishing communities to have a recognized right to housing in these easement areas?

Danny Carranza : Rather, what they are advocating is the possibility for them to remain more or less permanently in these areas unless there is another area available and accessible for the fishing activities on which they depend. This is easier than changing the easement legislation, which is a very old legislation. They are also calling for accessible and safe evacuation centres during hurricanes. In areas affected by Typhoon Haiyan, for example, there is a campaign to ensure that fishermen are not moved from dangerous areas unless the relocation site is accessible for their fishing activities. In doing so, they are trying to tell the government that they can be relocated, but only if their livelihood and access to social services are guaranteed. And the burden of proof must be on the government’s side. That’s how they redefine certain legal provisions.

To what extent can Europe and the wider international community help in rural conflicts that often have a strong local dimension?

Danny Carranza : I am a great believer in the importance of critical mass. Too often, however, communities are unable to resist because they lack the most basic supports they need to build resistance. I am thinking, for example, of external actors who could help them in community organization. I would say that this is the most important area of support for communities facing violations of their rights and threats. Of course, they also need legal support. Many rights are interpreted at the judicial level, and when peasants, fisherfolks or indigenous communities are unable to participate in these arenas, then they can be arbitrarily marginalized, excluded from their housing, their land, their source of livelihood. So in order to at least mount a meaningful resistance at the judicial and national levels, these communities need legal and juridical support, which also means helping them to understand the nature of the spaces that are accessible to them.
Their capacity to mobilize must also be strengthened. Much resistance requires putting pressure on the authorities responsible for protecting the rights of these communities. But this implies that they know that they have these rights within the political space available. For international donors, it also means trying to balance the support given between support for research and advocacy and support for building movements on the ground. Because this is where resistance has to be strongest. Otherwise, we can expect to see even more people arbitrarily displaced. There are many cases that have been documented, analyzed, but where the most effective resistance has come when we have supported mobilizations on the ground, when we have supported their confrontation with the state, including by providing access to volunteer lawyers, for example. Theoretical analyses alone do not build resistance. They help to amplify the voices coming from the field. But the most important factor in building resistance is grassroots movements. So you have to balance that with the other forms of support.

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[1Land reform was officially launched in the Philippines in 1988 after the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, but more than 30 years later (and despite two extensions) it has still not been completed and its record is more than mixed.

[2This law was adopted at the beginning of the year, officially to lower the price of rice, but it has been criticized by small farmers and rural producers for further weakening their already precarious situation.

Las opiniones y conslusiones expresadas en el siguiente artículo son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del CETRI.