Listening to president-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is like getting caught in a worm hole.
Most everything about him reeked and rang of his father — from the tone of voice, the delivery of his words, all the way up to the sway of the hands, with one noticeable exception: his eyes do not convey the confidence Ferdinand E. Marcos once had when he sat as president-cum-dictator.
Junior seems a tad or two unsure of himself, almost hesitant, when on Monday, June 20, he opted to sit as head of the Department of Agriculture. The idea, he said, is to “rebuild the value-chain” of the sector, or what is left of it. The president-elect came to this decision in the heels of a looming food crisis resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Marcos Jr.’s call to “return to basics” should not take us by surprise as recent global developments in the price of oil goes ballistic. Cost of diesel and gas has been screaming bloody murder the weeks prior, leaving most people with a better chance of spending on beer, which is cheaper, than gas.
While I’m hardly what you would call an expert on agriculture, I find it rather fuzzy to insist that whatever food crisis we are suffering today should be blamed solely on Vladimir Putin waking up on the wrong side of the bed and later throwing an infantile fit.
A bit of a recap: agriculture hasn’t been in the pink of health. The sector has been undergoing some shape or form of metaphorical dyspepsia — a 0.3% contraction in the first quarter of 2022 — following an even worse condition — 3.4% downslide — in the first quarter of 2021. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did much to exacerbate what was turning out to be a highwire act sans safety nets, what with the raging pandemic and the series of lockdowns which began March 2020.
But more than just figures showing the rise and fall of the value of production, there is one problem that gets hardly mentioned when dealing with obstacles in agriculture: the oppression and targeting of farmers.
We can talk till we’re blue in the face as regards distribution chains, the role of financial institutions, the lack of farm-to-market roads, the cost of fertilizers, dwindling water supply, the onslaught of typhoons, the effect of global warming on crops, failed reforms in the agrarian sector, but if we deliberately disregard the violence each farmer faces, it only means we’ve been barking on the wrong tree all these years.
Government and the public cannot look the other way. I, for one, have been trying to understand why across several administrations — from the Hacienda Luisita massacre to Tumandok massacre — farmers have been the target of one slaughter after another.
We’re an agricultural country, for cryin’ out effing loud, with roughly three-quarters of land dedicated to agriculture. Farmers should be getting the royal treatment, and I’m not talking of the Louis XVI kind.
Hardly the case in the last several decades, though. The recent arrest of 93 farmers, peasants, and land and cultural activists in Concepcion, Tarlac, all forced to stay in prison for 18 hours, I mean, was that even legal? Where is it said that agrarian reform beneficiaries deserve jail time?
Kathryn Manga, Project Coordinator for Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), in an interview with Andy Currier of the Oakland Institute podcast, said the group has documented 311 killings of peasants, farmers, and land activists since Duterte came to power in 2016. The killings involved land disputes, agrarian reform, and red-tagging.
On the death of land activist and Anakpawis chair Randy Echanis in 2020, Manga said, “So in the early morning of August tenth, more than five men, the witnesses say that they saw more than five men, put a ladder in front of Ka Randy’s building where he was renting an apartment and then went to his room, and then broke into his apartment. A lot of witnesses said that they heard muffled screams, eventually Ka Randy was found lifeless with 40 stab wounds. He had two gunshot wounds in the head, so for us, we thought if he was shot he might have died immediately. But that was not the case with the autopsy. The autopsy showed that he was tortured, and what we thought were gunshot wounds were not: they were sharp objects that were stabbed in his skull. And aside from that there were lots of bruises and wounds in his body. He was tied, hogtied. Yeah, so 40 stab wounds.”
The decades have not been kind to Filipino farmers. The Negros Famine of the Marcos era in the 1980s saw how crony capitalism wreaked havoc on the lives of unsuspecting sugar farmers of Negros. This, and a gargantuan $400 million debt, forced 190,000 sugarcane plantation farmers to lose their jobs. The famine had so turned Negros into a howling wilderness that a Bacolod hospital reported a 67% spike “in infant deaths in the first four months of 1985.”
Let’s not even try to unbox Marcos Sr.’s Masagana 99 and land reform program, which failed miserably due to a “crucial sub-component — banking. Because banks’ financial orientation and practices did not jibe with the spirit of land reform, the mechanics of the program focused greatly on compensation to the landowner. As a result, the process of land acquisition became tedious and burdensome for the targeted beneficiaries.”
Hacienda Luisita, owned by the family of former Pres. Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, and the massacre which happened in Nov. 2004 after 5,000 farmers and 500 sugar millers — members of the United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU) and the Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU) — went on strike, remains a massive blot in what was a highly popular presidency.
During the last legs of the Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III administration, on April Fool’s Day of 2016, police opened fire on thousands of protesting farmers who demanded sacks of rice to help them survive the arrival of El Nino. The violent clash which left hundreds of wounded on both sides happened in Kidapawan.
The farmer is our lifeline. If they reap a harvest of harassment and death, what do you think would happen to us? Settle for importation? If global hunger strikes, and this in levels one can’t even imagine, do you really believe other countries will spare even even a morsel for other nations?
So, how does this square with Marcos Jr.’s decision to sit as secretary of agriculture for the time being? I’m just as in the dark as everyone else. I find his motherhood statements a bit suspect. But if he insists on going back to basics, I strongly suggest a return to the fundamental element of all successful agricultural endeavors: the farmer.
For starters, the killings of farmers must stop. This has been going on for far too long. Nourishing the farmer is nourishing the land. The two are indivisible, conjoined in the gut, evermore intimate as sun and rain and earth are intimate. We are all sustained not only by produce, but by the farmer who tills the soil and farms our needs. Kill them and you kill us all.
Not only does planting a wide variety of crops strengthen food security, experts believe it also mitigates the effects of climate change.
The average age of a Filipino farmer is 53 years old. With two-thirds of rice farmers’ children opting for jobs other than farming, the Philippines could be facing a shortage in the next 12 years, so says agriculture secretary William D. Dar. Let’s face it. It’s bad enough that 10.9 Filipinos are poor, 60% from Mindanao.
Magtanim ay ‘di biro, says the local folk song. It is sure as hell that farming is not a job that allows you to enjoy a cold frappé after a hard day’s work. And with a food crisis stalking the next several months if not years, we simply can’t play politics with a literal gut issue.
We can agree to disagree on certain points of contention, but not the life of a farmer. This is non-negotiable: we must put an end to the killings and harassment of farmers, and hold all perpetrators accountable.
Joel Pablo Salud is the author of several books of political nonfiction.