For tillers in the Philippines, the struggle for land is a struggle for life. Nick, 53, knows this all too well. At the tender age of 10, he had already begun plowing the fields near their barrio at Hacienda Labang, an estate spanning 49 hectares of land across two barangays, in Pinamungajan, Cebu.
“I would never forget how during Mondays, I could only attend half-day of classes because my father would not let me go to school until I till the soil,” Nick said. He and his father would labor from Monday to Saturday, but only earn an average amount of PHP11.25 (USD0.23) a day.
Now, Nick tills at Hacienda Libre, which covers 96 hectares of land in four different municipalities in the province, to cultivate rice, corn, and other root crops. However, in the 43 years of his life farming, Nick is yet to own any of the lands he has tilled.
Landlessness, a centuries-old problem in the country, has made Nick along with most farmers dependent on landowners as tenants.
Despite government efforts to assuage agrarian unrest stemming from land ownership disputes, the landed-landless feudal relationship continues to undermine the empowerment of the peasant sector, as farmers are prodded in lopsided sharing agreements which barely sustain the basic needs of their families and often drown them in a cycle of debt.
It is against this backdrop that, in 1989, individuals from the church, academe, and peasants formed what is now known as Central Visayas Farmers Development Center, Inc. (FARDEC), a non-government organization (NGO) with a development framework rooted in working with and empowering farmers for sustainable development and agrarian reform.
Sowing seeds of empowerment
Commission on Human Rights Consultation with Bantayan farmers and fisherfolk organizations
Photo by FARDEC
Part of FARDEC’s mission is to strengthen the collective efforts of the peasantry in the region. Through its Program on Organizing, Empowerment and Services (POEMS), the NGO consolidates the voice and efforts of the farmers to address agrarian and socio-economic problems affecting their communities, by forming and empowering people’s organizations.
“Before, we would go to barangays where there is a big problem of landlessness or where there are farmers that are poor who are unable to meet their needs,” FARDEC Executive Director Patrick Torres said. “We would ask or encourage them to set up an association,” he said.
The NGO would then provide training for organizational skills, orientation on farmers’ rights and interests, technical assistance for their immediate needs, and support on their community plans and projects.
“Once capacitated, these organizations are the ones that analyze their community problems and then identify solutions,” Torres said, adding that FARDEC helps through participatory rural appraisal, followed by community visioning, to enable farmers to achieve the changes they want in their communities.
Cultivating from the ground up
One pressing concern identified by the communities is climate change, as agricultural production is affected by extreme weather conditions and changing weather patterns.
FARDEC, then, introduced the program Climate Resiliency and Sustainable Agriculture (CRESA) to promote the adoption of sustainable farming practices: diversification of crops; integration of farming with livestock raising, aquaculture, and agroforestry; and employment of natural methods to increase yield through the introduction of organic fertilizers and natural alternative pest management techniques.
In the northern part of Cebu, other socioeconomic initiatives that have been undertaken by different people’s organizations that FARDEC supported include seaweed farming, operating a community store for rice and fishing equipment, and even microcredit for organization members as means to not only cut costs but also increase returns.
Meanwhile, in Bohol, the NGO facilitated a rice mill currently operated by local farmers’ groups as a way to deal with the low farmgate price of palay. According to Torres, there is only one buyer in the whole province which resulted in the underpricing of palay procurement.
Rights and sustainable development
For FARDEC, environmental sustainability and socio-economic sustainability can never be separated. Hence, a fundamental feature in FARDEC’s services is educating farmers regarding their different social, political, civil, and cultural rights. This, the NGO sees is an important facet for farmers to achieve development goals.
“A very big part of that political education is the right to organize, the freedom to express, the freedom to petition for redress of grievances,” Torres said. “Goals cannot be achieved if our farmers are not empowered and they are not educated about their rights, as they will not know how to claim their entitlements from the duty bearers of the government.”
Through this, farmers are enabled to negotiate with policymakers in order to access resources meant for them, as well as influence policymaking in support of farmers’ needs and interests. For example, some farming communities were able to have electricity by engaging with their municipal government, according to Torres.
“Farmers will be able to achieve [development goals] if they have a well-organized association that is ready to advance their rights, and also help them pool together their resources, talents, skills, toward the goals that the community itself sets,” he emphasized.
Why the tillers?
Torres notes that the first step in many development trajectories in the world is agrarian reform, as displayed in the historical experiences of countries shifting from an agrarian economy to a more diversified industrial economy.
“Despite outward changes in the economic and social structure in the Philippines, we are still a predominantly agrarian economy,” Torres said, underscoring that agriculture employs 40% of the official labor force in the country. Despite this, the sector only generates less than 20% of the gross domestic product (GDP).
For Torres, should farmers be given land and have adequate support services, the Philippines may see a stable productive agricultural base that can develop the rest of the nation’s economy and a strong domestic market for different industries.
Indeed, there is a large, untapped potential found in the agriculture sector in the country, and its cultivation is long overdue. But for fertile lands of the nation to bear the fruits of sustainability and development, land should rightfully be given to those who need them the most: farmers.