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Two generations of Filipino climate fighters on their battles with the government

Across the Philippines and across the world, land needs to be given back to the tillers

Illustration by Thumy Phan @thusisterstudio

This interview was conducted in Filipino and the quotes from Ka* Fred were translated by the writer.

Across the world the threats to land and environmental defenders are rising. My country, the Philippines, is one of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders and activists. The past six years under President Rodrigo Duterte have seen the highest number of killings of defenders since the dictator Ferdinand Marcos first came to power in 1965.

Alfred Rapin or “Ka Fred” is a farmer and land defender based in Cagayan Valley who joined Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas or KMP (Peasant Movement of the Philippines) in 2013. The peasant and land rights movement is one of the strongest and widest movements in our country and their fight for land sovereignty is such a crucial one.

To be a climate justice activist, it’s important to listen to and learn from people like Ka Fred. We need to strongly align our calls, campaigns, and demands with those on the frontlines of land defence.

Over the years, Ka Fred has witnessed growing hostility and tells me how the labelling of peasants as terrorists by state forces became more rampant in 2017 – Duterte’s first year in power.

It was this same year, after spending some time with farmers and Indigenous peoples with a similar story to Ka Fred, that I first started to see and realise the social realities of life in the Philippines for environmental activists.

Landlessness has made our peasants suffer and hundreds were being killed in defence of our land and our planet. I knew then that I had no choice. I had to join the fight.

Landlessness in the Philippines

Cagayan Valley is a region in the northeastern part of Luzon Island – the Philippines’ largest island group. Most of the land area is a valley in between mountain ranges and the country’s longest and largest river runs through the entire region.

The region is one of the highest producers of rice and corn in the country. Considering its economic value, you would think farmers in this region would be well supported and thriving, but Ka Fred tells me a different story.

“The number one problem for farmers from Cagayan Valley is landlessness., he says – his words ringing true not only in Cagayan Valley, but across the Philippines.

Families of small farmers and peasants who have been working on the land for decades are being forced to pay exuberant rents and there are rising cases of harassment by huge transnational companies and the local elite who are pushing farmers off their land.

The KMP is a democratic and progressive movement of landless peasants, small farmers, farm workers, rural youth and peasant women who are fighting against this very problem.

These small farmers, who are also the most economically marginalised group in Filipino society, are among those most impacted by the climate crisis – especially during typhoon season. And with the national government’s slow response to both adaptation and relief before the season, it is difficult for farmers to recover after calamities hit.

Ka Fred explains, “Land is life. Without land, farmers will not live. In the Philippines, the majority of the population are farmers and land is so important because this is where we get food. But we’re facing a huge problem where landlords are trying to convert our small farms into large plantations for crops to export to foreign imperialist countries.”

Profit over people and planet

It’s a permeating problem across the Philippines that the profit of the few is prioritised over the quality of life for the many. Ka Fred tells us that even when they go to government agencies like the Department of Agriculture to ask for help, the rich are favoured.

“They side with those who have never worked; who have never poured a single drop of sweat into the land. This is the land that we have worked on and taken care of every day since we were born,” Ka Fred tells me.

With unresolved land problems and all the previously established neoliberal agrarian reforms that have only benefited the rich, farmers and the majority of the Filipino population are facing great risk as climate impacts worsen food insecurity in our country.

While the Philippines does not contribute greatly to climate change, large multinational agricultural companies that produce mono-crop plantations are some of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. To resolve food insecurity, maintain our soil’s fertility, and ensure that we do not unnecessarily contribute to the climate crisis, we must have genuine land reform and give land back to the tillers.

“We continue to fight,” Ka Fred says. “We will refuse to leave and continue to till the land [Hindi kami aalis sa lupa at tuloy tuloy lang ang bungkalan]. If there are just two or three of us, they will not listen to us, but together, we are stronger.”

Such is the essence of bungkalan (boong-kah-lan) – the collective assertion to reclaim their own land and their right to till for community and mass-oriented production. Farmers in the Philippines are launching political education campaigns to strengthen the resolve of the peasants fighting for their land. They are forming mass organisations and these embody the spirit of collective farming. Ka Fred takes an active role in all of these.


Activists are not terrorists

To those of us who understand the urgency of the climate crisis, it feels like common sense to protect our environmental defenders. But what is our government doing?

In official reports, they criminalise farmers and label their organisations as communist rebel fronts or terrorist fronts, or as it’s said in the Philippines, red-tagging or terror-tagging. This language has life and death consequences in our country.

Isabelo Adviento or “Ka Buting”, a prominent peasant leader and environmental defender, and someone who Ka Fred has worked with closely was arrested last April 2022 for trumped-up charges of illegal possession of firearms and explosives.

Ka Buting was the leader of the relief and calamity response, not just for that set of typhoons however, he has held this position since 2016, when super typhoon Lawin devastated Cagayan Valley. This role is crucial in a climate-vulnerable country where marginalised communities need as much help as they can get.

During that season of typhoons, four typhoons hit the Philippines in the span of three weeks. One of them had the strongest storm landfall in recorded history.

Ka Fred recalls: “In December 2020, after we were hit by typhoon after typhoon, while Ka Buting was out leading relief operations in affected communities, his house was raided. They forcibly entered his house and planted evidence such as guns and grenades in the presence of his family.”

In a statement by KMP in December 2020 in reaction to Ka Buting’s arrest, leader Danilo Ramos said “We blame the NTF-ELCAC [National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict], the PNP [Philippine National Police] and AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] for the unending political persecution of activists and human rights defenders.”

For several years, Ka Buting was subjected to non-stop intimidation by state forces. The harassment against him and other Cagayan Valley-based activists and peasant leaders intensified under the Duterte administration.

This intimidation took shape in the form of red-tagging through posters and fliers plastered across Cagayan and Facebook posts on various PNP pages, threatening text messages, harassment, and surveillance by armed state forces.

The harassment that Ka Buting faced has unfortunately disenfranchised many peasants from getting involved in people’s movements. It has even discouraged people from receiving much needed help from the people’s movements during typhoons.

Since his arrest, KMP has been campaigning for the immediate release of Ka Buting and for the end of red-tagging.

Ka Fred explains: “Red-tagging takes on different forms here. They make posters of our organisations and leaders and call them fronts for rebel groups. There’s harassment and monitoring by the military. They go to our houses and our families and intimidate them. The military has set up camps in our farm lands and now farmers are afraid to go to their lands. The military intimidates them and calls them rebels.”

Fight for the right to land

Despite all these hardships, I ask Ka Fred what gives him hope and what victories he has seen within the movement so far. “Led by Ka Buting, together with hundreds of peasants and farm workers, we have been able to reduce loan interests in different municipalities in Cagayan and Isabela. We’ve led campaigns against ‘eco-tourism’ programs which paved the way for state-sponsored land grabbing of over 6,000 hectares of farmlands effectively displacing landless peasants and robbing us of our main source of livelihood.”

KMP accredits their victories to collective action. With the masses, the fight for the lives and rights of all peoples is an inevitable victory.

KMP, alongside other grassroots movements, are leading the way not just in the fight for land or lowering land rent or loan interests, but also with relief operations when communities are consumed by floods.

As someone who has spent time integrating with landless peasants and faced the impacts of the climate crisis, it is clear to me that we cannot achieve climate justice without our land defenders, especially if they are being harassed and arrested.

These are the people most vulnerable to the climate crisis but also doing the most in terms of environmental protection. Climate justice is land justice. Across the Philippines and across the world, land needs to be given back to the tillers.

“We will continue to organise and grow as a movement. We will continue to help impacted communities when there are calamities. We will fight for our right to land and our right to till. From our ancestors up to our children, we have been here for generations taking care of the land and working on the land. We will not give up.”

Let’s follow Ka Fred’s advice and keep fighting. It is time to join the movement for justice.

*Note: ”Ka” is short for kasama which means together or companion or comrade.

What can you do?

  • Support Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas on Facebook and Twitter
  • Subscribe to Peasant Movement updates here
  • Keep an eye out on those platforms for ways to support the #FreeIsabeloAdviento campaign
  • Read more articles from our Land Defenders series HERE
Illustration by Thumy Phan @thusisterstudio
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