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Land reform for Filipino sugarcane farmers

The road to dignity is bittersweet

“They offered me many millions to stop me fighting for this land, but I told myself, if I give into the fear, the next generation will go hungry, and I will be the only one who is rich.”

Teresita Tarlac, Sugar farmer, Community Organizer, President of Task Force Mapalad (TFM)

Teresita Tarlac’s home on the outskirts of Manapla, Negros Occidental, central Philippines is a sanctuary for stray dogs, chickens, and buffaloes.

She gets up at 5 a.m. to feed the animals and cook for her family.

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An hour later, Teresita and her husband go to the sugarcane field on the back of the buffalo and start working.

Vast rows of sugarcane stalks stretch through the field, providing for the livelihood of the majority of farmers in the Negros Occidental province since the days of Spanish colonisation. Teresita and her husband Elmer have known sugarcane farming their entire lives.

While they own their land now, they came from more humble beginnings.

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Teresita’s hometown, Hacienda Refugio, was selected by the government as eligible for the Philippines’ Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP), a government initiative that began in 1988 after the fall of former president Ferdinand Marcos. The goal of the programme is to redistribute land from wealthy landowners, businesses, and elites to landless peasant farmers

The process is not supposed to be complicated and can be done in two ways. Either the government identifies the farmers, also known as Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs), and communities eligible for the programme, or alternatively, the farmers file their claim to the government.

But reality can look quite different for farmers like Teresita.

Although the law is on their side, local farmers and communities have struggled for years to get their land rights recognised. Landowners resist having their lands acquired despite having been awarded compensation by the government, or they find loopholes in the programme that allow them to take back their land. A beneficiary might wait up an entire generation to receive their land, regardless of governmental approval.

Teresita fought for 10 years until she could finally plant sugarcane on her own plot of land.

The struggle took a toll on her and her family.

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“I started to work on the land when I was about nine years old. I would only go to school for four days a week, and the other three days, I would work in the fields so that I was able to help my parents,”

said Teresita

As a child, Teresita and her family worked for wealthy landlords who imposed unjust working conditions and meagre salaries that condemned her family – and other families like hers – to poverty.

In Teresita’s case, the former Mayor of Manapla owned the land on which Teresita and her family had been cultivating for so many years.

She once came to visit the mayor to voice her demand for land rights, but the mayor humiliated her.

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“He told us that we were not worthy to have our own land. He said we were like birds with wet wings and that we were just daydreaming,”

said Teresita.

The incumbent Philippines President, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., has promised to expedite land distribution in the Agrarian Reform Programme, which has the potential to give land rights and dignity to the lives of 3 million people. The President promised to complete land distribution in three years, but at the rate it is going, land distribution will be completed within a decade.

NOT EVERY BENEFICIARY HAS BEEN AS SUCCESSFUL AS TERESITA, HOWEVER.

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Although progress has been made, many farmers who have been recognised as recipients of the programme, still bear the brunt of what they call a sluggish land reform, waiting upwards of 30+ years. These circumstances have made them vulnerable to repossession by former landowners, as well as harassment and intimidation, which at times, can be lethal.

This was the case with Teresita, who was offered bribes to stop fighting for her and other families’ land rights. Upon refusing them, she was chased down by a tractor. THE FORMER LANDOWNERS WERE TRYING TO KILL HER.

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“They offered me many millions to stop me fighting for this land but I told myself if I give in to the fear the next generation will go hungry and I will be the only one who is rich. I was just not afraid. If they kill me, there will be more Teresitas to replace me and continue the fight.”

-Teresita


The National Land Coalition (NLC) in the Philippines, which consists of ILC members in the country, supports landless farmers like Teresita in their battle to secure their land rights. Like other NLCs globally, NLC Philippines is a multi-stakeholder platform working for people-centred land governance and reform in the country.

Thanks to the collective efforts of farmers, civil society organisations, NLC Philippines members and partners, significant progress has been achieved in securing land rights for 11,000 farmers in the Negros, Leyte, and Panay Islands.


land rights for 11,000 farmers in the Negros, Leyte, and Panay Islands

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Task Force Mapalad (TFM), an ILC member and part of NLC Philippines, represents local farmer organisations in 12 provinces. In Negros Occidental alone, they have been supporting land rights claims of 14,930 landless farmers since 2000, with a total land distribution coverage of 27,378 hectares.

“The Congress has passed a law to ensure the farmers can get the land. It’s a simple process. In fact, at present, it takes only three months to distribute the land. It becomes problematic when landowners resist the implementation of the programme."

- Armando Jarilla, National Coordinator of TFM

Teresita’s life changed after she got her land rights recognised. Over the years, she has been able to renovate her house and send her daughters to college. She also decided to join a skill-based training program that has allowed her to work part-time at the local community health centre. She told ILC she wouldn’t leave behind her roots, as sugarcane planting is ingrained in her life.

Teresita continues to help other families through the lengthy and often dangerous process.

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SHE HAS HELPED SECURE 797 HECTARES IN 13 VILLAGES WITHIN THE NEGROS OCCIDENTAL AND IS IN THE PROCESS OF SECURING 500 MORE.

Teresita believes women should have the strength, dignity, and determination to claim their land from the government.

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“MY MESSAGE FOR LANDLESS FARMERS IS NOT TO LOSE HOPE BECAUSE WE HAVE A LAW THAT NEEDS TO BE USED. WE MUST REFUSE TO LOSE TO THOSE WHO OPPRESS US,”

said Teresita.

Learn more about how ILC is improving people-centred land governance in the Philippines in a summary of our contributions

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Photos: ©ILC/Jason Taylor