TWHA and Advocates join fact-finding mission on land-related killings

The Philippine’s long history of landlord abuse and repression of ordinary and unarmed peasants continues.

Advocates for Community Health and TWHA country office joined a fact-finding mission organized by the national peasant organization, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas,-KMP (National Peasant Movement) on the brutal killings of four farmers inside a military reservation in Laur town in Nueva Ecija (Central Luzon) last September 3.

According to reports, five unidentified gunmen indiscriminately fired at a group of farmers who were tilling part of the 3,100 hectares land covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) inside Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation.

Fort Magsaysay is the largest military reservation in the Philippines, and is one of the key training areas of the Philippine Army. It covers 73,000 hectares sprawling in two towns of Laur and Palayan.  It was one of the five military bases the previous Aquino government had designated where United States troops and supplies can be stationed under the highly contentious Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

A survivor, 59 years old Patricia Suwang, narrated what had happened:

“I was planting pepper plant seedlings along with my relatives when we heard a sound of an approaching helicopter ( Accounts from the ground said that around 12 noon, Saturday, a helicopter landed and delivered armed rifles near the farm After about an hour, we suddenly heard gunshots. I dropped and crawled to hide in the bush. The shooting lasted for about half an hour. Out of fear and exhaustion, I passed out. My relatives carried me out of the site.”

Killed in the shooting were Emerenciana Mercado dela Rosa, 53; Violeta Mercado de Leon, 55; Gaudencio Bagalay, 58; Eligio Barbado, 53, all members of Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid na Nagkakaisa – ALMANA (Alliance of United Farmers).

They were, at the time of the shooting, joining a land cultivation campaign initiated by ALMANA for farmers from the nearby town of Gabaldon who lost their homes due to successive landslides caused by typhoons Lando and Nona last year. They were hoping to become land reform beneficiaries.

The Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation was placed under the CARP during the time of President Corazon Aquino.

In 1991, the government awarded 3,100 hectares of the reservation to over a thousand landless peasants, as well as to families evacuating from Pampanga after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.

Police investigators said that land dispute might be the motive of the killing.

According to KMP, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is now using some 200 hectares of land of the reservation for its off-base housing program for its retired personnel.

“Aside from the retired army officials claiming ownership of parcels of lands inside the camp, who, in 2008, connived with the DAR PARO(Department of Agrarian Reform-Provincial Agrarian Reform Office) for the cancellation of CLOAs (Certificate of Land Ownership Award) awarded to farmer-beneficiaries, several land speculators have also displaced farmers and prevented them from tilling the land,” said KMP in a statement.

KMP added that around 5,000 farmers and their families are claiming 3,100 hectares of lands inside the military reservation. From 1978 to 1983, Fort Magsaysay farmers paid 2 to 3 cavans of palay for every hectare per harvest season to military official who acted like landlords.

When asked by the members of the fact-finding mission who they think might be responsible for the shooting, the farmers mentioned a certain Coloner Rigor. They, however, admitted that they have never met the man. They said that Colonel Rigor is claiming a part of the contested land and that his caretaker was often heard warning the farmers that Colonel Rigor “will one day give the farmers a surprise”.

The farmers also mentioned names of influential families and politicians in Nueva Ecija who have interest in the land.

At the end of the fact-finding mission, the group put forward the following recommendations:

  1. Further consolidate and strengthen the organization of the farmers.
  2. Help the victims through livelihood and psychosocial and medical assistance.
  3. Prompt government agencies like Department of Social Welfare and Development, National Anti-Poverty Commission, Department of Agrarian Reform and Department of Agriculture to help the victims.
  4. Provide disaster risk reduction assistance since most of the farmers are victims of calamities.
  5. Continue to seek justice for the victims.
  6. Continue dialogues with local government units with the presence of survivors and their relatives.

Other members of the fact-finding mission are Community-based Health Program-Nueva Ecija, rights group Karapatan, AMIHAN (peasant women organization), urban poor group KADAMAY, Advocate’s partner, Alay-Bayan, Inc., National Network of Agrarian Reform Advocates – Youth (NNARA – Youth), Alyansa ng Magsasaka sa Gitnang Luzon (Peasant Alliance in Central Luzon) and Action Solidarite Tiers Monde.