Massacring hungry farmers
At about 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 20, the silence enveloping Hacienda Nene at Barangay Bulanon, Sagay City, Negros Occidental, was shattered when unidentified men opened fire on sugar farmers resting inside in a makeshift hut, after they had planted vegetables on a portion of the 75-hectare plantation owned by Carmen Tolentino.
Nine individuals, including two minors and three women, were killed instantly. The gunmen even burned the bodies of three of the farmers using sugarcane waste and gasoline, according to authorities.
All of the farmers were said to be fresh recruits of the Negros Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), founded in 1971 out of the sugar workers’ struggles.
The NFSW said the shooting happened on the first night of the “bungkalan” activity, where farmers occupy idle lands and collectively cultivate them to make them productive.
Chief Insp. John Bulalacao, Western Visayas police director, promptly blamed the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army for the incident — by egging on its “mass base” to engage in “Oplan Bungkalan at Okupasyon,” he said, which led to the conflict.
But, as former Bayan Muna representative Neri Colmenares insisted in rejecting the military’s assertion, the massacred farmers were desperately looking for a way to survive and feed themselves; tilling occupied land for a basketful or less of rice and vegetables was a primal cry for help that deserved succor, not guns and bullets.
“As NFSW has repeatedly pointed out, the goal of setting up land cultivation areas is to ward off the inevitable hunger brought about by Tiempo Muerto (a dead season in the sugar industry) by planting vegetables, corn and root crops on undistributed and idle lands to feed their families,” said Colmenares.
According to the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura and NFSW, of the 424,130 hectares of sugar lands in Negros Island, 33.99 percent are lands with 50 hectares or more owned by only 1,860 big landlords (hacienderos); 30 percent, with 10 to 50 hectares, are owned by 6,820 big and small landlords.
The sprawling majority of 53,320 farmers and agricultural workers make do with the remaining 36 percent of the sugar lands.
In addition to these, the NFSW estimates that 70 percent of sugar lands that have been distributed by the government end up being leased (“aryendo”) due mainly to the lack of support services and nonland support facilities, which forces agrarian reform beneficiaries to lease their land.
The implementation rate of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program in the island stands at only 40 percent.
Data from the Department of Agrarian Reform also show that, as of 2016, 80 percent of agricultural land in Western Visayas targeted for land reform distribution is in Negros Occidental.
Sugar workers in haciendas receive, on average, measly P500-P750 weekly wages all year-round. Minimum wage is pegged at only P245 per day for farm workers, but in many plantations, P80-P120 a day is still prevalent, said NFSW.
Against this appalling system of want and inequality, farmers who speak up become targets of violence and intimidation. The Sagay massacre is but the latest assault against their sector in the area.
On Dec. 21, 2017, Flora A. Jemola, chair of NFSW-Sagay City, died from 13 stab wounds inflicted on her by suspected paramilitary elements under the 12th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army.
This was followed by the killing of Ronald Manlanat, another NFSW member, in Hacienda Joefred, Barangay General Luna, Sagay City, on Feb. 21, 2018, again by suspected Philippine Army elements.
“The killers shot a whole magazine of M16 in his head,” said the group.
And now this bloodbath.
Colmenares spoke for many when he said: “We demand an immediate impartial probe on this massacre, and we will not stop until justice has been served.”
That is a demand all right-thinking Filipinos should likewise make — for the government to launch a thorough, impartial and transparent investigation into this barbarity, and to bring to swift justice their perpetrators.
The killing of the nine puts to 45 the number of peasants killed in Negros Island under the Duterte administration — a brutal testament to the stubborn and long-violent feudal system that persists in the region, perhaps only the most extreme of the warped agrarian environment that continues to define much of the country.
As long as that system continues to oppress, and social justice remains unserved, more blood will likely be spilled in the sugar capital of the Philippines.
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