The Battle for Bulacan

Bulacan, which sits beyond the northern fringe of Metro Manila, has traditionally been a world away from its capital city neighbor in terms of production, scenery and lifestyle. But today it is at the forefront of dual struggles. One for the peasant farmers that make up the bulk of the landscape and another for the urban poor that are increasingly finding themselves pushed beyond the boundaries of Metro Manila.

Bulacan plays an important role in supporting the country’s agricultural output  as a central source of income. The major agricultural crops are leafy vegetables, cassava, pineapple, mango and coffee beans. Its biggest meat earner remains pork.

But today these lands are facing the bulldozer and while urbanization is the buzzword, thousands of houses continue to lie empty.

Tunkong Mangga, in the municipality of San Jose Del Monte City, is an example of one of the peasant farming communities that is facing an existential struggle to remain on their lands .

The push factor is being caused by a two decade struggle against the planned US$ 1.23-billion Metro Rail Transit 7 (MRT 7) train network extension and accompanying residential development, which was first proposed under the Gloria Arroyo administration, administered by San Miguel Corporation and funded through “aid” loans from the Japanese Government.

To make way for a 23-kilometer elevated railway line with 14 stations from San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan to Quezon City,  two hundred hectares of farmland will be confiscated and 1,250 farmers will be displaced from this community alone.

This is despite the fact that in 1998 the 300-hectare agricultural estate was declared for distribution under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). One of the richest families in the Philippines, the Aranetas ,have  resisted coverage claiming the land is still theirs despite it having being compulsorily acquired by the Central Bank in 1987.

For many peasant farmers it has been an ongoing struggle to maintain and continue to cultivate their lands. During a recent visit to Bulacan, I spoke with members of Sandigan Samahang Magsasaka (SASAMAG), a local affiliate of  KMP (Peasant Movement of the Philippines).

As Victoria Sabio said, “Before the KMP, we were living in fear. We were recipients of harassment and physical attacks and looting. They [pro-development criminals] would take our bolos [machetes] and farm equipment.”

“We asserted ourselves and we became more inspired to fight for the right to the land. It was a time when the bulldozing wasn’t stopping and coupled with the military and the guards who also confronted us. Because if we don’t fight for the land what will become of us. We won’t have anything to eat, we won’t have anything to provide for our children or schooling. Now we are being threatened by the MRT-7 project. We don’t know what will happen to us. But we know we are going to fight for the right to the land”

To try to prevent this landgrabbing, the peasant farmers have been aided by the wider mass movement.

As Sabio explained, ““We were advised to organize ourselves, to build an organization, hold activities and it was then when we were able to get things moving. The organization became SASAMAG. As the organisation grew more organizations were supporting us from the outside, even from other countries, NGOs were helping us. The organisations that supported us were not just in solidarity with them but physically here. In times of harassment, they can really take the hit of the security guards and they join the rallies outside”.

Another example of this solidarity is being shown in the efforts of the progressive Makabayan Coalition, which has seven members in the House of Representatives,  to push the congress to implement a two year moratorium on land conversions covering at least 4.6 million hectares of lands already awarded under agrarian reform programs.

KMP see this bill “an essential element in ensuring that land reform can be carried out without the threat of landlords, real estate developers and land grabbing oligarchs creating facts on the ground before the law catches up. Stability in availability of land is an essential element of food security.”

Progressive Congressman Carlos Zarate of Bayan Muna Partylist (one part of the Makabayan Coalition) has also said that the moratorium on land-use conversion would support rice self-sufficiency problem and also would help slow the tide of farmers, farm workers and national minorities forced to move into urban centers. Zarate also stated that agricultural lands that have been already converted could have produced food for seven million Filipinos every year.

“In addressing the basic problems of Philippine society, we must look at the whole picture and craft a comprehensive solution for the majority of our people, not just piecemeal solutions that would only benefit the oligarchs and their apologists and maintain the status quo,” Zarate said.

To see the importance of this campaign from another angle we only need to travel a short drive away because Bulacan is also home to a growing number of informal settlers from Metro Manila. Cost, space and closeness to the capital have made it attractive place for resettlement sites.

Consolidated data from the National Housing Authority, the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor, and Kadamay showed that there are around 36 housing projects located in 12 areas in the province, 15,000 of which lie vacant. Most of the sites are intended for informal settlers while 3 are for the police and military.

In 2016, the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC) reported a large national housing backlog of 5.6 million units. But the National Housing Authority revealed that only 13% of the 50,000-plus houses built for the police and armed forces personnel had been filled.

It was these conditions that lead to the Occupy Bulacan actions lead by urban poor organisation Kadamay. On March 8, with International Women’s Day actions happening around the globe, Kadamay, lead by urban poor mothers claimed over 5000 empty government housing units in Pandi, Bulacan.

The action came on the heels of continuing government inaction on distributing housing units that have been unoccupied for at least 5 years.

Kadamay had previously attempted to weave through the bureaucratic channels to gain their demands.

In August last year, Vice President Leni Robredo visited the relocation sites and talked with Kadamay members in Bulacan about possible distribution of unclaimed houses.

In September, a unity statement was signed calling for social services for the poor, including free housing. The statement was signed by representatives of Kadamay, Anakpawis Partylist and the HUDCC.

One month before the action, a housing summit had taken place to attempt resolve the matter.

All of these failed actions helped convince many people that the occupation would be an important step in asserting their right to housing. Despite threats of eviction from no less than President Rodrigo Duterte, the movement has so far stayed put and forced him to both admit the righteousness of their cause. Only time will tell if this can be maintained but it provides a powerful example to many homeless and underserviced Filipinos.

But even with the occupation of the houses, the fight goes on. The residents must now fight for access to services, to jobs and against discrimination due to their social status and the false ideas they are asking for a “free ride” from the government.

But the problems of housing and land justice go beyond one lot or one occupation. They demand a dramatic policy redirection that is being pursued by the National Democratic Front in its peace talks with the Philippine Government.

As Kadamay Chairwoman Gloria Arellano has said, “If we allow land use conversions and corporate housing to continue, both rural and urban poor Filipinos will suffer. This reeks of ‘daang matuwid’ [Straight Path policy of previous Aquino government] politics which consistently favored profit over people”.