5 September 2016
Keynote Speech delivered by Undersecretary Philip Dy, Chief of Staff, Office of the Vice President, at the Asia Land Forum, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Ortigas Center, Pasig City
I hope you can indulge me as I begin with a brief story. It’s one that some of you here are already familiar with, and it’s a story built around the 20-year struggle of a band of farmers from Sumilao, Bukidnon. Later known as the Sumilao farmers, this landless group from the Higaonon tribe—just fifty-five strong—walked a total of 1,700 kilometers as a gesture of protest, specifically against wrongful attempts to wrest 144 hectares of ancestral land from them.
It was a journey on foot that drew widespread public attention, and by the end of the farmers’ march in 2010, a large section of the public had finally been awakened to agrarian reform issues—and the acute injustices that hounded many of these cases.
While protests in the name of land rights are not unusual, the case of the Sumilao farmers was a decidedly unique one. For one, it was a peaceful demonstration that rejected any measure of violence, akin in spirit to the People Power Revolution that arose from our streets in 1986.
The irony is that the elite had, in many occasions, used force against the Sumilao farmers. The justice system—riddled with loopholes—was also frequently used against them, so that these tillers faced trumped-up criminal charges designed to drive them off their own land.
By the time the land they fought for was restored to them in 2010, the Sumilao farmers had endured severe losses: Rene Peñas, a farmer-paralegal who played a leading role in the movement, was assassinated.
One of the farmers committed suicide in 1998, and two of the lawyers who represented the Sumilao group perished in a plane crash. In all of these, however, the farmers carried on. What we witnessed was purposeful conviction in fighting unjust incursions into their ancestral land. What we saw was the farmers’ peaceful, dignified stand against the brutality of greed.
In the days of their long movement, I worked as a volunteer lawyer for the Sumilao farmers. It was through their stories that I saw, so much more clearly, how our agricultural smallholders are put at an extreme legal disadvantage in recovering their land.
For while our government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Act was crafted with the interests of our farmers in mind, the version of the law that was ultimately enacted was crippled by inaction and inefficiency.
The program has long been vulnerable to cunning legal maneuverings by landed elites, who made the most of the law’s weaknesses. Together with my late husband Jesse, we fought on the side of the Sumilao farmers so they could secure proper legal guidance in pursuing their case.
My involvement in the Sumilao farmers’ movement was hardly a casual affair. When you see for yourselves what our poorest farmers undergo—when you see with your own eyes the heartbreak of loss or the pain wrought by injustice—it’s impossible to remain distant, it’s impossible to do nothing. In cases such as those battled long and hard by farmers all over Asia, this sight is far too common, and the fact that it is common at all is unacceptable.
I believe this is why you’re here. You cannot but care about what our small-scale farmers have to suffer to defend their land rights. And you bring with you the benefit of a broader perspective, as we all should.
For while the struggles of our farmers tend to draw the fiercest emotions, it’s important for us to always preserve the discipline of thought, to marry that with a profound appreciation of issues on land tenure, and to understand how the protection of land rights will ultimately translate to greater food security and economic self-sufficiency among poor and marginalized farmers.
Meanwhile, I’m here to share with you some insights on our antipoverty bid, a campaign by my office that hews firmly to the cause for land tenure security, food sovereignty, and economic fulfillment among our smallholders.
When I assumed my position as Vice President of the Republic, I vowed to devote my first 100 days to productive dialogue across all sectors, especially our farmers from the most remote enclaves. Our progress has been swift. In just two months, I and my team have already met over 50 groups, all of us with intersecting interests in the welfare of the ordinary Filipino.
On several occasions, we drop all the artifices of city living—our shoes, our dresses and trousers, our offices—so we could trek to small villages of staggering poverty. But our journeys on foot are the least of the challenges. Because once we arrive, we are met with village folk of varying dispositions: some angry at the government, some cynical, some of them resigned to a lifetime of deprivation.
It isn’t always easy to engage our most disenfranchised countrymen. Theirs, after all, is a long history of neglect and adversity. But once you spark enough hope among our poorest, that hope catches fire. It is in that flame of hope where genuine dialogue with our people begins.
These dialogues so far have culminated in the creation of our five-point antipoverty framework, which focuses on public health, food security and rural development, education and women’s rights.
I’d like to focus today on two points: food security and rural development, both of which are critical to today’s discourse. It’s well known among us that these issues are intimately connected to the matter of land governance and everything it encompasses. Altogether, these are indispensable components in our campaign against poverty, especially as it is guided by our fulfillment of UNDP’s Sustainable Development Goals.
I must be candid: because my office is not an implementing agency, there is limited room for us to have a direct hand in antipoverty programs and projects. However, that isn’t stopping us from pushing our advocacy for innovative and citizen-centric governance, the kind that yields visible and long-term benefits for those who occupy the fringes of Filipino society.
This is where our policy work plays a pivotal role. This is also the space where we can serve as the convening point for stakeholders in social reform, with the poor as the heart of our poverty reduction strategy.
At this point, I’d like to talk a little about how we want to stay creative in solving chronic, longstanding problems. Sometimes that creativity is fired up in the form of original ideas. Sometimes, that creativity is inspired by similar problem-solving models that one can easily enhance and build on.
The latter is exactly what we did during my time as Camarines Sur Representative, when we designed a program meant to address hunger, poverty, and rural development in one fell swoop. We called it the Partnership Against Hunger and Poverty, and its blueprint resembled another antipoverty initiative pioneered in Brazil.
Under this program, we put together a feeding program to combat the hunger and nutrition problem among children in our communities. But the initiative didn’t end there, as most other feeding programs do.
You see, around 30 percent of the food for the program was sourced from our small-scale farmers. These are poor tillers with very little plots of land and meager harvests, unable for the most part to compete with larger agribusinesses that dominated the local market.
We thought it was about time that these farmers saw the expanse of their own economic potential. So we put them through training programs that would position them as competitive suppliers in our public feeding program, and we helped them in adding further value to the supply chain.
When we revisited the communities where the program was implemented, what greeted us was an extraordinary sight: children finally able to secure hot, nutritious meals to aid their development, and small-scale farmers who, in no time, had developed quite an entrepreneurial spirit.
We saw their tilled land flourish into plots of sustained food security. But the sight most meaningful to us was of communities transformed, of men and women empowered to steer their lives towards a promising future. I and my team were nothing more than guides towards their personal and collective achievements. Their successes were absolutely theirs.
But imagine what it might have been like if the marginalized farmers in our program were also embroiled in land disputes. Consider the formidable challenges of fighting poverty when injustice holds sway over the lives of the poorest. Would we have been able to make as great a difference as we did? No, the process would have been more complex, fraught with contention and shadowed by violence, hunger, and displacement.
The murder of farmers is an extreme but all-too-present fact among landless and disenfranchised tillers. The tragedy is that this is the reality suffered by millions of small-scale farmers all over the country. The tragedy is that their interests are continually overpowered by profiteering land-grabbers, monolithic corporations, and rent-seekers looking to make a killing out of stolen land.
This needs to stop. Together, we must lend further urgency to the clamor for fruitful agrarian reform, fruitful in a manner that distinctly favors our marginalized farmers. What we need is a comprehensive land reform program that remains faithful to its mandate of social justice.
Our landless farmers have endured far too much, and they have suffered for far too long. It’s a terrible irony in a country where the agricultural sector accounts for 30% of our total workforce, in a nation that stands as a major international supplier for a wide range of high-value produce.
It’s clear then: ensuring the protection of land rights is crucial to our purpose of meeting our Sustainable Development Goals for poverty, hunger, and food security. Effective agrarian reform is the necessary root from which inclusive development can thrive, and unless we protect our farmers’ rights, our ambitions to combat poverty will bear little to no fruit.
This is true not only of the Philippines. It is true as well of all nations that wrestle with problems involving land reform, and it is a matter of identical import among all our states. Nationality has nothing to do with advancing social justice. When it comes to socio-economic reform, our allegiance is not to our countries, but to our very humanity and the rights due it.
I address you today with renewed optimism for the future of land reform in our greater region, beginning with our respective efforts in our own countries. Making a difference in the lives of our farmers—and consequently, to the fate of our antipoverty efforts—is a cause we must remain committed to, no matter the challenges.
Because along the way, we will all be tested: we will be asked to stay brave for the farmers we so passionately defend, and we will be asked to carry on despite every discouraging setback.
Here in the Philippines, the work that must be done is tremendous in scope: proper legislation must be developed and enacted to prevent landowners from fencing off landless farmers, specifically from plots that the law has already granted them.
The current version of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program must be deepened and expanded so it will truly serve the interests of our farmers.
Above all, we must persist in our course—exactly as the Sumilao farmers did, with dignity, resilience, and certain faith in a just and prosperous future.
Thank you very much.