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The Philippines:

Criminalization of Peasants

Land and environmental defenders face continuous harassment, violent intimidation, and legal criminalization for resisting corporations and the state


At the end of 2021, peasants from Sumalo, a village in the province of Bataan in the Philippines, finally obtained their titles to 214 hectares of land after three decades of fighting against Riverforest Development Corporation, a company owned by the Litton family. Over the years, the Littons—a family of European descent from Manila that has amassed its fortune in the textile manufacturing industry—have used their connections to provincial and local politicians, the police, and the media to harass and criminalize the peasants of Sumalo and therefore undermine their resistance movement. This agrarian conflict with Riverforest is one of many such situations in the Philippines wherein peasants, Indigenous communities, and other social movements are criminalized for resisting corporations and state development projects.

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Peasants from Sumalo / Focus on the Global South

Sumalo peasants fight for their right to land

The struggle of Sumalo peasants for their right to land began in 1979, when the Litton family acquired the 214 hectares of land they were occupying by paying a measly sum to the government of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, which signaled a green light to title reconstitution. In 1988, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was implemented in the Philippines: one of the largest land redistribution programs in the world designed to counter the social, political, and economic inequalities in the Philippine countryside. Thus, the peasants of Sumalo turned to the government promises of agrarian reform to contest the Littons’ property claims.

However, in 1995, the government announced the establishment of the Bataan Ecozone, a Special Economic Zone that would allow this land to be used for industrial purposes. With the new possibility of industrial development, the Littons began a legal battle against the peasants. The Littons filed for an exemption from the CARP and petitioned for land use conversion. These proceedings lasted over a decade, until 2007 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Littons.

With this legal backing, the Littons, now operating under Riverforest Development Corporation (RDC), began fencing in parcels of farmland and installing private armed security to forbid peasants from accessing their land. Deprived of their source of livelihood, some peasants left the region. Others stayed, but resisting meant facing continuous threats, physical abuse, harassment, coercion, forced evictions, and other human rights violations.

To whittle away at the peasants’ resistance, Riverforest also utilized legal tactics to criminalize peasants. Up until now, the Littons have filed more than 50 criminal cases against peasant leaders with a range of accusations: from minor charges such as unjust vexation, verbal abuse, trespassing, and theft (allegedly occurring when peasants harvested agricultural produce), to trumped-up criminal charges such as kidnapping, destruction of private property, and illegal possession of firearms. Several leaders who also worked as local government officials were charged with administrative offences such as grave misconduct, corruption, and abuse of authority. These incidents led to the arrest and detainment of key leaders of the movement. It also perpetuated an endless cycle of fear and intimidation in the community.

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José Laysa experienced harassment for trying to enter his farm / Focus on the Global South

 

Given this ongoing conflict, Riverforest was unable to introduce any substantial developments in the area. According to the rules for land conversion, such a failure may cause a landholding to be subjected to Compulsory Acquisition under CARP. Thus, in 2013, the peasants of Sumalo, now organized under the Organization of United Farmers and Residents in Barangay Sumalo (SANAMABASU) filed a petition for agrarian reform coverage. In 2019, The Office of the President (OP) ruled in favor of the peasants’ claims.

Once again Riverforest responded with criminalization, intimidation, and harassment. In 2019, a young farmer leader was shot to death during an altercation with one of Riverforest’s guards. The company also took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to establish more checkpoints, thereby further constricting people’s movement. The company also enacted a traditional and social media strategy using their personal connections to change the narrative of the conflict and harass leaders through social media trolls.

New spurious criminal charges were filed against key movement leaders. The company also managed to obtain a favorable decision from local courts to eject farming families from their residential lots in the area, claiming that the OP decision only covers agricultural land and not residential areas. In May 2021, Riverforest demolished several houses in the area under a court order.

Then another violent demolition of 53 houses took place in October 2022, displacing 73 families and ejecting duly identified agrarian reform beneficiaries. Several community members, including those who resisted the demolition, were hurt by Riverforest’s private guards. SANAMABASU stresses that this was a strategic move by Riverforest to stifle the community’s land claims based on the agrarian reform.

Finally, the Department of Agriculture Reform (DAR) processed the government titles for the entire 214-hectares following the OP decision in favor of agrarian reform coverage and negating Riverforest’s legal claims over the land. Despite this victory, the Sumalo peasants continue to be criminalized and fear reigns in the community while the state does not guarantee the peasants’ most basic human rights.

In July 2022, nine peasant leaders, eight of them women and four of them elderly, were charged with syndicated estafa, punished with life imprisonment. On 21 February, 2023, the authorities issued the warrant arrests, forcing them to temporarily evacuate their homes. Finally, on 8 March, the International Women’s Day, the peasant leaders decided to « surrender » to the authorities to assert their legitimate claim to the land.

To whittle away at the peasants’ resistance, Riverforest utilized all kind of tactics to criminalize peasants, from harassment and coercion to trumped-up criminal charges

 

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Riverforest Corporation Development / Focus on the Global South

Criminalization of peasants, Indigenous communities, and widespread dissent 

In the Philippines, criminalization of dissent is rampant and is particularly worrisome in rural areas and indigenous territories where land conflicts have become increasingly prevalent. These conflicts arise from agrarian struggles against land grabbing, corporate capture of natural resources for developmental projects, and state and military occupation of land and territories.

According to a 2021 report by Global Witness, the Philippines has consistently ranked as the worst place in Asia for land and environmental defenders, with 270 defenders killed between 2012 and 2021. The majority of these murders (80%) were related to protests against company operations mainly linked to the mining industry, followed by the agribusiness sector. 40% of these crimes have targeted Indigenous peoples defending their land and environment.

The murders of defenders of land and the environment in the Philippines are the bloody tip of the iceberg of the systematic campaign by economic and political elites to criminalize dissent and land struggles. These campaigns, as in the case of the Litton family against the peasants of Sumalo, include all kinds of tactics to dismantle social movements, such as harassment and intimidation, property damage, criminal and civil lawsuits, protracted legal battles, trolling and public humiliation, and at worst, violence, disappearances, and murder. 

Extra-legal actions are accompanied by a high degree of impunity. Global Witness suspects that state forces are behind the majority of the murders they documented. The military and police commit human rights violations with little accountability and key state institutions, including the judiciary and law enforcement agencies, are weak, inefficient, and overburdened.

Moreover, corporations have historically enjoyed the complicity of both national and local elites and government authorities. Since the populist authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, corporations’ actions have been supported by a set of laws designed to end opposition and undermine people’s resistance movements.

The Philippines has consistently ranked as the worst place in Asia for land and environmental defenders, with 270 defenders killed between 2012 and 2021

 

protest against land grabbing

Protest against land-grabbing in the Philippines. / © Astrud Lea Beringer

The Anti-Terrorism Act: a legal basis for criminalizing dissent

One of the most controversial laws from Duterte’s term in office was the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) of 2020. ATA has been the most challenged law in the history of the Philippines, with 37 petitions filed by different groups and individuals before the Supreme Court. For the most part, human rights groups argue that the definition of “terrorism” under this law is vague and overly broad, which allows for arbitrary application and abuse. Thanks to this law’s sweeping definition, any kind of critical speech may be punished for inciting terrorism if the government deems it so.

Moreover, ATA violates the constitutional right to due process. The law allows the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) to authorize the arrest and detention of suspects for as long as 24 days, even without a court warrant. This essentially reverses the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty. In fact, the first known case under this law was used against two Aeta indigenous people from the Central Luzon region who were detained in August 2020 for allegedly belonging to the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). After being imprisoned for almost a year, during which they waged a legal battle, they were acquitted by the court because theirs turned out it was a case of “mistaken identity”.

Duterte’s ongoing fight against the rebel communist groups has also been upheld by Executive Order (EO) No. 70 and the creation of a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). This increased military presence and militarization in the name of counterinsurgency led by the task force has translated into even more threats. Red-tagging and terrorist-tagging—a tactic whereby individuals are labeled as communists or terrorists, often without substantial evidence—has become a key component in the government’s tactics to dismantle opposition.

The Anti-Terrorism Act violates the constitutional right to due process and essentially reverses the principle of presumption of innocence until proven guilty

 

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Farmers’ protest in Bataan province. / © Galileo de Guzman Castillo

The Tenure Guidelines and the criminalization of land struggles

The Tenure Guidelines connect land rights to other human rights and principles of human dignity, equity, justice, and non-discrimination. They clearly stress in their guiding principles that states should “recognize and respect all legitimate tenure right holders and their rights” and provide legitimate safeguards against threats and infringements, including forced evictions. Moreover, states should provide access to justice with “effective and accessible means to everyone”, as well as “take active measures to prevent tenure disputes from arising and from escalating into violent conflicts”. States should also “prevent corruption in all forms, at all levels, and in all settings”. 

As we have seen in  the case of Sumalo’s peasants, although the state recognized the rights of peasants to land through the implementation of the CARP, it neglected to guarantee their overall human rights and did not provide any safeguard to prevent conflict and corruption, nor did it ensure adequate functioning of the judiciary system. Furthermore, even non-state actors such as business enterprises like Riverforest are obligated to act with due diligence to avoid infringing human rights. Although the Litton family lost its claim to the land, they were not prosecuted for the human rights violations they committed throughout the legal process. Therefore, land rights, if not bound to other human rights, cannot bring about social justice on their own.

The Tenure Guidelines connect land rights to other human rights and principles of human dignity, equity, justice, and non-discrimination. Land rights, if not bound to these principles, cannot bring about social justice on their own

 

This article has been possible thanks to the information and support provided by Focus on the Global South