A Population Bomb

Too Many People and Too Few Resources Lead to Bloodshed in the Philippines


photo of people walking on an urban street carrying large bundles on their heads Stringer Philippines / ReutersSince August 2008, more than 200,000 people in Mindanao have been displaced from their
homes. Conflicts over land are fueling the violence.

In Mindanao’s Davao del Norte province, there is a narrow highway of crumbling blacktop that slices through the fertile fields, land acquired more than four decades ago by multinational corporations and wealthy Filipinos to grow export-quality bananas. Diesel-powered jeepneys, adorned with colored lights and airbrushed prayers, rip through small villages, whose inhabitants were at one time subsistence farmers and are now workers on the large plantations. Long touted as the “Land of Promise,” Mindanao’s vast tracts of hardwood forests, rich soil, coral reefs, and open spaces have attracted settlers for decades from the crowded Luzon and the Visayas regions. For many Filipinos, Mindanao is the “New Frontier,” a place to start fresh. But as the mining, forestry, and banana corporations expand – and as the influx of immigrants from other parts of the Philippines continues – they’ve diminished and degraded the region’s resources. The competition for land has pushed the growing population further into the highlands – and tighter into a corner.

With a culture and economy based on agriculture, land issues in the Philippines have always been a flash point, igniting insurrections against Spanish colonialists, American imperialists, and among Filipinos themselves. The 7,000-island archipelago is packed with an estimated 93 million people, and 2 million more are added every year, many of whom are peasants living a semi-feudal system. At the same time, the multinationals keep coming – from the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Korea – seeking to gain land to extract minerals and grow crops for export. The resultant land poverty – combined with environmental destruction, urban squalor, and crime – has planted the seeds of resource wars waged by private armies, the government military, tribal and religious militias, and Communist guerrillas.

Land conflicts on the southern island of Mindanao simmered until exploding violently in the late 1960s, when the Communist New People’s Army (NPA) was formed to challenge the country’s vast wealth disparities. In 1971, the Muslim minority, known as the Moros, launched an armed struggle for self-rule. The challenges to government rule – combined with Manila’s counteroffensive and the predations of corporate-backed militias – have resulted in some 160,000 deaths over the last four decades. Last August, the conflict between the government Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) erupted into a new spasm of violence after a long-negotiated peace deal fell through at the last minute, scuttled because of disagreements over the issue of ancestral domain boundaries. Since then, more than 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes. A peace agreement with the NPA, whose fronts are spread throughout the Philippines, also remains elusive.

The conflicts’ fallout rarely harms the politicians or CEOs. As in most wars, ordinary people take the heaviest casualties. People like Eliezer Billanes, who publicly opposed open-pit mining; tribal leader Camid Lapindoy, who sought to balance his people between the military and leftist rebels; and Rebelyn Pitao, a schoolteacher whose only crime was being the daughter of an insurgent commander.

“If there is no poverty, the insurgency would be irrelevant,” says Major Medel Aguilar of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). “No one would rebel against the government if no one is hungry.”

A jeepney decorated with chrome horses drives through Mindanao’s “Land of Promise.” But the mirage of opportunity could be many other places around the world: Luzon or Leyte, Colombia or the Congo – anywhere there are too many wanting what there isn’t enough of.

When Ferdinand Magellan set foot on the shores of the Philippines in 1521, a group of locals greeted him by skewering him with bamboo spears. Magellan’s dreams died in the sand of Mactan Island, but Spain’s aspirations of adding the archipelago to its kingdom lived on. Just like other European expansionists of the era, Spain imposed laws that appropriated land for their king and the Catholic Church, initiating a feudal system of land tenancy and serfdom for the Filipinos. Not surprisingly, the patent injustice of the system eventually caused a bloody insurrection. After the Spanish-American War ended in 1898 and the Philippines were ceded to the United States, Filipino nationalists again rebelled when they realized that American imperialists were no less self-serving than their former rulers. The uprising was brutally stamped out, and the US government subsequently enacted a series of land registration laws and acts. One, which stripped the Muslim and tribal people of their sovereignty over communal and ancestral land, would have an especially profound impact on the island of Mindanao, where the original inhabitants were dispossessed of their land, and groups of foreigners like the Davao Planters’ Association moved in to grow hemp, coconut, and rubber.

During the American occupation and into the 1960s, a major corporate invasion into Mindanao occurred. Companies like Dole, Del Monte, United Brands, Firestone, and Goodyear pushed small farmers – Christian, Muslim, and tribal (called “Lumads” in Mindanao) – into the highlands, where their slash-and-burn methods of farming cleared land that the large timber companies hadn’t gotten to. According to Filipino author and scholar Patricio Abinales, by the 1980s, there were 751 corporations doing business in Mindanao – 89 of them foreign firms or subsidiaries. Most of the others were owned by a small percentage of wealthy Filipinos, the oligarchic system having bequeathed them land and capital from their Spanish ancestors.

Little has changed since then – with the exception that the “New Frontier” of Mindanao is more packed with people than ever before.

Rather than solving the problem of land scarcity, government resettlement programs just displaced it to the island of Mindanao.

The people who get squeezed between the large companies and the influx of immigrants are folks like “Ernesto” (his name has been changed to protect him), who works a small plot of cacao, coconut, and coffee in the hinterlands of Calinan. His farm is surrounded on all sides by banana plantations, and although he’s been working the land for years, the title is officially held by a large landowner who could sell out to a multinational company whenever he wants – dispossessing Ernesto of his land. Or “Lolong,” a former rebel of the communist New People’s Army who has seen for himself that land-reform efforts often fail because farmers are given a small plot but no technical or logistical support. He complains that when small farmers can’t produce a profit, the acreage is sold back to the landlord.

There is a continuing struggle in Calinan and elsewhere in Mindanao over land that should be distributed to small farmers as dictated by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), initiated under the administration of President Cory Aquino in 1988. Lia Esquillo, director of IDIS, a Davao-based environmental organization, says banana plantations continue to encroach into areas that are under CARP. There is even a company in Davao del Sur threatening the paddies of a farm growing organic rice (an essential commodity, since the Philippines is now a net importer of rice).

The disappointments engendered by the less-than-successful agrarian reform program help feed the island’s conflicts. The KMP-Peasant Movement of the Philippines, a nonviolent farmers’ organization, concludes that CARP hasn’t broken “the landlords’ domination of the Philippine countryside” and that “for the peasants, this program has been useless.”

Like immigrants everywhere, many settlers from Luzon and the Visayas eagerly made the pilgrimage to Mindanao in hopes of fulfilling their dreams. Others were relocated by government programs designed to ease overpopulation and tension in the northern regions. After World War II, land conflicts in Luzon increased as peasants armed themselves and joined the Hukbalahap guerrillas. Patricio Abinales documents that “as part of its counterinsurgency program, the government also resettled former Communist insurgents in Mindanao under the army-run Economic Development Corporation.” The shift in population helped undermine the support for the Communist party and allowed the government to avoid implementing any true land reform such as the breakup of large plantations. Politicians also believed that by infusing Mindanao with a large number of Christian settlers, they could “civilize” the Muslim and Lumad populations and diffuse any dissent.

But rather than solving the problem of land scarcity, the resettlement programs just displaced it. In the 15 years following the Second World War, the annual rate of growth in Mindanao was double the national one, with local newspapers reporting an average of 3,000 families disembarking at the island’s ports every month. Along with unabated reproduction, migration has taken Mindanao from an island with eight percent of the Philippine population in 1903 to being home to a quarter of its people today. The government-manipulated migration has strained the social fabric of Mindanao, creating a “Wild West” atmosphere with rival groups gunning for all they can get, winner take all, before everything is gone.

photo of a tropical suburb, crowded and under constructionBrad MillerOvercrowding in the city of Davao: A century ago, Mindanao had eight percent of the
Philippines’ population; today, it’s home to a quarter of its people.

Plantations and mines have become battlegrounds as armed rebels of the NPA pay “visits” to the companies to collect “revolutionary taxes” or punish them for exploitation. The Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed body, the NPA, were both born in the late 1960s. More than 40 years later, they are still fighting, because, as they state in their official news agency, Ang Bayan: “Agrarian revolution is the movement’s key solution to widespread landlessness and land starvation in the country.”

Of course, the corporations who own the mines and the plantations fight back. To protect their investments (as well as “acquire” land and quell labor unrest), companies have historically employed an array of armed groups, including the government’s elite Scout Rangers. The Rangers were allegedly used to help break a 1989 strike at Lapanday, a Del Monte banana grower. Companies have hired out militias like the Civilian Armed Geographical Unit (CAFGU) or the myriad of private armies roaming Mindanao. These militias have been used to grab land for Guthrie Palm Oil and to safeguard Del Monte pineapple fields.

In the Muslim-populated regions, Christian politicians and wealthy landlords and loggers have backed the “Ilaga,” vigilantes whose name means “rat” in the Ilongo dialect. During the 1970s, the Ilaga ravaged Muslim Mindanao like vermin ravage rice and corn fields, battling the private armies of Muslim politicians for land and power. The Ilaga infestation has continued to resurface over the years, propagated by the military to serve in its war against both the NPA and the Muslim separatist groups the MILF and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – as have other vigilante organizations like the Christian Liberation Army.

Under the current government of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the protection of business interests has become more institutionalized, with the development of Investment Defense Forces and the Special Civilian Active Auxiliary units, which are trained by the military and deployed to guard mines on the island.

“It is the national policy of the state that whenever there is a mining corporation entering, there is a military operation to clear the area,” said Eliezer “Boy” Billanes, an outspoken opponent of a planned Sagittarius Mines, Inc. (SMI)/Xstrata copper and gold mine, in a January 2008 interview. “The state uses the AFP to harass and intimidate those against mining.”

Billanes may have been more accurate than he would have liked. He was gunned down in the Marbel public market this March 9. Two men riding a motorcycle approached him, and the passenger shot him in the head with a .45 caliber pistol. While both SMI/Xstrata and the AFP have denied any involvement in the killing, local activists suspect the trigger finger of military intelligence units, since Billanes was reportedly on a list of AFP targets and strongly opposed the presence of the military in the area.

In fact, it was the AFP that secured the mining company’s base camp after the NPA launched a 2008 New Year’s Day raid, burning company buildings and then launching grenades at a nearby military detachment before fading into the mountains. Additional elements of the AFP were brought in to prevent another attack. The Communist Party issued a press release shortly afterward, saying it has directed its armed wing to conduct offensive operations against firms like the Swiss-, British-, and Australian-owned multinational, since the “Arroyo regime lets big foreign mining companies siphon out billions of dollars worth of Philippine natural resources to the further detriment of the people’s livelihood and the environment.”

After the assault, SMI/Xstrata hired a new firm called Catena to guard its facilities. According to AFP commander Lt. Colonel Joshua Santiago, members of the local CAFGU militia are allowed to work for Catena in their off-hours. In addition to protecting the mine, AFP forces also coordinate civil-military operations at the nearby Dole pineapple plantation.

photo of people fleeingStringer Philippines / ReutersAs in most wars, ordinary people take the heaviest casualties.
This man and his daughter were caught in fighting between
Moro rebels and government forces last year.

Relly Leysa, acting vice mayor of the nearby town of Tampakan, recalls that the problems at the mine site began before the NPA attack, when in October 2007, the “workers started to revolt,” one of their grievances being the inability to become permanent employees and therefore organize a union. Lt. Colonel Santiago calls the maelstrom a “borderless war.” His men immerse themselves in the community to pinpoint insurgents and also “educate” people that progressive religious, labor, and activist groups “are usually providing aid to the Communists” – or so the AFP believes.

One of the organizations tagged as “red” by the military is the Diocese of Marbel’s Social Action Center. The center’s director, Father Roming Catedral, explains that a major concern with SMI/Xstrata extracting what may be one of the largest copper deposits in Southeast Asia is the inevitable displacement of small farmers and tribal B’laan people living in the mining concession.

“Where will they relocate people affected by mining?” he asks. “How are they going to sustain them?”

SMI/Xstrata says they are “complying with Philippine laws and the highest international standards to ensure the quality of life of the families that will undergo such a process will improve and not deteriorate over time.”

Dole, for its part, has a record of distributing “livelihood farms” in the hills outside its pineapple plantation, though the meager plots are often steep and rocky.

The Macapagal-Arroyo government has also adopted a “Peace and Development” policy to cleanse the Lumad’s ancestral domain of NPA and bring economic prosperity. Critics call the scheme “development aggression,” intended only to benefit large corporations seeking timber, minerals, and territory. With its “hearts and minds” strategy, the AFP has co-opted a number of tribal leaders into its camp, especially in areas where Lumad have been victims of NPA liquidation. It is standard policy for the military to recruit the tribal people into CAFGU militia, but some progressives allege they are creating armed paramilitaries called “Alamara” to aid in their counterinsurgency and clear areas for corporate development.

Alberto Sipaco, chief investigator for the Commission on Human Rights Region XI, is skeptical the AFP has intentionally formed any Alamara, but says that as both the AFP and NPA vie for recruits, it has polarized Lumad communities, causing “human rights abuses never before seen in history from both extremes.”

It is in this environment that Camid Lapindoy tried to hold his small Lumad community together. Trouble began in the 1960s, when a contract grower for Chiquita bananas pushed his people into the hills of Paquibato. Then the timber companies arrived to denude their new home. Every season since has been a struggle. In March 2007, after claiming Lapindoy was selling ancestral land to a banana plantation and leading a Lumad militia, the NPA strafed his house, killing his 17-year-old son Christopher. Soon after, Lapindoy and his other son, Camilo, were accused of massacring a village watchman, his wife, and two children in a land dispute. Camilo was arrested March 16. Camid Lapindoy is in hiding.

In the district of Calinan, “Lolong” points to where a lone hardwood used to stand, its absence highlighting an environmental disaster exacerbated by an increasing population – the deforestation caused by illegal logging. In this case, the culprit was a banana company, but from the experience of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) forester Ramon Embuscado, most of the players in the various armed conflicts pack chain saws as well as automatic weapons – not only rebel groups like the NPA, MILF, and MNLF, but the government security forces of the AFP. Embuscado says this makes inhibiting illegal logging difficult, since DENR officers “have no guns, only authority.” He says, “They can shoot us anytime they want to.” A recently signed agreement allowing the DENR to deputize Philippine National Police members may mitigate this, but the police and even some DENR employees have also been implicated in the illegal logging.

Another major contribution to deforestation is the collection of fuel wood by the 25 million Filipinos who live in the upland regions. The DENR has documented that the nation’s forest cover has fallen from 70 percent in 1900 to 24 percent (with several NGOs saying that figure is closer to 10 percent).

The loss of forests has endangered the existence of the Philippine eagle and 400 other bird species. Subsequent erosion has silted up rivers and coral reefs, diminishing vital fish populations. According to the Haribon Foundation, 10,000 people have died and one million have been displaced since 1991 due to landslides caused by denudation.

The island’s forests have been another casualty of the fighting. Most of the players in the conflict pack chain saws as well as weapons.

“It is sad,” says Leo Avila, a Davao city councilor and chair of its Committee on Environment and Natural Resources. “More people, more poverty, more forest destruction.”

An old fisherman is led through the streets of Davao by a young girl, maybe a granddaughter or niece. He has neither eyes nor hands. Locals say he was desperate to catch his dinner, so he used dynamite instead of bait, and a faulty fuse cost him his sight and touch. Some people pity him and toss him coins as he stumbles through the city scrounging for pesos, weaving his way through the peanut vendors and prostitutes who share his fate.

It is in this city of over one million that Rebelyn Pitao, daughter of the NPA’s Kumander “Parago,” was abducted and later found in an irrigation ditch in Davao del Norte. The primary suspects in the crime are military intelligence operatives. Pitao’s body showed signs of rape and torture. By all accounts, she was not involved with the NPA, a civilian touched by a conflict in which she had no part.

President Macapagal-Arroyo and her generals brag that they will eliminate the Communist insurgency by the end of her term in 2010, just as the Spanish, Americans, and previous Filipino politicians subdued land-hungry rebellions. But, as even ardent anti-communist Major Aguilar says: “If you kill one NPA, maybe he has a brother, mother, sister.” And everyday there are more brothers, mothers, sisters, fathers, aunts, and uncles in the Philippines – all of them with less of a place to raise and feed a family.

There is a point along the highway running through Davao del Norte, somewhere between Tagum and Kapungagan, where travelers pass a large graveyard packed tightly with tombs and cement slabs and a scattering of wilted or plastic flowers. Banana trees from a nearby plantation have crept between the grave sites, more headstones sprouting up, as concrete covers flora and plants split stone.

Brad Miller first set foot on the shores of the Philippines in 1987, when, similar to Magellan, he was poked with bamboo barbecue skewers by the locals. He is currently based in Davao, where he works as a contributor for Inter Press Service.

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