Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulacan: Defending the land, building people’s agroecological food systems

This article was written to nominate the Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulacan (AMB) / Bagsakan Farmers to the 6th Gawad Bayani ng Kalikasan.

For 36 years, the farmer organizations under Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Bulacan (AMB) have been defending their rich forest and agricultural lands from the encroachment of the biggest real estate developers in the country. Vast agricultural and forest areas are being morphed by the Aranetas and the Villars through public-private partnerships and other extra-legal schemes into shopping malls and exclusive subdivisions. 

But AMB has successfully defended its occupied mountains and fields. Through decades of threats, harassment, coercion, militarization, arson, evictions and killings, AMB’s hundreds of members stand strong today as stewards of the land. 

AMB’s experience in being the primary nurturers of the environment directly exhibits how it advances the peasants’ struggle for genuine agrarian reform. The harmonious relationship between farmers and nature, as AMB’s struggles have shown, is a potent weapon for them, the direct producers, to gain control over their productive resources. This in effect offers a sneak peak of how farmers, having harnessed and protected the natural resources, have the right to till the land.

Defending the environment

From 2013-2019, AMB local chapters in San Jose Del Monte and Norzagaray went to several dialogues with the local government and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to petition the closure of the Waste Custodial Management Inc (WACUMAN), a landfill owned by the former Norzagaray Mayor Feliciano Legazpi. 

The farmers lamented that the landfill would overflow during the rainy season to the Istrabyal River, the farmers’ only source of irrigation water. Fishes died and even the carabaos that drank and bathed in the river also died. The farmers would sometimes discover hospital toxic wastes floating in the river and would complain of a foul smell. 

In 2015, AMB led a fact-finding mission (FFM) on WACUMAN’s violations of environmental standards and submitted the FFM results to the DENR. In 2019, the local government was forced not to renew WACUMAN’s permit to operate and eventually closed the landfill. The farmers have moved on to rehabilitate the river.  

Collective land cultivation

Long before the national federation Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), of which AMB is a member, launched in 2017 its collective land cultivation campaign called Bungkalan, AMB farmers have already set up their land cultivation areas in Bulacan. 

In the early 2000s, photo documentation of the Bungklan areas in Barrio Bisaya, Kaybanban and other shows barren hills and fields. Farmers started to expand their farms, first by planting bananas in the area.  Countless times they were harassed and ordered to leave the premises and countless times their banana plants were cut and destroyed by military men who worked as goons for the Aranetas. 

In 2014, in Sitio Kaybanban, where the real estate developer Golden Ville had been trying to grab the land for years, farmers would camp where the military barracks were located and they would do vigils to prevent the backhoe from destroying their plots.

Throughout the years, farmers of affected villages have faced endless harassments, threats of eviction, and militarization. 

In September 2015, farmer-couple Roger and Lucila Vargas were gunned down by still unidentified gunmen while the couple were transporting their produce to the market. Their case is not yet resolved to this day. 

In October 2016, farmers who were resisting land grabbing in Sitio Carahome were illegally arrested and detained by the San Jose Del Monte police as part of the police’s drug-related Operation Tokhang. The farmers were eventually released. In 2017, KMP’s local members reported several cases of harassment including shooting of farm animals and torching of ready-to-harvest crops.

In 2017, AMB heeded the nationwide call for the resurgence of the Bungakalan campaign. Its member-organizations set up their own collective plots and increased their agricultural productivity by pooling their community’s efforts and resources. As the farmers made the land productive, figuratively with their own blood, sweat and tears, they have solidified their rightful claim on the land, concretely with their bountiful produce of vegetables, rice and fruits.

Women power

Kaybanban, San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan (2018)

The precariousness of livelihood from agriculture, especially with the constant threats of eviction and demolition, has also prompted the men to seek other jobs such as in construction or other non-agricultural employment in nearby cities and provinces. In many communities in Tungkong Mangga, the farmers’ organizations would be led by the women. For the women of AMB, Bungkalan is a fight they will not back down from. 

Years of experience in land struggle have taught the women how to grow plants in the middle of land conflict and war. In the past when they were just starting to grow bananas, mango trees and some vegetables, armed military men and goons sent by the Aranetas would pull out their plants when they were already nearing harvest. The women learned to plant vegetables under the banana trees, cover them with dried leaves and banana trunks, and give the crops enough space so they would be able to feed on sunlight. Because the guards and goons had their rotation or perhaps transferred to other posts, the women would be able to harvest their produce with no worries. 

This form of struggle went on for years. There were times they would be able to harvest, but there were also times they would not. But the women never gave up, not when they have realized the fruit of their hard work with the land.

Farmers’ market

With the socioeconomic achievements of the Bungkalan campaign, KMP introduced a pop-up farmers’ market innovation together with the AMB farmers in 2018. This would later on be known as Bagsakan. 

Farmers would bring the Bungkalan products when there were dialogues, campaigns or rallies in Metro Manila. It was for them a way to still earn while doing political work with their organizations. For KMP, it has been an expression of the success of the Bungkalan after months of tending to the farms and protecting the farms from possible destruction and harassment from the landgrabbers. This direct-selling addresses unscrupulous pricing by exploitative local traders and at the same time makes fresh produce available to urban consumers at a cheaper price. 

In October 2019, members of one of the pioneering organizations of the Bagsakan, the Samahan ng mga Magsasaka sa San Mateo (Sama Sama), were forcefully evicted from their farms by the goons of Royal Moluccan Realty Holdings. Some of their farms were destroyed; their animals were killed or sold by the goons; and their farm lots were fenced.

This area in Norzagaray is the most scenic – it is often called the Baguio of Bulacan. But Royal Moluccan Realty Holdings is buying the ara and plans to turn the lush environment into paved subdivisions and memorial parks for the rich. For months after they were demolished, the farmers would sneak into their farms to harvest what could still be salvaged and sold. They would be shot at by the guards while they were trying to harvest what was rightfully theirs in the first place. 
Members of Sama Sama and their communities would eventually be sustained by AMB through struggles, cooperation, collective support, and solidarity, which are the principles of genuine bayanihan.

The real bayanihan

As the pandemic hit the world this year, these two production and distribution campaigns, the Bungkalan and Bagsakan, proved vital for the farmers to survive in the face of a neglectful government and its military lockdowns. Bungkalan, with its focus on addressing the farming community’s food needs, has helped in addressing the sheer lack of emergency relief and production aid. Bagsakan, on the other hand, has facilitated marketing in light of the disruption and closure of supply routes. Bagsakan has also served as venue for food relief operations for locked-down urban poor communities. 

As farmers were prohibited to physically bring their produce to the local markets, farmers’ advocates have brought Bagsakan online to become a platform of solidarity between farmers, consumers, the urban poor, the religious, and the homeless. 

For AMB, the online Bagsakan has served three purposes. Farmers are able to sell their products during lockdown. With the little money they save from selling, they are able to fund the relief operations for their fellow displaced farmers of Norzagaray and other barangays. At the same time, online Bagsakan has been a viable way to bring healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables to the consumers during the pandemic. 

Since the lockdown, both campaigns have distributed up to 13,000 kilos of agricultural produce all around Metro Manila and provided for almost 5,000 families in numerous relief-giving operations. These two campaigns have also offered more healthy options in relief operations with the nutri-relief (nutrilief) packs that of fresh vegetables from the Bungkalan famers instead of canned goods.  

AMB has emerged from the pandemic ever more steadfast in its commitment of preserving the natural wealth of the land while building a balanced food production and distribution systems beneficial for everyone. Bungkalan is AMB’s direct assertion and opposition to the wanton destruction of nature engendered by neoliberal pursuits by the elite and powers-that-be. No piece of paper can deligitimize them as stewards, as they have grown roots, fortified their relationship with the land, and borne fruits of their own hard work. ###

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