A death heavier than Mount Arayat

The life and struggle of peasant hero Joseph Canlas

The death of Jose ‘Joseph’ Canlas is heavier than Mount Arayat. His contribution to the peasant movement and the struggle for national democracy is as monumental as the abode of Kapampangan goddess Maria Sinukuan. 

On May 11, 2021, farmers, indigenous people, urban poor, and other advocates, not just from Central Luzon but of the whole nation, lost a formidable and all-rounded leader. After just 40 days at the hands of the fascists Duterte regime, Canlas succumbed to pneumonia as a complication of COVID infection. Red tagged for years and across various regimes, he was killed by unrelenting state persecution and sheer neglect. Canlas’s exemplary leadership in the struggle for genuine agrarian reform and social justice will be missed by the Filipino people he has served for more than three decades.

Born to a peasant family on November 26, 1961, Joseph Canlas was raised in Pampanga. He studied BS Forestry at the Pampanga State Agricultural College and became a staunch environmental defender. Strongly rooted among farmers and the indigenous people of Pampanga, he became a volunteer staff of the Aguman Dareng Maglalautang Capampangan (AMC) in 1997, later becoming the vice-chairperson of BAYAN – Pampanga. It was then that he led the regional campaign to increase palay prices to P20 per kilo from a grossly unjust P10 per kilo. He led fellow Cabalens in the struggle for land, jobs, housing rights, and social services. 

In 2002, he was elected as chairperson of AMC; the next year, he became chairperson of Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson (AMGL), KMP’s regional chapter in Central Luzon.

Since then, Ka Joseph led annual protest caravans and mobilizations of farmers from Central Luzon to Manila, raising land issues to the general population and pressuring government offices to act on agrarian disputes and injustices. He gave voice to and led tens of thousands of poor farmers in the provinces of Tarlac, Pampanga, Bulacan, Bataan, Zambales, Nueva Ecija, Aurora, and Pangasinan. He was among the best in a long line of mass leaders who bloomed from the fertile lands of Central Luzon’s valiant mass struggles. In turn, Ka Joseph himself sowed seeds for generations to come.

By the mid-2000s, he was at the forefront of the farmworker’s long-running struggle against the Cojuangco-Aquino landlord clan. This culminated in the 2009 Hacienda Luisita strike which the Arroyo Regime violently dispersed in a massacre. The farmers’ heroism in the face of deprivation and wanton violence put to national attention the legitimacy of genuine land reform. 

The next year, Canlas led Luisita farmworkers in a long march from Monumento, Caloocan City to the Supreme Court in Padre Faura, Manila. Along with farmers from other Central Luzon provinces, they demanded the immediate scrapping of the Stock Distribution Option (SDO) which provided a loophole for the Cojuangco-Aquinos and other landlords against the actual distribution of farm plots. The action also urged the high tribunal to immediately lift the temporary restraining order (TRO) against land distribution filed by Hacienda Luisita Incorporated. 

The action paved the way for the Court’s historic November 24 decision, of the same year, urging the immediate and unconditional free distribution of the 6,453-hectare sugar estate to its 10,000 farmworker-beneficiaries. Also that year, Canlas played an important role in the reactivation of the Central Luzon Ayta Association which led Aeta struggles against various developers encroaching on ancestral lands in Central Luzon. 

He has been instrumental in leading community initiatives against large-scale mining and other destructive land grabbing projects across Central Luzon. He helped farmers and indigenous Aeta communities in campaigns in Mount Abo and was involved in struggles against other destructive land grabs that put at stake at least 75,500 hectares of indigenous lands in Central Luzon.

After the Department of Agrarian Reform’s inaction, Canlas led more than a hundred Luisita farmworkers in a protest at an en banc session of the Supreme Court in Baguio City in 2012 to again press the High Court.

In 2013, he led Central Luzon farmers’ condemnation of the imperialist-directed US-PH Balikatan exercises in Subic Bay in Zambales, Camp O’Donnell and Crow Valley in Tarlac, and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. 

In 2014, he led Central Luzon’s “Regional Caravan for Land and Justice” from Nueva Ecija to DAR’s central office in Quezon City. The same year, AMGL held the “Farmers’ Long March” along McArthur Hi-Way in San Fernando, Pampanga, demanding genuine land reform.

He valiantly fought against the bogus Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, and its extension and reform. He represented Central Luzon farmers in countless dialogues with DAR in its provincial, regional, and central offices. He was also active in Congressional and Senate hearings on various legislations concerning farmers. 

He led innumerable other local mass struggles for the welfare of farmers, particularly Central Luzon’s Bungkalan or collective land cultivation campaigns. He guided leagues of farmworkers in the fight for higher wages and against displacement as a result of the introduction of combine harvesters touted by farmworkers as ‘halimaw.’ 

Since its proposal, Ka Joseph staunchly opposed the Rice Liberalization Law. He actively campaigned against its enactment and persevered in exposing its devastating effects on rice farmers in protests, media engagements, dialogs with government agencies, and even in legislative hearings. He has concretely established how the law, and the resulting deluge of imported rice, permanently damaged the Filipino palay farmers. 

Enjoying the trust and reverence of the masses, and even of Central Luzon government officials, Joseph Canlas survived the bloody reign of terror of Major General Jovito Palparan and the 7th Infantry Division in Central Luzon, the ominous Oplan Bantay Laya I and II of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and the haciendero president BS Aquino III’s Oplan Bayanihan. 

Canlas dauntlessly fought against Duterte’s tyranny for the past four years. He was among the first to demand Duterte’s ouster as an oppressor and enemy of the peasant class. 

For his continued work in defending and advancing farmers’ land rights, in demanding accountability and justice, in asserting genuine independence and sovereignty, Canlas was viciously red-tagged under the current Duterte regime. Consistently receiving death threats for his political motivations, Canlas’s name and photos also started to appear in tarpaulins all over Central Luzon which tagged him as a ‘terrorist’. He was illegally arrested in Mexico, Pampanga on March 30, 2021. Based on planted evidence – a grenade supposedly discovered in a flower pot outside his house – Canlas was accused of illegal possession of explosives. Detained because of trumped-up charges, his health condition quickly deteriorated as police officers and jail administrators neglected his health and medical needs. After hours in a coma, he passed away in the early morning of May 11.

Canlas’s death may leave a permanent longing in the many lives he has touched, but his life of dedicated and selfless service to the Filipino masses has left a more abundant purpose and fruitful inspiration to millions. 

Justice for Joseph Canlas!

Long live the life and legacy of Ka Joseph Canlas!

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