The Land of Blood and Sugar

I consider myself an outsider on issues of agriculture and land dispute. My close friends who have been following agrarian conflicts told me you would never run out of stories about farmers and their landlords. The Philippines, after all, is a democracy based on landed oligarchy. Its conflicts, whether spurred by communist rebellion or underpinning the Muslim separatist movement, are often focused on land disputes.

Negros Island used to be called the social volcano because of the feudal estates the kept agricultural workers impoverished and angry. On the last year of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), land is once more took center stage in the island, where activist group Task Force Mapalad (TFM) and sugar planter Roberto Cuenco had fought to a stalemate - costing three lives - before resolution of their dispute.

Last January of 2008, farmer from the north and south of Negros island, the province with an almost mono-crop economy, started their march towards Bacolod city hoping for their voices be heard similar to another farmer's march where they reached the gates of the Presidential palace.

It was my first time in Negros. I was greeted by a sleek and obviously new Silay city airport. I asked a local if it catered to international flight. He answered in a sweet Ilonggo intonation, 'indi', which I guess means no.

We motored to the headquarters of TFM in Bacolod, an hour away from SIly. Lani Francia, the group's coordinator, invited me for a morning feast of fresh fish and steaming rice and upon filling my plate with food I immediately asked her to brief me on the background of the Negros farmers' struggle to claim 'their land'.

TFM calls Negrs the last 'bastion of landlord resistance,' where despite the CARP law distribution of land is an uphill climb. They have also said that, more or less, two thirds of the province's lands are privately owned and controlled. Some names - The Conjuanco's (related to the current president), the Jacintos, the Madrigals, the Yulos and the Arroyos - have been prominent in politics, some as far back as the 19th century.

Sugar farmers say they have been unfairly presented as oppressive and unjust, nothing that through the years farms have gotten smaller so that few remain of the sugar barons controlling hundreds or thousands of hectares of sugar land.

TFM counters that since the late Philippines President Corazon Aquino approved CARP the 'ulipon or the alipin' (slave) ho have tilled the soil since the Spaniards' 'socialized' way of living have been waiting for the land promised to them.

A recent report on the widening gap between the rick and the poor tells of the unfinished business of reform. That wealth gap has been existent in the farmlands that are now on their fourth generation of Sacada. The soil, that grows whatever seed is planted, has been tilled by the blood of farmers who have been rallying in the province and even in Manila for their issues to be heard.

On the second day we drove north to see how the farmer marchers were doing Reports came in from the first day that six had collapsed. Upon reaching the city of Victorias, we saw the farmers sitting down in the town plaza eating breakfast.

I had the pleasure of meeting a survivor of the 1985 Escalante massacre , Nong Eugenio Alpar. The 72-year old farmer was still at it, garrulous and cheerful despite the ravages of poverty etched on his face. Flashing his toothless smile, he gets teased with the monicker attributed to a former child star, a reference to the good cheer and naughty ways that remind friends of the actor.

Nong Alpar has always been present in mass actions calling for the distribution of land and other reforms for social justice. He was present when goons of a northern mayor, allegedly on orders of a warlord close to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters in September 1985.

"I can never forget that bloody Thursday," Nong Alpar confesses, all signs of mischief gone. "We found decomposing bodies in the sugarcane fields. The images haunted me for weeks."

What has kept him going, he says, are the words of a teenage girl who was shot during the demonstration. In the Cebuano dialect of this province's northern towns, the young woman demanded his promise to continue fighting for land "so that the sacrifice of my blood doesn't go to waste." She died cradled in the arms of the weeping farmer.

The cane fields are a bitter sweet legacy.

In the breeze, the swaying stalks - covered with sharp leaves that can cut the skin - bewitch the eyes. It is fascinating to hear accounts of battles and strife told in the lilting, musical language of the Ilonggos, who are the first to laugh at jokes that they say they will still drawl sweetly while hurling curses and threats of mayhem.

But beneath the music and the sweet smell of sugar lie very real tales of sorrow. Many farmers - and landowners and their henchmen - have given up lives for this sweet land. Nobody wants to die or kill. Nong Alpar points out, but many have been forced to lives of violence. He doesn't know if he will live to see the day when majority of Negros' saccadas finally get to till and sow land they can call their own.

But, he says, he remains willing to die for that dream.