It was quite the show of unity, President Duterte’s visit to the farmers camped out in Mendiola, members of the Madaum Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association Inc. (MARBAI) who have been fighting to get back their land from the Lorenzos of Lapanday Foods for the past six years.
Was it a surprise? Not quite. Duterte has always had it in him to perform tasks like this one, showing his support when needed, delivering the best soundbites that are still a surprise to hear given a history of Philippine presidents who wouldn’t even touch real issues of oppression and violence, inequality and social injustice with a ten-foot pole. But the President is one to have his heart in the right place for particular kinds of oppression, and one to raise his fist in front of farmers who most need to see it.
Times like this one, you wish his communications team had the sense to actually celebrate what it is he’s doing, and push that for as long as they can, given existing information on the history of the Lorenzos’ oppressive practices and policies against farmers, and given more recent events of violence against protesting farmers.
Ah, but apparently not even the huge salaries of our communications secretaries will wake them up to this fact: PNoy was a terrible President, but he had a communications team that built him up to be a credible, relevant entity. Duterte is doing many good things that we haven’t seen any President do in recent years, but his communications team’s too busy to actually do their jobs.
The Lorenzos’ spin
It seems it is the Lorenzos who have a better handle on communications, knowing full well the need to do press releases if only to control the backlash from the farmers’ strike finally getting the media and government attention it deserves.
It could be because of that Presidential statement to farmers on May 9: “The fight that you are doing is right. We, in the government, promise to grant you the lands that you deserve. It is yours” (Inquirer.net). It could be having someone like Ka Paeng Mariano as head of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). It could be the President’s strong statements against oligarchs – and we have seen how he can go to town against his chosen oligarch-of-the-season (i.e., the Prietos).
It could be all of the above. So on May 10, the Lorenzos issued a statement saying that: “As a good corporate citizen, Lapanday has always stood by what is just and fair. The company is steadfast in exercising only what is legal and lawful, which President Duterte said is part of his legacy, to uphold ‘justice for all.’” (PNA website, 10 May)
It also did some good ol’ pat-the-President-on-the-back, saying Lapanday “believes that President Duterte, being a lawyer, understands that ‘a final and executory judgment on a case is the ultimate proof that justice and fairness prevailed’” (PNA website, 10 May). The Lorenzos refer to a September 2011 order that to them “put to finish” this case.
Yet if it were true that the 2011 order was proof that fairness prevailed, why is it that while Lapanday farmers get a pittance for their produce, the Lorenzos earn as much as 100 times more on the same? How can there be justice when the farmers themselves have found that while the Lorenzos consider their produce to be Class B bananas, these are in fact priced and sold as Lapanday Class A bananas? (ManilaToday, 8 May)
How can anyone at all imagine that a final and executory judgment on this case means it is over and done with, when MARBAI farmers have fought to regain their lands for the past six years? When the Lorenzos’ guards shot at protesting farmers who were taking back their lands last December? When the Lorenzos have purportedly threatened farmers with signs that say: Intruders will be shot, survivors will be shot again!
When the DAR itself has sided with MARBAI farmers, declaring their rightful claim to their lands to be lawful.
Farmers’ voices, lives
As far as the Lorenzos are concerned, the binding agreement they stand upon is what is lawful: that agreement between Lapanday and the Hijo Employees Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative-1 (HEARBCO-1), which continues the oppressive and unjust practice of keeping farmers who own the land tied to and at the mercy of Lapanday’s feudal policies – never earning what they deserve, always being “given” only what the Lorenzos deem to be their labors’ and products’ worth.
It apparently does not matter to the Lorenzos that MARBAI was formed as a reaction to these unjust policies, with 150 farmers bolting from HEARBCO-1 because they “challenged the Agribusiness Venture Agreement (AVA) which put the cooperative at a disadvantage” (ManilaToday, 8 May).
It also does not matter to the Lorenzos that even the members of HEARBCO-1, who had originally agreed to the AVA and stayed as workers of Lapanday, have since declared their support for the “reinstallation of the MARBAI members to the banana plantation,” disproving the Lapanday press release that the shooting that happened on December 21 (injuring 10 farmers from MARBAI), was the doing of HEARBCO-1.
HEARBCO-1 members are also seeking a revocation of their contract with Lapanday. (DAR website, 2 Feb)
At the camp of MARBAI in Mendiola, it was clear that the farmers were in high spirits over the President’s visit. The 200 farmers who had come to Manila were set to go back to Davao del Norte on May 13, now holding on to the promise of the President that they can count on the government and the police to assist them in getting back their lands from Lapanday.
One hopes this is not one of those promises that will not be fulfilled. After all, the Lorenzos – as with all oligarchs – must have the connections and the cash, the machinery even, to continue to get away with this injustice against farmers, as they have all these years.
Sadly, even in this Duterte government and despite all positive proclamations, we have seen how it is still oligarchs, big business, and patronage politics that win. ***
Published in The Manila Times, 14 May 2017.