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Steeled by Decades of Struggle, the Negrenses Keep the Revolutionary Fire Ablaze

in Mainstream
by Iliya Makalipay

Tears were shed copiously. There was mourning all around as the number of dead bodies in Negros Island continued to rise. And there was justified rage—because these were not mere numbers or bodies.

They were peasants, local government executives, educators, human rights defenders, lawyers. There was even a one-year-old baby. All of them were victims of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Philippine National Police (PNP), and the Duterte Death Squads (DDS).

Stupid as it has shown up itself to be, the tyrannical regime wasted no time in accusing the New People’s Army (NPA) of killing those whom it had tagged as NPA members and sympathizers.

Peasant advocate groups have reported 87 killed from 2017 to mid-August 2019. Forty of the victims were mercilessly slain after Duterte’s Memorandum Circular 32 took effect on November 22, 2018: it ordered more troop deployments in Negros, in the Samar provinces, and in the Bicol region purportedly to “suppress lawless violence.” A month after, in consonance with Memo Circular 32, state security forces launched Oplan Sauron in Negros Island.

Currently, at least 11 regular and special battalions of the AFP and PNP operate in the island, supported by paramilitary groups such as the CAFGU (Civilian Armed Force Geographical Unit) and the RPA-ABB (Revolutionary Proletarian Army-Alex Boncayao Brigade). At the height of the killings in July-August 2019, the PNP deployed 300 more members of its Special Forces, further escalating the tension and the abuses.

To justify the massive deployment and brutal military campaign, Col. Benedict Arevalo admitted to media that what was initially passed off as tokhang (“drug war”) operations were actually counterinsurgency actions.

The AFP assumes that the central part of Negros, where most of the killings happened, is used by the NPA as “highway” to easily reach both sides of Negros Island—Occidental and Oriental.

“The rebels are trying to create a base somewhere in the boundaries because it’s very important for them to connect and control both islands. It’s like grabbing Negros by the neck,” a news report quoted Arevalo, commanding officer of the 303rd Infantry Brigade-Philippine Army.

In July 30, the Provincial Task Force to end local communist armed conflict was formed in Negros Oriental following Malacanang’s issuance of Executive Order 70, which created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), headed by President Duterte himself. The move is part of the “whole-of-nation approach” the regime is using to create public perception that its counterinsurgency operations involve the participation of the entire government, civil society, and the civilian population.

Still and all, the victims of these police and military operations in Negros were unarmed civilians.

PERENNIAL MILITARY TARGET

This is not the first time state forces deployed hundreds of troops in the island— intended to decimate the NPA and “wipe out” its revolutionary base there. In fact, every president—from Marcos to Duterte—has invariably aimed, by the end of his/her term, to defeat the New People’s Army and destroy its revolutionary mass base.

During the Marcos dictatorship, Negros was depicted as a “social volcano” waiting to explode. Almost 40 years later, it has remained so because there was never any palpable change in the economic system and the deplorable lives of the poor people. As feudal and semifeudal relations in the haciendas remain and exploitation is stepped up, so is the validity of sustained armed struggle upheld.

In the last few months of the dictatorship, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pointed out Marcos’s inability to address the sugar crisis and its consequent labor unrest and the military’s failure to contain the rebellion that has swept the island because of extreme poverty. The CIA report, dated May 1985, had been declassified and sanitized and was approved for release in 2011.

The report said: “We judge that later this year (1985), Negros may become, after Mindanao, the second politically important island in the archipelago where Communist control rivals that of the government.”

It added: “Despite the trouble looming on Negros, President Marcos shows no inclination to improve the counterinsurgency effort by bolstering the military or dismantling the sugar-marketing empire of his political ally, Roberto Benedicto. … Government efforts that are taken to ease the plight of the sugar workers are largely cosmetic.”

The “fall of Negros”, the report concluded, “would provide an important psychological defeat for the government and further depress morale in the armed forces. It would also confirm to the Communist Party that its long-term strategy is on the mark.”

Now under the sixth post-Marcos president, feudal relations, the centuries-old hacienda system, landlessness, and agrarian unrest are still prevalent. Adding to these social and economic ills are large-scale mining companies that prey on the island’s mineral resources and degrade its environment.

More than half of the country’s sugar mill and plantation workers are in Negros, earning an average daily income of Php 50-67, a far cry from the mandated minimum wage of Php 300. The glaring reality is farmers go hungry every day, both before and after the much-dreaded tiempo muerto, the idle period between sugarcane harvests.

There is widespread landlessness despite the so-called agrarian reform programs implemented by past administrations. Negros has still at least 600,000 hectares of lands that have escaped distribution under the largely-failed Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) started by the Cory Aquino government in 1988.

Continued exploitation and oppression and non-implementation of genuine agrarian reform and rural development have been surefire stimuli for resistance—both armed and unarmed. It is for this reason that all attempts by the successive governments to defeat the revolutionary forces have ended in failure.

The Philippine government may have somehow identified the causes of the protracted armed conflict, but it has persistently pursued the wrong solution—the militarist solution of trying to eradicate the symptom—instead of seeking to resolve the root causes.

SERIES OF FAILED ‘COUNTERINSURGENCY’ OPLANS

Interviews with several villagers in Negros Oriental revealed two military operational plans (Oplans) etched deeply in their collective memory: Oplan Thunderbolt under the Cory Aquino regime and Oplan Bantay Laya of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Decades from now, they would remember too the brutality of the military operations under the Duterte regime’s Oplan Kapayapaan/Kapanatagan.

Despite or because of martial law, Marcos failed. And what the Marcos dictatorship failed to attain, the succeeding “restoration-of-democracy” government of Cory Aquino tried to finish—by using the very same corrupt and abusive state security forces that Marcos had fully harnessed and coddled.

As Cory Aquino wielded her “sword of war” through Oplan Lambat-Bitag I and II, Negros became a “pilot area”. A fact-finding report in 1988, titled “Mountain Tempest”, quoted the government as claiming that “the deployment of more troops and the use of more sophisticated weapons…can wipe out insurgency by 1992.” Essentially, Cory Aquino’s counterinsurgency program was derived from America’s “low-intensity-conflict” strategy which, at the time, was also being implemented in Latin America, with incalculable consequences in terms of countless killings and massive-scale human rights violations.

Rev. Romeo Empestan, in his book “From the Struggles of the People and the Church of the Poor in Negros in the 70s to 90s,” recalled that there were four simultaneous localized Oplans implemented during this period: Thunderbolt, Kahilwayan (freedom), Habagat (south winds), and Amihan (north winds). Oplan Thunderbolt would become the most notorious of the four.

Oplan Thunderbolt resulted in more than 30,000 (some reports cited as high as 100,000) evacuees in seven relocation sites. Most of the evacuees were from the now-familiar town of Sta. Catalina and Guihulngan City, in Negros Oriental, where the spate of killings under Duterte is happening. The late outspoken and courageous Bishop of Bacolod City, Antonio Fortich, said the mass dislocation of civilians at the time was “the biggest evacuation in one place in the country since World War II.”

Aside from the regular companies of the Philippine Constabulary (PC), units of the Scout Rangers, Airborne, were used in the counterinsurgency campaigns, along with vigilante groups such as Pulahan (red), Ituman (black), Putian (white), Way Sapatos (literally, no shoes) and the notorious Alsa Masa (Rise up, masses) that arose in Davao City. Private armies of landlords, hiding under the cloak of Philippine Constabulary Forward Command (PCFC) were also employed in military operations.

Upland farmers in Sta. Catalina town recalled seeing tora-tora planes used in bombing their communities, forest areas, and rivers suspected as NPA encampments. Fr. Empestan also mentioned bombings using helicopter gunships, F5 jet fighters, and howitzers. The communities were eventually declared “no man’s land”, a common practice in those days where anyone on sight was shot at by soldiers. At least seven incidents of massacre were recorded. There were burning of houses and parish churches, arrests, ‘salvaging’ (a term used to refer to what is now known as extrajudicial killings), and disappearances.

In a September 1, 2018 statement, Juanito Magbanua, spokesperson of the Apolinario Gatmaitan Command of the NPA Regional Command, described the current military operations in Negros since early 2018 as reminiscent of Oplan Thunderbolt in the late 80’s—the evacuations, bombings, and the destruction of Negros’ virgin forests.

Cory Aquino’s term ended in 1992 with the revolutionary movement surviving the military assaults. Thus, her successor Fidel Ramos—also the engineer behind her two Oplans—only had to continue the same counterinsurgency program Oplan Lambat Bitag III and IV. Oplan Flush Out was its localized version in Negros. It was during Ramos’ term, however, when the government first recognized the need to combine a “non-militarist” solution to the armed conflict—the pursuance of the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations, which produced positive results.

A decade later, in 2008, a Negros version of Gloria Arroyo’s nationwide Oplan Bantay Laya (OBL) I and II, the Oplan Cut Wedge, attempted yet again to “cut/stop the ability of the NPA to hop from one island to another.” The objective was the same; the mode of military operation was similar.

At least four infantry battalions of the Philippine Army were deployed in Negros, plus a battalion of the Special Elite forces of the Scout Ranger, two division-level reconnaissance companies, plus two companies supervising more than 2,000 CAFGU paramilitary recruits. The fanatic groups such as Pulahan, Ituman, etc. were replaced by two platoons of RPA-ABB (Revolutionary Proletarian Army-Alex Buncayao Brigade). A breakaway group from the NPA in the 1990s, the RPA-ABB (Tabara-Paduano group) has morphed into a paramilitary group, recently “demobilized” but has vowed to fully cooperate with the Duterte regime. At the start, it posed itself as a revolutionary group.

Simultaneous deployment of military units in a community, akin to Oplan Sauron, was already employed during OBL’s implementation.

In Barangay Guihulngan for example, almost two battalions of Philippine Army were deployed. In another village, some 130 troops were stationed for six months, with a division-level reconnaissance unit on standby in a nearby town.

People were interrogated, threatened and charged with trumped-up cases, the latter as part of the “legal offensive” of the Arroyo regime against its perceived enemies. There was massive recruitment of people to join the Barangay Defense System (BDS). Parallel formations were created in an attempt to draw in those who were members of progressive organizations.

Arroyo’s OBL was patterned after the U.S. 2009 Counterinsurgency Guide that has formally included the “whole-of-nation, whole-of-people” strategy purportedly to complement combat operations. The “whole-of-nation” approach would become the thread in the subsequent Oplans up to the Duterte regime’s Oplan Kapayapaan (Peace)/ Kapanatagan (peace/tranquility).

A similar counterinsurgency operation was in place when B.S. Aquino III assumed the presidency in 2010. As it was still patterned after the US Guide, massive troop deployment was again employed in the island. The revolutionary forces counted up to 30 combat companies in Negros.

But while Aquino continued OBL, the regime highlighted the “shift” to “whole-of-nation” approach to conjure an image of a nation united to battle “insurgency”, even calling it Oplan Bayanihan (a collective endeavor Filipinos are known for) and complemented it with a task force composed of so-called civil society stakeholders.

Nada. What was fervently targeted has never been achieved by any of these Oplans. Obviously, every Oplan has only brought more killings and numerous human rights violations.

Still, the current government insists on the same strategy that has failed over five decades under a dictatorship and five successive presidents.

THE MASSES PROPEL THE REVOLUTION

The Philippine government chose to remain blind and deaf through time, ignoring the fact that the strength of the revolutionary forces in Negros, and elsewhere in the country, comes from the exploited and oppressed poor, especially the peasants and workers. It is their best interest that the national democratic revolution— the key democratic content of which is agrarian revolution— uppermost fights for.

It is thus not surprising that the “poor but struggling masses of Negros” propels the revolution.

The masses played a vital role in the recovery and rebuilding of the CPP and the NPA in Negros in the 1990s. “(They) did not allow us to give up and encouraged us to rebuild,” recalled Frank Fernandez, detained peace consultant of the National Democratic Front (NDFP). In an article published by Kodao productions on July 8, 2019, Fernandez recalled, “There was almost no NPA left in Negros in 1994.”

The reason was not because the government’s counterinsurgency’program suceeded but because of the internal weaknesses of the CPP-NPA leadership in the area at the time. Fernandez explained that the movement diverted from the correct line and strategy in the conduct of the people’s war.

(That period of disorientation resulted in the breakaway of former members and led to the formation of the RPA-ABB. In 2000 said group engaged in pseudo-peace talks and signed a peace agreement with the Estrada government in exchange for a hefty amount of money. It continued to deteriorate into a paramilitary group, having been involved in numerous cases of extrajudicial killings, victimizing farmers. It has recently signed another ‘peace agreement’ with the Duterte regime and got another Php 500 million purportedly for social services programs.)

Reaffirming the correct ideological, political and organizational line, the CPP-NPA in Negros has since then fully recovered, with the unstinting support of the masses.

As Frank Fernandez said, “It’s time to repay the masses”.

PEASANT WAR, PEASANT ARMY

Repaying the masses comes in three main forms—implementing agrarian revolution, establishing local organs of political power, and pushing forward the armed struggle.

Juanito Magbanua, the Apolinario Gatmaitan Command spokesperson, cited the successful 17 armed actions of the NPA in Negros in the first eight months of 2018 as proofs of the “NPA’s increasing capability in launching armed struggle that is integrated with agrarian revolution and base building.”

As early as 2016, the Pambansang Kalipunan ng mga Magsasaka (PKM or the National Federation of Peasants) revealed that the revolutionary movement in Negros and Central Visayas have confiscated some 2,000 hectares of land, which benefitted at least a thousand farmers. The confiscation and distribution of lands, mostly idle and abandoned, are part of the agrarian revolution being implemented by the NPA with the PKM.

Comprehensive military-politico training of red commanders and fighters were launched to improve their “fighting skill, political capability, combat discipline, and revolutionary militance,” according to Magbanua. Majority of the trainees were peasants while 15 percent came from the petty-bourgeoisie.

Recognizing the importance of Negros island in the overall development of people’s war, Magbanua said the armed revolutionary movement in Negros must “overcome its weaknesses and rectify its errors in order to help frustrate the US-Duterte regime’s Oplan Kapayapaan and contribute in the national development of the strategic defensive of the people’s war towards a new and higher stage.”

The last time the island command conducted a training was in 2008 when the AFP implemented Oplan Bantay Laya 2 and shortly after, Oplan Bayanihan.

“The people’s army in the island had to make do with politico-military crash courses in the face of sustained search-and-destroy operations of the enemy until 2013, while prioritizing rebuilding work of the revolutionary mass base thereafter,” Magbanua explained.

At the same time, he added, punitive actions against abusive state forces and criminal elements have been meted out.

In the last six months of 2018, the NPA punished 14 landgrabbers, criminal elements, and intelligence assets of the 303rd Brigade responsible for human rights abuses against peasants, including the killing of activists in the legal organizations. These punitive actions have reduced the AFP/PNP’s capability to “inflict further harm upon the people’s lives, rights, and livelihood within and outside the guerrilla areas in the island,” Magbanua said.

Meantime, Dionesio Magbuelas, spokesperson of the NPA Central Negros-Mt. Cansermon Command, reported that Red fighter burned down some 120 million-peso worth of heavy equipment owned by a mining company. The action, he said, was a punishment meted on the firm for the destruction it had caused on the environment and sources of the people’s livelihood in Ayungon, Negros Oriental.

At the height of the attacks against the masses in Negros, the CPP-NPA central leadership issued a call for the NPA to defend the people of Negros. Magbanua claimed the punitive actions were “long overdue” because killings of unarmed civilians continued to escalate.

The CPP has denounced the spate of killings and numerous human rights abuses against civilians as acts of cowardice. State security forces, it noted, turned their guns against unarmed civilians in retaliation and to cover up for their failure to eliminate the revolutionary forces in the region.

Tempered in fighting one armed counter-revolutionary campaign after another—from the Marcos-era martial rule, through Operation Thunderbolt, and the more recent Oplan Bayanihan that deployed at least 30 combat companies in the island—the NPA in Negros has vowed unwaveringly to defend the masses against the intensifying militarization and fascist attacks of the Duterte regime. ###

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#JoinTheNPA

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Ka Pidyong’s Revolutionary Journey

in Mainstream

The 75-year old Ka Pidyong couldn’t contain his laughter as he recalled the first time he met members of the New People’s Army (NPA) in their community, an upland barrio in Northern Luzon. He was among the first batch of peasant men and women who welcomed comrades from the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the NPA in 1971, when the twin revolutionary organizations were in the formative stage.

“There were seven of them,” he said in Filipino, grinning. “Only one had an armalite rifle, while the others had carbines, a shotgun, and a caliber .38 handgun— all teka-teka guns (teka literally means “wait” and refers to low-caliber guns). Of the last member of the team, he remembered vividly, “He had no gun, only a kaldero (a metal pot used to cook rice).”

“Three years later, they were already 16 and fully armed,” Ka Pidyong mused. “We were so happy. Our morale was high because 12 of them were recruited from our village.” Some of the original members had been redeployed elsewhere, he remarked enthusiastically, “They continued to grow, so did we.”

Decades after that first contact with the people’s army, the villagers have now established, painstakingly, their own organs of political power: the revolutionary mass organizations of peasants, women, and youth. A revolutionary council has also been elected and now governs their communities. In 2017, members of the mass organizations—representing the unity forged by the CPP, the NPA, and their allies—held their second elections in less than five years.

Setting the Revolutionary Fire

Not long after the first meeting with the NPA, community leaders teamed up with the NPA to go to different mountain villages and those near the town center. They held meetings, education sessions, and explained to the masses the ills of our society and the proposed long-term solution to their situation.

“What truly got me to realize was the fact that the Philippines is a rich country, yet only the foreigners and the local ruling elite benefit from these riches,” Ka Pidyong said.

The education session was followed by many more until, “ang dami ko nang alam (I learned so much)” Ka Pidyong continued, beaming.

The peasants in this guerrilla zone are mostly landless, some tilling a hectare or two. The communities are nestled in a public land, where any moneyed individual can claim ownership over parts or all of it in blatant disregard of existing laws. All too often, the peasants had been victims of traders who preyed on them by selling farm inputs and implements that were overpriced and buying their farm produce at dirt-cheap prices. The government, too, attempted several times to evict the peasants and give way to so-called development projects, but did not succeed.

The series of education sessions was later followed by the establishment of a local chapter of the Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Magsasaka (PKM, National Association of Peasants), one of the founding affiliate organizations of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). The establishment of the Makibaka (Makabayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan) followed after a few years.

As the organizations expanded, Ka Pidyong and other comrades, also thought of ways to tackle their revolutionary tasks more effectively, such as: how to give education to those who are not literate; how to maintain communal farms, form a militia unit in the barrios for their security, and how to efficiently support the various needs of the NPA— the latter task they took to heart most fervently. The welfare of the NPA fighters has always been at the forefront of the masses’ concerns. Even in times of calamities, when there was hardly anything to eat, the masses saw to it that there was food for the Red fighters.

Makibaka members took the lead in taking care of the children of fulltime cadres and Red fighters. They looked after their schooling and overall welfare. The women likewise started the health and sanitation programs, which include production of herbal medicine. The youth were organized under the Huwarang Bata (Model Youth), which initiated sports programs, among others. In those years, when members of the NPA came back from tactical offensives, the youth would welcome them with revolutionary songs.

It has been a long, arduous, but victorious journey for those who blazed the revolutionary trail in this guerrilla zone.

Tempered by Struggle

Leaders of the PKM identified two most trying moments they had experienced in their almost 50 years in struggle: the Party’s disorientation in the late 1980’s until the early 1990’s and the intense militarization during the same period.
But they held the fort, they said, never losing track of the revolution’s onward march, much more the will to push it to victory. Even in those difficult times, when the enemy surrounded them, in their hearts and in their minds they knew where they stand—to serve the Party and the masses.

In fact, while the AFP encamped at the barrio for 14 years, several organizing groups and revolutionary mass organizations were established in the communities surrounding the barrio.

“No one was ever recruited into the AFP’s paramilitary unit. There were a few who almost agreed to be recruited but we persuaded them to back out,” said Ka Pidyong with a chuckle. Ka Pidyong was arrested by the military but, after his release, went into hiding several times after because of the continuing threats of re-arrest.

At the time, the NPA stayed away from the barrio center since their presence would cause unnecessary confrontation with the government forces that would affect the unarmed civilians.

But such restraint was no longer exercised during the Party’s disorientation. The situation then turned intense, pitiful for the masses who had to bring supplies, food into the remote mountainous areas where the NPA retreated after launching tactical offensives. This was the period when military adventurism seeped into the NPA ranks and mass work and agrarian reform tasks took a back seat to tactical offensives that were launched one after another.

Ka Pidyong was among those in the barrio who disapproved the swing to military adventurism, saying it was not time to show off the NPA’s military strength in their guerrilla zone. His memory of how the NPA had shifted its focus and the change in its attitude towards the masses was still fresh. “Yung mga kasama noon wala na, kapag pinupuna ayaw na (At that time the comrades didn’t want to accept criticisms).”

Sadly, Ka Pidyong was among those who were suspected as military agents within the movement during the anti-infiltration campaign. Although he had ill feelings then, now he shrugs off the whole experience. During the rectification period, the Party and NPA cadres and red fighters humbly criticized themselves before the masses and members of the revolutionary organizations as they explained to them the rectification process.

The elders in the community did not mince words in criticizing the Party and NPA members, which the latter wholeheartedly accepted. What is important is the rectification of the errors, which led to growth and strengthening of the Party, the people’s army and the mass organizations.

One with the Party and the People’s Army

A good number of the revolution’s trailblazers are now in their 70s, their faces lined with wrinkles and the hair on their heads turning grey or white and thinning. Still they stay in high revolutionary spirit. They have been in the movement for at least 47 years. Some of them were just about 12 years old when introduced to the movement.

“I am satisfied. Despite my age and ailment, I am still able to help in whatever way I can,” Ka Pidyong remarked. He quickly added, “And, I’m energized to see young people, from our place, from other places, from the cities who come here and stay with us.”

“If the end of our struggle is still far away, where we started from is now much farther away. Let’s continue fighting,” he added.

It took several probing questions from Liberation on how these trailblazers felt about being the bearers of revolutionary power in their communities before they could answer. There was initial silence, a long silence. Tears welled in the eyes of some of them. Clearing his throat, Ka Pidyong spoke up first. He firmly declared, “Without the Party and the NPA, we have nothing.” ###

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#JoinTheNPA

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Travails and Triumphs of the Coconut Farmers

in Mainstream

Within the last two weeks of February 2019, Pres. Rodrigo Duterte vetoed two bills concerning the coco levy funds that belonged to the coconut farmers. One bill would have created a trust fund for the coconut farmers and the other, the reconstitution of the Philippine Coconut Authority—the latter’s approval was a requisite in the creation of the Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund. Now that the two bills had been vetoed, whatever semblance of action there is to save the ailing Philippine coconut industry and the coconut farmers, whether directly or indirectly, are now again put on hold.

THE COCO LEVY FUND

The coco levy fund was a tax imposed on small-time coconut farmers during the Marcos dictatorship, purportedly to develop the coconut industry. However, said coconut levy fund never benefited the farmers. Instead, this was siphoned to corporations of Marcos’ cronies. Succeeding regimes used various means to continue to hold on to the Php 150 billion coco levy fund, failing to return the huge amount of money to its rightful owners.

The farmers’ demand for the return of the coco levy fund was answered by a legislative bill creating a trust fund that will be managed by a reconstituted Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA). According to the bill, the Php 100 billion of the trust fund will be invested in government securities, the proceeds of which are promised (again) to be returned to the farmers. The development of the industry, which will be implemented by the PCA, has an annual budget appropriation of Php10 billion. The executive branch has no part in overseeing the implementation.

The reconstituted PCA is composed of a 15-person board, seven members of which are supposed to come from the private sector (a coconut industry stakeholder and coconut farmers from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao with two representatives each.). Duterte vetoed the bill because he did not want private persons to influence the disbursement of “public funds” or he did not want to be left out from the control of the coco levy fund?

Congress will come up with a revised version of the bill. Meantime, the coconut farmers are in for another long haul. They will have to wait again for decades for the fruit of their sweat and blood.

AN AILING COCONUT INDUSTRY

Beyond the coco levy fund issue is a coconut industry that is on the brink of a collapse—affecting almost four million coconut farmers cultivating 26% of the agricultural land in the country.

An article recently published in Ang Bayan, (official publication of the Communist Party of the Philippines), cited several factors in the deterioration of the industry. One, natural calamities exacerbate the miseries of the coconut farmers. In 2013, the horrendous typhoon Yolanda hit the Visayas and ravaged their crops. In Leyte alone, 33 million coconut trees were destroyed. Aside from the typhoon, the coconut pest cocolisap also attacked.

But, the government did not only neglect the cause of the farmers by failing to provide subsidies and sufficient facilities to improve coconut production; it also brought man-made disasters.

It doesn’t help that the unabated land conversion and Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” projects defraud thousands of farmers of the source of their livelihood. Most land conversions are in regions planted to coconuts—Southern Tagalog, Central Luzon, and Misamis Oriental. Land conversion benefits only the landlords/compradors and foreign investors who rake profits from eco-tourism, infrastructure projects, mineral exploration, palm plantation, real estate, cattle-raising, exotic fruits production etc.

FARMERS’ LAMENT

According to the same article published in Ang Bayan, 60% of coconut farmers and farm workers earn below the government-mandated minimum wage.

Every day in the coconut plantation is a struggle to survive. Each day the coconut farmers face the arduous tasks of preparing the coconuts into beneficial raw materials for industry, not only locally but also globally. Each day they toil to enrich the landlords/compradors, traders and transnational corporations in the US and Europe who have monopoly control of the price of palm oil.

Some farmers have a small parcel of land to plant their crops. But most of them pay rents to the landlords for the use of the land through sharing of the proceeds from the sale of the copra. Some just sell their labor power in plantations.

The process to produce copra, the marketable raw material from the coconut is a tedious job. It starts from the plucking of the fruits from the trees, gathering and piling them up. Under the heat of the sun through the chill of the nights, the coconut farmers husk the coconuts one by one before hacking them into two. Then they pile them over improvised grills to cook. Cooking takes a long time, depending on the quantity of the harvest. When there are still some not fully cooked these are returned to the grills. Removing the meat from the shell would require another overnight job. The cooked flesh or copra are hacked further then placed in sacks ready for the traders. Others still dry them under the sun before packing in sacks to further reduce the moisture content. Normally, the cooking process takes two weeks but in vast plantations owned by landlords, it lasts for a month. All in all it takes 45 days from the time of the harvest to complete the copra processing cycle.

Traders buy the copra at P18 per kilo. The price may differ from town to town but what is constant is the low price. The sale from a kilo of copra cannot even buy a kilo of rice, especially now that inflation has worsened because of TRAIN. In some cases, landlords who own oil mills, also act as traders. They buy the copra from the farmers at an even lower price—Php 17 per kilogram.

Coconut planters do not get all the proceeds from the sale of the copra. The traders deduct from the total cost of the copra produced the following: expenses for food and transportation (6%), the wages of nine farm workers who assisted in processing (18.4%), the cost of sacks, and the deduction due to lost moisture content (22%). The coconut farmers get only 17.8% from the sale while 36% goes to the landlords as rental to the land. This is a sharing of 1/3 is to 2/3 between farmer and landlord with the lion share going to the landlord. The deduction due to the loss of moisture content is unilaterally determined by the traders.

Some coconut farmers who own the land prefer to sell their produce as is to avoid the laborious process of making copra. But just the same the Php 3.00 to Php 5.00 per whole coconut could hardly meet their needs. Even the farm workers hired occasionally to help in the copra processing exist from hand-to-mouth with a measly wage of Php 4.00 to Php 7.00 a day.

In companies processing coconut oil, farm workers’ income is from Php 200.00 to Php 300.00 for every 1000 coconut harvested and processed. In the Peter Paul Philippines Company, 1,500 workers are contractual and not receiving enough salary. With the TRAIN law, the workers’ income has dropped from Php 20,000/year to Php 7,200/year.

The Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) has remained mum, to say the least, on the unabated decline of the prices of copra and coconut. In some instances it cites the global competition as an excuse, or the oversupply of copra.

Meanwhile that the landlords/compradors, traders and transnational corporations profit and relish from the fruit of the farmers’ labor, the latter’s families at times just content themselves with a miserly meal of rice dashed with coconut milk.

PEASANTS EMPOWERMENT

As the farmers began to organize, they came to understand the roots of their deplorable plight. They became conscious of their class and the struggle they have to face. They realized that when united they are a potent force more powerful than the handful of greedy ruling class grappling for power and wealth.

Life in the coconut plantations is still penurious but no longer precarious. They have perceived a way out of bondage, out of the mercy and control of landlords/compradors, traders and imperialists corporate interests. The herculean tasks in the coconut plantation seemed lightened.

With their new-found strength, they demanded for a better share from the proceeds in the sale of their produce. From the 80-20 percentage sharing, it has become 67-33 percentage today in many areas of the country.

In the town of San Antonio in Southern Tagalog, coconut farmers succeeded, but not without fanfare, in asserting their right to plant root crops for their subsistence between rows of coconut trees. Likewise, the collective mass actions of peasants launched on October 3-4, 2017 in Brgy. Camflora, San Andres, Quezon, in connection with the campaign “Balik-Saka sa Hacienda Uy (Return to Farming in Hacienda Uy)” have won for them the right to till the 385 hectares of coconut and agricultural land of Dr. Vicente Uy for free. Last year, peasants from South Quezon, in Bondoc Peninsula launched a campaign and held mass actions demanding the government to raise the price of copra.

In guerrilla fronts, the Pambansang Katipunan ng Magbubukid, PKM (National Association of Peasants), a revolutionary mass organization of peasants affiliated with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), charts revolutionary agrarian reform programs in varying degrees—from reduction of land rental and farm inputs prices to a maximum of land ownership transfer from despotic landlords to farmers. The PKM also thwarts government’s anti-people and pro-landlords and foreign investors land conversion plans. The New People’s Army (NPA) while fighting renders support and protection to the PKM’s programs and to the organs of political power set up in the guerrilla zones. The peasantry, firmly believing that only through armed struggle can they be truly liberated from bondage, graciously offers their good sons and daughters to boost the main force of the national democratic revolution.

An Empowered Peasantry

in Mainstream
by Priscilla de Guzman

“Kung malayo pa ang pupuntahan natin, mas malayo na rin naman ang pinanggalingan. Ituloy-tuloy na natin.”

—Ka Pidyong

“If the end of our struggle is still far away, where we started from is now much farther away. Let’s continue fighting.” —Ka Pidyong

Now 75 years old, Ka Pidyong couldn’t contain his laughter as he recalled the first time he met members of the New People’s Army (NPA) in their community, an upland barrio in Northern Luzon.

“There were seven of them,” he said in Filipino, grinning. “Only one had an armalite rifle, while the others had carbines, a shotgun, and a caliber .38 handgun— all teka-teka guns (teka literally means “wait” and refers to low-caliber guns). Of the last member of the team, he remembered vividly, “He had no gun, but carried a kaldero (a metal pot used to cook rice).”

“Three years later, they were already 16 and fully armed,” Ka Pidyong mused. “We were so happy. Our morale was high because 12 of them were recruited from our village.” Some of the original members had been redeployed elsewhere, he added, remarking enthusiastically, “They continued to grow, so did we.”

Decades after that first contact with the people’s army, the villagers have now established, painstakingly, their own organs of political power: the revolutionary mass organizations of peasants, women, and youth. A revolutionary council has also been elected and now governs their communities. In 2017, members of the mass organizations—representing the unity forged by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the NPA, and their allies—held their second elections in less than five years.

All these years, despite the continued military onslaughts and even during the Party’s brief period of disorientation, the organized masses did not waiver. Not even for a moment did they lose the faith that the revolution is their only hope, the future of their children, and of their children’s children.

Setting the revolutionary fire

Indeed, it has been a long, arduous, but victorious journey for those who blazed the revolutionary trail in this guerrilla zone—the first batch of peasant men and women who welcomed comrades from the CPP and NPA in 1971, when the twin revolutionary organizations were in the formative stage.

Peasant leader Ka Tonyo, 65, first met the NPA in 1971. “Na-recruit ako nung 1972, pagbalik nila sa sitio (But I was recruited only in 1972 when they returned to the village),” he told Liberation. As one of the leaders in the barrio, Ka Tonyo went with the NPA to the different mountain villages and those near the town center. They held meetings and talked to the masses. “We held education sessions and explained to them the ills of our society and the proposed long-term solution to our situation.” He said the people, aware of their own condition, readily agreed on the need to change the prevailing system and install their own government.

The peasants in this guerrilla zone are mostly landless, some tilling a hectare or two. The communities are nestled in a public land, where any moneyed individual can claim ownership over parts or all of it in blatant disregard of existing laws. All too often, the peasants had been victims of traders who preyed on them by selling farm inputs and implements that were overpriced and buying their farm produce at dirt-cheap prices. The government, too, attempted several times to evict the peasants and give way to so-called development projects, but did not succeed.

Ka Tonyo, along with woman leader Ka Gloria, and several others organized the peasants who would later comprise a chapter of the Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Magsasaka (PKM, National Association of Peasants), one of the founding affiliate organizations of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). Although there were already a number of organized women, Makibaka (Makabayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan) would be established in their community much later, Ka Gloria explained.

It was after a decade of organizing work initiated by the NPA and Ka Tonyo’s group that Ka Pidyong, a former barangay council member, was recruited in 1981. Ka Pidyong first learned of the NPA’s off and on presence in villages in the forest area surrounding their barrio in 1971. However, only in 1981 did he come into personal contact with them at the barrio center.

“What truly got me to realize was the fact that the Philippines is a rich country, yet only the foreigners and the local ruling elite benefit from these riches,” he said. The education session was followed by many more until, “ang dami ko nang alam (I learned so much)” Ka Pidyong said, beaming.

In between education sessions, Ka Tonyo, Ka Pidyong, Ka Gloria, and other PKM members continued house-to-house calls to explain to the masses what they had learned. They recruited members for the revolutionary mass organizations and the NPA. “Madami akong na-recruit, andito pa yung iba (I had a number of recruits. Some of them are actually still here),” Ka Tonyo proudly stated. Attending the anniversary celebrations of the CPP and the NPA was the most awaited activity by the masses—an occasion likened to a feast.

“There was always something new to do and to improve on,” said Ka Pidyong.

As the organizations expanded, they also thought of ways to tackle their revolutionary tasks more effectively, such as: how to give education to those who are not literate; how to maintain communal farms, form a militia unit in the barrios for their security, and how to efficiently support the various needs of the NPA— the latter task they took to heart most fervently. The welfare of the NPA fighters has always been at the forefront of the masses’ concerns. Even in times of calamities, when there was hardly anything to eat, the masses saw to it that there was food for the Red fighters.

On her part, Ka Gloria related, women were organized under the Makibaka, which took on other tasks for the revolutionary movement.

Makibaka members took the lead in taking care of the children of fulltime cadres and Red fighters. They looked after their schooling and overall welfare. The women, said Ka Gloria, likewise started the health and sanitation programs, which include production of herbal medicine.

The youth, she added, were organized under the Huwarang Bata (Model Youth), which initiated sports programs, among others. Ka Teody, one of the youngest leaders of the PKM, recalled that in those years, when members of the NPA came back from tactical offensives, the youth would welcome them with revolutionary songs.

Red power

Verily, today’s gains are a product of the revolutionary masses’ perseverance under the guidance of the Party and the NPA. “We have seen, however little, the difference between living under this rotten system and under the revolutionary government we are setting up.”

The revolutionary council has formalized the system of governance that was slowly established since the movement started and the masses had been organized, Ka Teody told Liberation.

Electing the new members of the revolutionary council last year was another level of consolidation achieved. “There were almost a hundred of us who attended the election, representing the various revolutionary mass organizations and party units in this guerrilla zone,” Ka Teody said. “It took us the whole day, from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.,” he explained, because “we had to go back to the orientation and tasks of the revolutionary council and the tasks and responsibilities of the officers.”

Also, they voted three times to ensure proportional representation in the council. “On the first round, we voted for eight representatives from the various mass organizations; on the second round, we elected seven representatives from the Party units, and on the last round, four representatives from the middle class in the barrio,” Ka Gloria elaborated in Ilokano. Each of the candidates, too, had to cite their individual strengths and weaknesses, thus enabling the electorate to weigh in how they could work collectively.

Through the decades, what has become undeniably visible is the people’s unity. “Where before we led our own lives without concern for each other’s welfare,” remarked Ka Gloria as she enumerated the benefits of such unity: “disputes among us are easily settled, including land disputes; the people are disciplined; the community is peaceful, there are no petty crimes.”
“The communities are drug free,” boasted Ka Tonyo.

More importantly, “we are able to thwart anti-people projects the government plans to establish here,” Ka Teody emphasized. “We now have a voice, we are no longer scared. With the NPA defending us, we can fight the oppressors,” he said.

Even the local government officials defer to the revolutionary mass organizations, he expounded. They refer cases they cannot settle to the latter organizations because the revolutionary justice system is “swift, fair, and free of charge.” Oftentimes, some local government officials would tell us, “mas kaya ninyo ‘yan (you can do it better).” (See also—story on justice system).

“There’s joy in our hearts because we are able to contribute to the resolution of the problems of the majority of the poor in our country.”

—Ka Gloria

Tempered by struggle

Leaders of the PKM identified two most trying moments they had experienced in their almost 50 years in struggle: the Party’s disorientation in the late1980’s until the early 1990’s and the intense militarization during the same period. But they held the fort, they said, never losing track of the revolution’s onward march, much more the will to push it to victory.

With pride, they recalled how they overcame the military presence and operations in their communities—aerial bombings, harassments, arrests, killings and other human rights violations. “Many were killed in the different villages,” Ka Tonyo pointed out. “But even in those difficult times, when we were almost surrounded by the enemy, we put in our hearts and in our minds where we stand—to serve the the Party and the masses.”

Ka Gloria related how, to some extent, they were able to overcome and to survive the military presence in the barrio center. “The AFP encamped at the barrio. They stayed for 14 years and in those 14 years, several organizing groups and revolutionary mass organizations were established in the communities surrounding the barrio.”

“There was fear but we were not intimidated.”

—Ka Tonyo

“No one was ever recruited into the AFP’s paramilitary unit. There were a few who almost agreed to be recruited but we persuaded them to back out,” said Ka Pidyong with a chuckle. Ka Pidyong was arrested by the military but, after his release, went into hiding several times after because of the continuing threats of re-arrest.

At the time, the NPA stayed away from the barrio center since their presence would cause unnecessary confrontation with the government forces that would affect the unarmed civilians.
But such restraint was no longer exercised during the Party’s disorientation, recalled Ka Tonyo.

“Matindi ‘yun, kawawa ang masa. Kung saang bundok kami naghahatid ng supplies, pagkain (The situation then turned intense, pitiful for the masses. We had to bring supplies, food into the remote mountainous areas where the NPA retreated after launching tactical offensives).” He was referring to the period when military adventurism seeped into the NPA ranks and mass work and agrarian reform tasks took a back seat to tactical offensives that were launched one after another.

Ka Pidyong was among those in the barrio who disapproved the swing to military adventurism, saying it was not time to show off the NPA’s military strength in their guerrilla zone. His memory of how the NPA had shifted its focus and the change in its attitude towards the masses was still fresh. “Yung mga kasama noon wala na, kapag pinupuna ayaw na (At that time the comrades didn’t want to accept criticisms).”

Sadly, Ka Pidyong was among those who were suspected as military agents within the movement during the anti-infiltration campaign. Although he had ill feelings then, now he shrugs off the whole experience. During the rectification period, the Party and NPA cadres and Red fighters humbly criticized themselves before the masses and members of the revolutionary organizations as they explained to them the rectification process.

“The elders in the community did not mince words in criticizing the Party and NPA members, which the latter wholeheartedly accepted,” added Ka Gloria.

“What is important is we have rectified the errors and we have now grown stronger.”

—Ka Teody

With the revolutionary government now in place, “we can chart our course and defend our gains,” he added.

One with the Party and the people’s army

A good number of the revolution’s trailblazers are now in their 70s, their faces lined with wrinkles and the hair on their heads turning grey or white and thinning. Still they stay in high revolutionary spirit. They have been in the movement for at least 47 years. Some of them were just about 12 years old when introduced to the movement.

“I am happy now. Despite my age and ailment, I am still able to help in whatever way I can,” Ka Pidyong remarked. He quickly added, “And, I’m energized to see young people, from our place, from other places, from the cities who come here and stay with us.”

It took several probing questions from Liberation on how these trailblazers felt about being the bearers of revolutionary power in their communities before they could answer. There was initial silence, a long silence. Tears welled in the eyes of some of them.

Clearing his throat, Ka Pidyong spoke up first. He firmly declared, “Without the Party and the NPA, we have nothing.”

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