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The Mendiola Massacre: Decades on, Philippine Land Reform Movement Remains Mired in Blood

“The interests of the peasants and landowning politicians can never be reconciled,” says one activist.

By Oliver Haynes for
The Mendiola Massacre: Decades on, Philippine Land Reform Movement Remains Mired in Blood

Protesters reenact the 1987 Mendiola Massacre during a rally on Jan. 22, 2021 in Manila, Philippines. Protesters also accused the government of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte of responsibility for the recent killings of peasants.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Thirty-four years ago today, Rafael Mariano was marching towards the presidential palace in Manila. Joined by over 10,000 others protesting for peasant land rights, he remembers trudging past Manila Central Post Office before pushing on to Mendiola Street.

“We wanted genuine reforms with free land distribution for peasants, fully abolishing the unjust arrangements of centuries prior.  We looked for government officials to discuss our demands, but we found no one,” said Mariano, then a 30-year-old peasant activist.

Bringing traffic to a standstill and occupying both sides of Recto Avenue, the group forged ahead. But it soon encountered scores of police and military units on the Mendiola Bridge, and was unable to proceed any further.

With protesters applying pressure on police cordons, pandemonium broke out: state forces opened fire, leaving 13 dead and more than 50 injured.

The killing of protesters on January 22, 1987 marked a watershed for the land rights movement in the Philippines. The following year, amid sustained pressure, the government rolled out an agrarian reform program that sought to redistribute nearly 8 million hectares of land to peasant farmers.

But decades on, activists say the program has failed. Exemptions gifted to landowners have left thousands of peasants empty-handed and resigned to lives of poverty. And with nearly 100 killings related to land disputes and agrarian activism in 2020 alone, one thing is also clear: whatever legacy was born from the massacre on Mendiola Street over three decades ago, it has done little to staunch the flow of bloodshed in the Philippines since.

The new regime

Land reform has long been a contentious issue in the Philippines. Tilled by often indigent peasants, the bulk of the country’s arable land is owned by a handful of wealthy families and powerful corporations, a legacy harking back to the Spanish colonial period.

When Ferdinand Marcos fell from power during the EDSA revolution of 1986, peasant groups hoped that the problem of landlessness would soon join the dictator in the dustbin of history. But despite the ascension to the presidency of Cory Aquino, who promised genuine agrarian reforms and redistribution of land, any hopes for greener pastures soon withered.

By the time of the Mendiola Massacre, there had been little movement on the issue, and despite consistent pressure from activists to use her executive powers, Aquino was poised to leave reforms for an incoming Congress dominated by landowning politicians. Teeming with dissatisfaction, farmers groups camped outside the Ministry (now Department) of Agrarian Reform for seven days before coming face-to-face with state forces on January 22.

At the time, the military maintained that the protesters had instigated the violence, only opening fire to defend the police column from a barrage of lobbed projectiles. Documentary footage and photographs submitted by lawyers to the Citizens’ Mendiola Commission, however, showed state forces firing handguns at protesters as they retreated.

“Tensions were high, and we knew lawmakers would not favor our interests; Cory had unique powers prior to the ratification of the new Philippine Constitution later that year, so the ball was in her court,” said Mariano. “While reforms eventually came, those killings showed the true character of the new regime.”

‘Bogus reforms’

Amid widespread public outcry, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was implemented in 1988. Touted as a program to correct historical injustices and alleviate poverty, it aimed to redistribute 7.8 million hectares of land to millions of peasants. It applied to all types of agricultural land, regardless of the crops produced.

But in the years since, legal challenges from landowners have created severe bottlenecks in the program and hamstrung acquisitions. Additionally, exemptions granted to landlords by Congress and the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) have reduced the total number of distributed hectares, while claims have surfaced of fraudulent beneficiaries allegedly being installed by landlords.

“We view CARP as a bogus reform program. It merely laid the foundations for lawmakers and future governments to continue their dominance over the peasantry,” said Mao Hermitanio, Deputy Secretary General of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), the organized farmers group which led the march to Malacanang Palace in 1987.

An original provision of CARP enabled all owners to retain up to five hectares of land, in addition to three hectares for each legal heir; the remaining hectares would then be acquired by the state for redistribution. But Hermitanio says this provision undermined the law’s effectiveness from the outset, particularly in the case of landowners with smaller holdings of land. “So if the landowner has 20 hectares and five legal heirs, that leaves nothing for the poor peasants who live on the poverty line,” she said.

After only achieving 22 percent of its stated goal, CARP was extended in 1998. Prior to that, further changes were made to the law under President Fidel Ramos, with many commercial lands and farms becoming totally exempt from redistribution. The program was extended again in 2009, with “Extensions and Reforms” being affixed to its long-running title to create a new acronym: CARPER.

When President Benigno Aquino III, the son of Cory Aquino, inherited the program upon his election in 2010, there were hopes he would cap off the legacy of his late mother by moving to implement it properly. However, as a landowner himself, the program was not prioritized; the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council – the highest policy making body for CARP –  was not convened even once. In 2012, the DAR asked for a 30 billion peso allotment for the program; it received just 18 billion.

By 2016, the DAR said that 4.7 million hectares of land had been distributed to farmers under CARP. A study that year from the Asia Pacific Journal highlighted the program’s positive effects for some beneficiaries: notably higher incomes and reduced instances of poverty. But Mariano said the figures and purported benefits of the program on paper should not be taken at face value.

“With all the exemptions given to landowners – as well as land use conversions for residential and commercial facilities – so many farmers lost out over the years,” he said.

Leonardo Lanzona, an economics professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, added that the distribution of second-rate public lands left some peasants even more impoverished, while a lack of support services left many CARP beneficiaries overburdened by production costs; some had to relinquish land ownership entirely.

In the years since CARP’s rollout, farmers protesting for genuine reforms and stronger support have often met a similar fate to those at the Mendiola Bridge decades ago. And while some perish in encounters with private armies of landowning families, many die at the hands of state forces, with the military and police often linking casualties with the armed wing of the country’s dogged communist insurgency, the New People’s Army (NPA).

But while the NPA has historically sourced recruits from disgruntled peasant communities, activists say unarmed, civilian farmers are the ones most often in the firing line. “Linking regular farmers to the armed insurgency has been a convenient tactic used by law enforcement to justify mass killings over the years,” said Hermitanio of KMP.

A new era of bloodshed

In a curious turn of fate, nearly 30 years after the bodies hit the asphalt en route to Malacanang Palace, Rafael Mariano would find himself implementing CARP as the Secretary of Agrarian Reform in the cabinet of current President Rodrigo Duterte. Following a long career as a peasant activist and a stint in the Philippine House of Representatives, Mariano says he has tried to use his powers to distribute more private land.

In particular, Mariano oversaw the distribution of lands within Hacienda Luisita, a 6,000-hectare sugar plantation owned by the family of Cory and Benigno Aquino. After a 2012 Supreme Court ruling demanding that 4,916 hectares be handed over to more than 6,000 CARP beneficiaries, snags had continued to hamper distributions up until Mariano’s appointment.

“When I arrived at the DAR, my predecessor had disqualified 111 beneficiaries covered within the Supreme Court’s ruling. I issued an order revoking that decision, reinstating the farmworkers and giving them the certificates of land ownership,” he said.

Mariano’s tenure as secretary was brief: in 2017, amid opposition from landowners, particularly allies of the president, he was booted from his position after less than 18 months in the job. And while critics say his ousting points to the ever tightening control of the wealthy elite under Duterte, the body count of farmers in recent years paints an even more concerning picture.

Like many presidents before him, Duterte campaigned on a promise to liberate the landless and make good on the decades-old pledge of genuine redistribution. But in the last four years, nearly 300 farmers, land activists, fisherfolk, and indigenous people have been killed, 96 since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic alone.

Hermitanio of KMP said that although farmer killings are now commonplace, he believes that the recent surge results from a perilous cocktail: Duterte’s trademark culture of impunity – fashioned from his “war on drugs,” which has killed has more than 7,000 people – in tandem with a militaristic approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Duterte formed an interagency task-force composed of former generals to address the health crisis. This just further galvanized the culture of impunity among law enforcement and hired goons: more killings, cases of harassment, illegal arrests, and other human rights violations against farmers followed,” she said.

In one of the most high profile slayings, Randy Echanis, a lifetime peasant activist and KMP’s deputy secretary general, was stabbed around 40 times in his home by unknown assailants during Metro Manila’s coronavirus lockdown. Circumventing protocol, police held Echanis’ body for three days before finally handing it over to his distraught widow.

Months later, Randy’s daughter, Amanda, was arrested and charged with possession of illegal firearms and explosives. An organizer of peasant women in the northern Philippines, her arrest came after she was accused of having direct links to the NPA during recent Senate hearings on “red-tagging,” a tactic whereby individuals or organizations are labeled as communists or terrorists, often without substantial proof.

Critics continue to assert that Amanda’s charges are completely fabricated. And given the PNP’s track record of planting evidence, organizations like KMP have had their offices inspected by the Commission on Human Rights as a pre-emptive measure against raids from law enforcement.

Ringing in a bloody new year

Mere weeks after Amanda was confined to a cell with her 3-month old son, red-tagged indigenous leaders who have long-opposed a local dam project had similar charges leveled against them. For the nine members of the Tumandok community, however, handcuffs were not needed when officers paid a visit on December 31.

The leaders were killed in an operation that rounded up 18 others on Panay Island in the Western Visayas region, with authorities claiming they were responding to information from local civilians about people in possession of high-powered firearms. And echoing the words of the military officers stationed at Mendiola Bridge decades ago, police say the indigenous leaders fired first.

The Tumandok Massacre, as it is now known, is just one in a series of deadly police and military operations under Duterte, with a similar raid resulting in the demise of 14 farmers in the Negros Occidental region in 2019. The deaths that year came amidst a beefed-up campaign by state forces – ominously dubbed “Operation Sauron” – purportedly aimed at rounding up loose firearms and illegal drugs.

“Many things will never change,” said Jaime Tadeo, who led the march to Malacanang Palace in 1987 as KMP’s Chairman. “The majority of people in power do not understand us – our feelings, our problems, our sentiments – that is why our struggle has lasted this long.”

Tadeo, who spent years in prison after the Mendiola Massacre on what he asserts were phony charges from unrelated incidents, says that amid the recent spate of killings the government has continued to compound issues for farmers, passing laws that further impoverish the peasantry.

“Some might have received land, but many farmers are becoming poorer due to policies of this regime,” he said, citing the 2019 rice tariffication law, which activists claim have slashed farmer profits due to increased imports from neighboring Southeast Asian countries. He added that ideological splits between farmers’ organizations are further deepening their plight. Tadeo himself left KMP years after the massacre and now spearheads the peasant group Paragos-Pilipinas.

Despite the fissures in the movement, land distributions are still poised to move forward in the Philippines. Last year the World Bank announced a partnership with the DAR to distribute 1.3 million hectares of land to some 750,000 CARP beneficiaries. But for the years ahead, any further distributions will come as farmer groups are backed into an ever-tighter corner.

With the recent enactment of a sweeping Anti-Terror law – widely criticized for its vague definition of terrorism and bolstering of police powers –  activists say the target on their back is now larger than ever. And with Duterte having sat idle as the country’s membership to the International Criminal Court lapsed in 2019, any hope that justice will be served for the families of dead farmers is waning.

Much like the aftermath of the Mendiola Massacre, for which no one was ever held accountable, local convictions of rogue law enforcement officers remain extremely rare. And given Duterte issued a “shoot-to-kill” directive to state forces amid the country’s COVID-19 lockdown, more bloodstained soil will likely precede any flattened virus curve.

Rafael Mariano, however, is not downing tools any time soon. Resigned to a lifelong battle since his march to Malacanang Palace decades ago, he says the dynamics of the struggle are still very much the same.

“Cory Aquino came from the landowning class, so she could not abandon the interests of her own kind in 1987. It’s the same situation now: the interests of the peasants and landowning politicians can never be reconciled,” he said.

Now a 64-year-old activist, Mariano currently serves as the chairman of KMP. While helping organize peasant communities nationwide, he continues to push for the passing of a Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill, which would legislate free land distribution and provide better support services for farmers. The bill has languished in Congress for over a decade.

“That bill addresses the inadequacies of CARP… but I’m not sure I’ll ever see the day it’s passed. Even so, I’ll push for it as long as I can,” he said.

Reminded of the fate of his fallen friends, Mariano appeared calm.

“If you have a lifelong commitment to this movement,” he said, “you accept that one day – who knows when – you might also be killed.”

Oliver Haynes is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia. His areas of interest include Philippine politics, human trafficking, housing rights and environmental sustainability.