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Asia

Indigenous Filipinos battle for their land

Small farmers and indigenous groups in the Philippines have been struggling for decades against big companies, corrupt officials and influential families to get land once promised to them.

The land-hungry business interests are dangerous adversaries for small indigenous groups in the Philippines. In the past, they have not shied away from politically-motivated murder, violent intimidation and brutal kidnappings. Human rights activists, who support the small farmers, live in constant fear.

Despite death threats and actual attacks, activists like Jessielyn Colegado from the indigenous group, PADATA, continue to fight for the rights of poor Filipinos. Colegado, a mother of five children, is demanding the return of land that once belonged to her ancestors. A rancher named Ernesto Villalon refuses to leave, even though he has no tenant or lease agreement for the land.

Jessielyn Colegado and other activists have been the targets of Villalon's security guards. "They threaten us and burn our houses down. They kill our people and steal everything we own. They want us to go away," she says.

Law ignored with impunity

A law passed in 1997 is supposed to protect the rights of the indigenous farmers. The Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) states that the "right to property and control of the biological and natural resources within the ancestral areas" are to be ensured.

However, Danilo Gaban, project coordinator for Negros Island in the Task Force Mapalad (TFM), says there have been no real changes in implementing the land reform. "Of the planned 1.2 million hectares of land (3 million acres), the government so far has only dispersed 20 percent," he says.

House burned down by the men of rancher Ernesto Villalon

Security guards try to intimidate activists by burning houses down

Rainer Werning, from the Institute for Oriental and Asian Studies in Bonn, points out that the problem goes back to the old, traditional social structures.

"The social and political composition of the Philippine government is such that there is a conspicuous commingling of capitalist structures on the one hand and feudalistic elements on the other," he notes.

Even the family of current president, Benigno Aquino, owns roughly 7,000 hectares of land (17,500 acres) at its Hacienda Luisita in northern Manila. According to the IPRA land reform act, this property was also supposed to be distributed to small farmers. Despite a ruling by the Philippines Supreme Court, however, the redistribution has yet to take place.

German assistance

There is some hope that at least the human rights situation could improve. The German International Peace Observers Network (IPON) has been offering support to Jessielyn Colegado and Danilo Gaban. Founding member Anne Lanfer has been working with the Filipinos since 2004.

A 'no trespassing' sign on a a bared wire fence at Ernesto Villalon's ranch

Despite the law, wealthy landowners have not returned land

"Simply the fact that international people are present with observer t-shirts has helped reduce the potential for violence and removed the feeling among the perpetrators that they are not being watched," she says.

Another task is maintaining dialogue with international government organizations and agencies. The German Foreign Ministry, for example, has said that it would put the case of the Filipino human rights activists on the agenda at the next meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at the end of May.

However, even if Jessielyn Colegado is hopeful that rancher Villalon will be forced to vacate her ancestral property this year, she is not so sure the situation for many other small farmers and indigenous peoples fighting for their own land will improve. The stumbling blocks put in their way by the powerful companies, corrupt officials, political leaders with special interests and influential families are simply too large.

As long as the rule of law is not invoked in the Philippines, as long as the corruption continues and the intricate power structures are not dismantled, the country's disenfranchised small farmers will continue to fear for their lives and struggle with their livelihoods.

Author: Gero Simone /gb
Editor: Sarah Berning

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