Foreign land grabbing leaves Filipino farmers with nothing

Philippine farmers

Subsistence farmers in the Philippines fear losing their land and being left in poverty

Advocates of foreign ownership of agricultural land say it brings wealth, infrastructure and new farming techniques; opponents say that displaced and deskilled smallholders are often the result

When people talk about land-grabbing the immediate focus tends to be on issues like food security, land sovereignty and worries about a new, financial colonialism. Much less thought is given to those who might happen to be living on the land in question.

Some observers are now arguing that this failure to engage with smallholders before signing deals has already led to the collapse of two high-profile “land grab” negotiations – between Korean firm Daewoo Logistics and Madagascar, and the Chinese and Philippine governments – as a result of popular uprisings.
What farmer wants to be a farm labourer?

In theory, the buying or leasing of foreign land is a simple contract: an exchange of land for money and promises of infrastructure improvements or transfers of agricultural technology.

But this view ignores several practical realities. ‘Land is not a commodity: you don’t just take it away from people and give them something else – it’s not exchangeable like that,' says a spokesperson for GRAIN, an international NGO campaigning against land grabbing. 'It has much deeper meaning for people…you don’t turn a farmer into a farm worker and say it’s the same thing.’

After Indonesia, the Philippines is the most popular country for land-grabbing deals in the Asia-Pacific region. Within the country, which has a long history of foreign investment in cash crops and mining, locals have already experienced the shortcomings of moving careers from that of the independent farmer to that of a wage earner.

‘It is not a "win-win situation", as some have come to call it,' says Attorney Benjamin Ramos, director of a local farmer-support group in Kabankalan, on the Philippine island of Negros Occidental. 'Entrepreneurs are not able to understand the needs of the locals: no tenure security is given, nor security regarding income.'

Fear of unemployment and poverty

Even this view is optimistic for some farmers like Elizabeth, also from Kabankalan, who says she fears the industrialisation of farmland in the area will make smallholder farmers obsolete, with many lacking any qualifications or experience as skilled labourers.

Families in the Phillipines fear losing their livelihoods as big companies move in and change farming practices

Dr Chito Medina, of the farmer-scientist NGO MASIPAG, says he believes land-grabbing will only worsen the precarious position of smallholder farmers.

‘If they are not absorbed into the labour force then the rural population becomes both landless and jobless, and it is then that they become a problem for the government because they require support, aid, a solution,’ he says.

MASIPAG says that the compensation farmers receive is also of no help in the long-term as many are tempted to spend their new found wealth instantly before ending up in poverty.

Whose land is it anyway?

Advocates of land-grabbing say the displacement of farmers and landlessness is not an issue as only 'marginal, unused lands' are taken. However, because of the vagaries of land classification and ownership in the Philippines - where farmers often only have temporary, individual land rights – most smallholder farmers’ land could fall under that catch-all definition.

The Land Management Bureau, the government land licensing authority, insists that it does consult the public and stakeholders before selling or leasing any land.

But a national fisherman’s rights group, Pamalakaya, says this has rarely happened in cases involving the break-up of fishing communities. These have been broken up to make way for a burgeoning tourist industry targeting prime coastal locations across the Philippines.

Worthless promises

Besides the money agreed upon for the leasing of land, other promises include infrastructure improvements, transfers of agricultural technology, the creation of job opportunities and, in some cases, pursuing corporate social responsibilty policies, such as building schools and hospitals.

‘What can people gain from roads, when they do not even possess a car or any produce to sell at the local market?’ asks Attorney Ramos, who disputes the value of foreign investment to local poor communities, decrying them as ‘another nail in [communities'] coffin.’

Many smallholder farmers lack the necessary skills or qualifications to switch to farm contract work

Local farmers, some of which do not even possess their own water buffalo to help till their land, are equally adverse to the prospect of new agricultural technology. Memories of the Green Revolution – where the promised virtues of expensive pesticides and high-yielding seed varieties created a downward spiral of dependency and debt – are still raw.

Ronaldo, a subsistence farmer from Kabankalan, says he and many other farmers in his community have reverted to organic and diverse cultivation practices after the use of some pesticides eroded their nails and created other health issues affecting their skin and lungs.

Dennis, also a subsistence farmer from Kabankalan agrees, adding that farmers do not want to be tied to technologies that have been known to lead farmers to suicide as a means of escaping debt.

On the ground

Another concern amongst local activists is the possible degradation of the natural resources. They fear that a period of intensive farming could render lands infertile following the termination of the contract.

‘Investors think of the short-term profitability which they can accumulate, but don’t take responsibility of the destruction caused by the investments,’ says Dr Medina.

The irony of the Philippines playing home to the millennia-old Banaue rice terraces and, simultaneously, being the biggest worldwide rice importer, is not lost on critics who argue the country should concentrate on its own food security first.

‘If we help ourselves, we could also help others in the future,’ says Roman Sanchez, national president for the National Food Authority Employees’ Association (NFAEA), a food industry union.

Useful links
Food Crisis and the Global Land Grab
Report: “Land Grabs in Africa”: Can the deals work for development?
Report: Land grab: the race for the world’s farmlands Agriculture for Development

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