Unlike last year’s pro-SONA rally led by progressive groups who urged President Duterte to implement a “people-centered reform agenda”, Duterte’s SONA this year was welcomed with protest-rallies across major urban centers in Eastern Visayas. Protesters say they are not supportive of a “bloody war” that Duterte had “unleashed” against the poor.
Thousands who protested in Eastern Visayas were farmers, workers, and supporters from the professional, church and academic sectors, who were united as disaster survivors. The 4000-strong SONA-day protests were held simultaneously in Tacloban City and in provincial centers of Catarman (Northern Samar) and Catbalogan City (Samar province).
Also on July 24, a Disaster Survivors Summit at the University of the Philippines Tacloban campus made an assessment of the President’s performance for the past year. Participants numbering to 1,000, most of them farmers and families resettled to new housing sites, say the government did not deliver well on a 13-point Yolanda survivors wish list they submitted last year.
In the wish-list are calls for continuing government subsidies especially for small farmers in the countrysides, sustainable livelihood programs for internally displaced persons (IDPs), access to basic services like water, electricity and transportation, fast-tracked housing for those who wish to be relocated, and a total stop to human rights violations perpetrated by military and paramilitary groups, among others.
For Marissa Cabaljao, Secretary General of People Surge, she recognized Duterte’s effort to mobilize aid for Yolanda survivors when he was still a city Mayor in Davao. She also welcomed the appointment of Professor Judy Taguiwalo as Secretary of the Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD). She credited Taguiwalo, an appointee recommended by the National Democratic Front, for being sensitive to the plight of the poor.
But for a President of the Republic, Cabaljao said she expects more from the President who claimed to be a “socialist”. Cabaljao also shared that Yolanda survivors were “very hopeful” that substantial reforms may happen under Duterte. And part of their 13-point wish list is the review of government policies and programs by the previous administration.
Prosperity for all?
In this year’s SONA, Duterte’s key agenda include “law and order, prosperity for all, and peace”.
In a statement posted by People Surge in their facebook page, they urged the President to address the Yolanda survivors agenda “instead of just continuing the neoliberal and anti-people rehabilitation plan that the Aquino government crafted.” However, People Surge is not convinced that Duterte’s economic policies are consistent with his desire for inclusive prosperity.
Participants in the summit stress that livelihood, job security and access to basic social services are on top of their concerns. Cabaljao shared that “it’s lacking, if not absent, in Yolanda-ravaged areas.” Cabalja also added that Duterte allowed to proceed the “pro-big business” reconstruction program known as the Comprehensive Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Program (CRRP) of the previous Aquino administration. Duterte did not stop the CRRP but has continued its business-driven reconstruction design.
The People Surge reiterated that the CRRP was crafted without consulting the majority of stakeholders who are largely poor farmers, contractual workers, and other marginalized sectors. She said the CRRP put the lion share of government funds to infrastructure development. It also put less support on building sustainable economic programs based on agriculture.
A “Great Wall” over people’s livelihood
In Metro Tacloban, many urban poor dwellers lamented Duterte’s inaction to stop the P7.9 billion-peso Tide Embankment Project, also called the “great wall” of Leyte was red-flagged as anti-people and impractical by an independent environmental investigation mission (EIM). The mission was led by the non-government organization Center for Environment Concerns (CEC) together with scientists, academics, and people’s organizations.
The investigation indicates the displacement of over 10,000 families located in government-declared “no-dwelling zones” across Tacloban, Palo and Tanauan towns, site of the “great wall”. The investigation also pointed out potential risks to people’s livelihood, the physical environment and biodiversity. The CEC said that it may cause another form of disaster resulting from inland flooding in a walled environment.
In terms of livelihood and immediate assistance, relocated families lamented how government agencies failed to address immediate concerns on access to potable water, electricity, and livelihood. On the housing issue, Duterte, himself, had even admitted that bureaucratic red tape slows down the construction of over 205,000 housing units for Yolanda survivors.
On another issue, People Surge described that the 12-percent growth rate recorded last year is not a good indicator of recovery for victims of successive disasters.
“The infrastructure-focused CRRP do not intend to generate sustainable livelihood in a region with a largely-agricultural economy, but only boasts of a short-lived bubble growth boosted by construction jobs,” Cabaljao adds.
“President Duterte failed to convince us Yolanda victims that change has come indeed. We are back to ‘same old problems’ before Yolanda,” Cabaljao said.
Attack to peasants rights amid economic woes
Meanwhile, in Catarman, Northern Samar, Allan Aguilardo of the Northern Samar Small Farmers Association (NSSFA) exposed the increasing incidents of harassment directed against civilians in the countryside, most of them farmers, accused by the military as armed combatants of the New People’s Army (NPA).
Aguilardo argued that farmers are simply organizing and mobilizing to secure aid and subsidy after a massive crop infestation hit the province since 2016.
Pest and disease infestation plagues about 4,000-hectare rice farms affecting 16 municipalities in Northern and Eastern Samar provinces, according to a report from the Department of Agriculture (DA) Regional Office VIII. The damage is pegged at P140-million pesos by the local government units (LGU) in the two provinces.
As early as November 2016, NSSFA leaders went to Metro Manila to seek dialogue with the Department of Agriculture (DA). DA Secretary Manny Pinol failed to meet them.
The department, under Pinol, has earmarked billions of funds for increased food production and poverty alleviation in the said provinces but the regional peasant alliance Samahan han Gudti nga Parag-uma (SAGUPA) said that “government aid and rehabilitation efforts do not reach the intended beneficiaries. Farmers in Northern Samar already registered an 85-90% production losses due to successive typhoons, drought, and infestations affecting coconut, abaca and palay.”
Aguilardo said that Northern Samar farmers need genuine and quick rehabilitation. Militarizing their communities and intimidating their leaders in a phase of recovery “is not welcome and not right,” he said, citing that hunger incidence in the province is already estimated by the government at 45%.
SAGUPA Secretary General Nestor Lebico reiterated their call since last year: “We have no lands to till, no government support and services for farmers and fisherfolks. Coconut farmlands are infested with coconut scale insect or cocolisap. Abaca is infested with the bunchy-top virus. People who are trying to start a new life in the hinterlands cannot live in peace because of intense military operations. It’s like we are stuck in purgatory and hell.”
Escalating HRVs in Samar and Leyte provinces
Meanwhile, NSSFA lambasted the 803rd Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Army for arresting a 12-year old child, a resident of Silvino Lobos town, last May 13, 2017. The child was misrepresented in the media as a “child soldier” of the NPA. Meanwhile, according to Fr. Santiago Salas of the National Democratic Front-Eastern Visayas, whose allies include the NPA, is that the child was “arrested, planted with bullets” and “used in the AFP psywar and smear campaigns” against the NPAs offensives.
In Eastern Samar, a middle-aged farmer identified as Benilda Capacite, a resident of Brgy. Boco in Can-avid, Eastern Samar, was arrested by elements of the Philippine National Police. She was arrested just hours before Duterte delivered his second SONA. Before her arrest, Capacite attended the founding assembly of the Alyansa han Kablas nga Parag-uma ha Can-avid (AKP-Can-avid) in Eastern Samar.
Her son Jonel Capacite shared how her mother passed-out twice while she was being accosted by police authorities. He disclosed that her mother had been presented the same warrant of arrest for the same charge already dismissed in court. SAGUPA-SB Secretary General Nestor Lebico decry the arrest of Capacite. He said it was meant to intimidate farmers through “fabricated charges and criminal tags”.
In Samar province, paramilitary groups lurking between the borders of Calbayog City and Matuguinao towns have reportedly killed a farmer on July 6, 2017. The family approached the Lingganay han Kamatuoran radio program in Tacloban City to report their plight. In Brgy. Mahayag of Matuguinao town, 51 families or 335 residents – 213 are children and 15 are senior citizens – were also displaced by continuing military operations perpetrated by the 43rd Infantry Battalion.
Last May, human rights group Katungod Sinirangan Bisayas also reported harassment cases in Leyte involving the 78th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army. Operating troops encamped in the barrios of Cantawagon and Talisay in Albuera, Leyte approached members of the local farmers’ organization MANA. Soldiers told them to disband their farmer’s organization.
Albuera farmer Victorio Loberio, 70, said that last twelve to eighteen men slept in their house and accused him “to be entertaining members of the NPA.” In July, Loberio’s son also received threats from the soldiers, while he was on his rice field, saying the military “will use his rope to suppress him.” Farmers in the area are afraid to visit and tend to their rice fields because of constant intimidation and threats from the soldiers.
Since July 2016, human rights organizations in Eastern Visayas has documented at least two cases of extrajudicial killings among the ranks of farmers. Military operations displaced more than 7,000 residents in Calbiga, Matuguinao, Silvino Lobos and Lope de Vega, among others.
Progressives in Eastern Visayas are not moved by any antics of President Duterte. For Joshua Sagdullas, deputy secretary-general of BAYAN-Eastern Visayas, “change has not come to the country, but Duterte has changed”. Sagdullas say Duterte has drifted far away from the poor people’s interests for a meaningful reform.
“He chose to listen to his Army generals and continue to expose his ambition for a strongman-rule in the country,” adds Sagdullas. BAYAN-EV formations and People Surge also made a stand opposing Martial Law in Mindanao. People Surge had sympathized with over 260,000 Maranaos and Moros who are now displaced because of the war. Since the first day when a Mindanao-wide Martial law was declared, People Surge has criticized it as “overkill and replete with suspicious motives”.
BAYAN-Eastern Visayas still hopes for change to happen, but said the “people play a key role to realize it”.