By Krysten Mariann Boado

The Epic of Ibalon has been a familiar folktale in Bicolano households.

Its story revolves around three distinct warriors who brought peace to province and its people by ridding the land of its hideous monsters.

Baltog, the first warrior and the first to cultivate the rich fields of Ibalon (former name of Bicol), defeated the wild boar Tandayag when it came to destroy his crops.

The next hero, Handiong, brought with him a band of warriors to face the army of monsters ravaging Ibalon. These monsters were the one-eyed giants of Ponon, the giant flying fishes called Tiburon, and the massive and fierce Sarimaw, among others.

Handiong then formed an alliance with the serpent Oriol, his most dangerous foe, who taught him how to conquer Ibalon’s monsters after she admired him for his bravery. Civilization flourished under Handiong’s leadership and so did everlasting peace.

The epic’s final warrior was the wise Bantong who won against the half-man, half-beast Rabot who had the power to turn people into stone. Bantong struck the creature in his sleep with a single stab, and peace was brought to Ibalon once more.

Now, the monsters have returned to lay waste on the land that has now been known for its perfectly sculptured volcano and its clear, blue seas where people can swim among friendly butandings.

Now, the giant boar plaguing Baltog’s land has taken the form of bulldozers razing rice fields to the ground in order to make way for an airport’s reorientation.

The monsters Handiong and his men defeated have now lost their scaly flesh, their massive horns and their sawlike teeth, shrinking to fit, camo-clad human forms with two eyes, brutal fists and terrifying metal guns.

Meanwhile, the modern-day Rabot is a man in a palace by the river, a man who has always been proud of his family of landlords and landladies and has turned a deaf ear to blood-curdling screams escaping the mouths of swollen, beat-up bodies who live in fear and land deprivation.

Ibalon is at peace no more, yet its warriors–farmers with sun-kissed skin, withered hands, and calloused feet–continue the battle to keep their bountiful homeland theirs.

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Ramon Oliva, 61

Sixty-one-year-old Bicolano Ramon Oliva is but one of the nearly 3,500 modern-day warriors who marched to Metro Manila in the historic Manilakbayan to call for genuine land reform.

Journeying from Bicol in a span of three to four days, Oliva, the Chairperson of Damayang Parauma Camarines Sur (DAMPA), arrived in Manila and resided in the University of the Philippines in time for the first People’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) under President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

Despite tedious labor planting rice for more than 20 years, Oliva, who has not stopped farming at his old age, has remained landless much like the majority of farmers in the Bicol region.

“Ang titulo o dokumento sa lupa ay papel lang yan, mas may karapatan ang mga magsasaka dahil naunang sa kanila [magsasaka] ang lupa,”  Oliva said. “Pag naalis tayong magsasaka diyan, pinatay na tayo. Lahat ng uri nating magsasaka ay pinatay na.”

Incidents of land conversion are the primary exhibition of such struggle with land ownership.

Land conversion is a process where farmers’ lands undergo reclassification from agricultural areas to commercial or non-agricultural areas with permission from government agencies such as Bicol’s local government and the Department of Agriculture (DAR). Such reclassification yields to the displacement of farmers whose livelihood and homes are planted within the property that can now accommodate the interests of investors and big-time companies.

“Wag ireklasipika ang lupa, wag bigyan ng certification dahil ang makikinabang diyan yung mga dambuhalang kapitalista, hindi yung mga magsasakang maliliit,” Oliva said.

He also added that there are cases wherein some farmers were even unaware that the local government has already reclassified their land, abruptly causing them to lose their residence and their income all at once. Frequent demolitions have also ensued to which DAMPA had come to aid displaced farmers.

“Kung talaga gusto ng gobyerno ng kaunlaran, unahin muna na imoderna ang agrikultura tungo sa industrialisasyon,” Oliva said, voice raised yet tinged with hope. “Para magkaroon ng tulungan sa pag-unlad at umunlad din ang mga mararalitang magsasaka at manggagawa.”

Aside from the issue of land reclassification, the supposed reorientation and modernization of the Naga City Airport in Pili, Camarines Sur also remain a problem for farmers within the area.

The P3.58-billion redesign project involves the construction of a two-kilometer runway to accommodate larger airplanes.

Currently, the Naga City Airport’s runway only runs at 1.4 kilometers, causing bigger aircrafts to use the Legazpi City Airport, which causes inconvenience to travellers.

In 2014, the Bicol Regional Development Council recommended the airport’s reorientation as a priority project while the National Economic Regional Development Office declared strong support for it in 2015.

Such venture comes with a price, and it has to be paid by the 80 to 100 families whose lives and livelihood rely on the estimated 500-hectare rice fields that will be affected once the runway’s construction takes place

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Artemio Sanchez, 48

First-time Manilakbayani Artemio Sanchez’s family are one of those whose rice fields will be pressed and turned into a portion of the airport’s runway.

Despite being new to the march, Sanchez, 48, has adapted the look of a seasoned warrior, furious at the knowledge of the abuse of the poor by the powerful.

His hands firmly clutch the placard bearing the words “Sakahan, hindi paliparan” as if it were his land back home, which had been his family’s for as long as he could remember.

“Noong malaman ko yung isyu, uminit talaga yung ulo ko,” Sanchez said. “Bakit nila kukunin yung palayan namin samantalang ito ang pinagkukuhan ng kabuhayan namin?”

Sanchez has been working in his family’s land since he was a child, planting rice at a young age to help his parents.

Although he admits to not earning much, their land is his family’s primary source of income. It is what has been able to feed his six children and his wife, who is also a farmer.

“Ang lupa na sinasaka namin ay mas mahalaga dahil yung lupang iyon for the generations, mula sa mga ninuno hanggang sa mga apu-apuhan,” Sanchez said.

“Dapat di talaga mawala ang palayan dahil ang palayan na yun, pinapakinabangan ng lahat, pagkain ng buong Pilipinas,” he added.

Linked with the issues of land ownership and land conversion, farmers of the Bicol region are also trapped within the horrors of militarization.

Since land conversion gives way to demolitions in areas where farmers refuse to leave their lands and homes, the government exerts the brutal force of either the Philippine National Police (PNP) or the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to strike terror within resisting communities.

Besides facilitating demolitions, the AFP also upholds Oplan Bayanihan within the region.

Oplan Bayanihan, which was launched under the regime of former President Benigno Aquino III, is the Philippines’s counter-insurgency plan geared towards ending armed resistance in the country.

Despite its intention to end the persisting civil war between the government of the Philippines and the New People’s Army (NPA), Oplan Bayanihan has caused the torture, harassment and forced disappearances of activists and innocent civilians tagged as members of the NPA.

Oplan Bayanihan has also been the pointed cause of Lumad killings, an issue that has remained the rallying cry of the Mindanaoan Manilakbayanis.

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Nick Briones, 53

53-year-old farmer Nick Briones, who has been shot twice after being wrongly identified by the AFP as a member of the NPA, said that militarization in Bicol must be put to an end.

Bearing the scars of a warrior who has fearlessly participated in mobilizations for agrarian reform in Bicol, Briones has been harassed several times and is currently facing a charge for illegal possession of firearms. He said that the charge filed against him was fraudulent, claiming the military allegedly planted the gun in his residence.

Nevertheless, the consistent threats and the ongoing case did not dishearten Briones from joining this year’s Manilakbayan, hoping that the new chief executive will be unlike his predecessor.

“Kaya kami sumama dito kasi ipapaabot namin kay Duterte na itong militarisasyon sa Bicol, ihinto,” Briones said, his tone half-somber and half-optimistic. “Tapos alisin ang detachment sa kanayunan. Nahihirapan yung mga magsasaka doon.”

Briones said some farmers in Bicol, who are simply walking through their daily routines, are being meticulously investigated and interrogated by the AFP. At worst, undercover militia follow their every move, waiting for the moment when they could be tagged as members of the insurgency.

Meanwhile, those who join mobilizations to call for agrarian reform, land ownership and other basic social services are automatically tagged as members of the NPA.

“Pag sumama sa rally, sasabihin nila, NPA agad. Kagaya sa kin, pinagbabaril na ako, dalawang beses na akong naharass. Sa ngayon, kinasuhan din ako,” Briones said, recalling the time when he was shot by the military during a rally in Naga.

Such abuse occurs despite the provision in Article 3, Section 4 of the Philippine Constitution, which grants citizens of the Philippines the right to peaceably assemble.

Briones also recalled that there were times when farmers would go missing for days and locals would search for them, only to find their bruised bodies lying on a patch of the same ground they died fighting for, their blood already dry yet running along the hidden veins of the land capitalists and government officials have repeatedly tried to take away.

He also spoke of the fear shrouding the homes of peasants in the Bicol region with families living in unease especially with the idea that anytime, they could be caught in the middle of a conflict between the AFP and the NPA.

Despite such brutal forces taking their lives and livelihood, the farmers of Bicol continue to fight, breathing life to the historic epic of Ibalon as present-day Baltogs, Handiongs and Bantongs.

While this year’s People’s SONA was peaceful compared to previous ones marked with burning effigies, angry murals and the struggle of militant groups against police force, the age-old spark burning within the Bicolano farmers blazes brighter than before.

The spirits of the Bicolano farmers brim with hope that change is indeed coming to those at society’s bottom hem.

Even so, Oliva said the fight does not end with the election and the appointment of progressive leaders in power, for Ibalon’s true strength lies in the collective action of those who have been chained for so long and of those who are willing to take up arms and join them in their battle for freedom, democratic rights and genuine change.

While the farmers of Bicol remain landless much like those in Tarlac’s Hacienda Luisita and Pampanga’s Hacienda Porac, Oliva urges every peasant to stand with them in the fight for genuine agrarian reform which will provide farmers across the nation with land and livelihood, which are rightfully theirs in the first place.

“Kailangan ang kilos ng buong bayan,” Oliva said. “Panawagan ko sa aking mga kapwa magsasaka na tayo’y magkaisa para mabigkis ang ating lakas na ipagtanggol ang ating mga kabuhayan,”

Until the beasts are gone and until the monsters have been vanquished, the farmers of Bicol will continue to battle such ills as the heroes and warriors before them in hopes that someday, Ibalon’s lands will be returned to its people and that there will once again be everlasting peace. #


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