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“It is better to die from bullets than from hunger” In the Philippines, activists put their lives on the line to fight the military and corporations

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DYAN RUIZ, PRODUCER: On Mindanao, a major island in the southern Philippines, foreign-based companies are destroying the environment and robbing local and native people of their livelihoods.

Corporate agri-businesses like U.S.-based Dole, Del Monte, Monsanto, along with international and Philippine mines, are polluting waterways and destroying the surrounding farms. Chinese, European, Canadian, and Filipino mines are stripping away the mountains to get at what some estimate to be the largest iron deposit in the world. There also some of the most significant gold, nickel, and copper reserves in Asia.

Despites its natural riches, most of Mindanao is struggling, with six out of the ten poorest provinces in the impoverished country. Protecting and paving the way for foreign corporations is the Philippine military, forcibly evacuating residents from their lands, and even killing and kidnapping.

JOSAPHINA PAGALAN, FARMER: The soldiers are the protectors of the foreign companies.

RUIZ: The Real News Network spent time in Caraga in northeast Mindanao, one of its poorest regions, but richest in terms of minerals and agriculture.

Sister Stella is an advocate for Mindanao and has seen the damage to the environment and people because of the invasion by cash crops, like Dole’s bananas.

SISTER STELLA, GENERAL SECRETARY, PANALINGKDAN (DEFEND) MINDANA: Biodiversity–this is beauty, this is creation! All has the place, all has the life. All has the right to live. But with capitalism, with agribusiness plantations, only one has the right to live, and that is banana.

RUIZ: Rogilio Montero, an organic rice farmer in Tago and chairperson of a peasant organization, talked to us about his community and farm, which is now surrounded by Dole’s banana trees.

ROGILIO MONTERO, ORGANIC RICE FARMER: After Dole came in and surrounded the farms that were still planted with rice before the farm was converted into a banana plantation, we observed an increase of pests in the surrounding areas, and the water became a threat, because the drainage goes through the main river. So the peasants are increasingly worried that it can cause harm or sickness.

RUIZ: Dole has over 13,000 hectares of banana plantations in the region, more acreage than the entire land area of the city of San Francisco. Growing cash crops like bananas and oil palm means two important staples, corn and rice, are being displaced. And so are the farmers that grow them.

MONTERO: When Dole was not here, we were able to survive from the income from these farms. It was sufficient for the needs of the family.

RUIZ: Dole is taking over leases in lands that tenant farmers used to till. Now those farmers work for Dole and don’t earn enough to survive.

For the farmers who continue to till the land like Rogilio, the fields and waters are increasingly polluted and the farmers are under constant threat of being displaced.

They also must contend with the Philippines’ hacienda system. This system gives all the power to landowners–corporations and the entrenched Philippine aristocracy. Most farmers are tenants that till the land owned by others. Tenant farmers must borrow money for the supplies they need and struggle to earn enough to pay back the loan.

The Philippine government perpetuates the system of large landowning families, like the current President’s own family. Tenant farmers can’t survive without subsidies, as the price paid for their goods in local markets aren’t enough to cover their expenses. Multinationals like Dole, on the other hand, are at a huge advantage. They’re well capitalized and they sell their cash crops in a global market.

RUIZ: In contrast, when rice growers sell their harvest, the price they get is so low that they have to sell nearly all their rice in order to make their loan payments. This leaves farmers without enough food to feed their families.

Corporate plantations aren’t the only destructive forces in Caraga. Large-scale corporate mining is tearing down mineral-rich mountains and sending them off to be processed in another country.

STELLA: We have seen by our own eyes how our mineral ore, our nickel laterite, the red soil, are being carried and shipped to Japan to Australia to China.

RUIZ: This is Shenzhow Nickel Mine stripping the mountain of its ore and shipping it to China right from its private port where the toxic run-off is flowing into the sea. The mines contaminate waterways, killing crops, livestock, and people.

We spoke to a farmer and fisherman who live near a Philippine-owned nickel mine in Surigao del Sur, Marcventures.

ARSENIO AVILA, FARMER AND CHAIRPERSON OF FARMERS COOPERATIVE AND IRRIGATORS ASSOC.: So that areas are also surrounded by the mining areas. So, as a result, the mining is uphill, in the highlands, and the agricultural is below. So the siltation during the rainy days will flow down to the river and of course the irrigation dam will be affected.

RUIZ: Arsenio told us contaminated water from the mines is killing crops and fish. And these waterways are the only source of drinking water for the local residents. Many people displaced from their livelihoods now work for mining corporations, but the work is typically seasonal, on contract, with low wages and without health benefits, despite the hazards.

How can these corporations be getting away with this? Upon the recommendation of the World Bank, the Philippines liberalized its mining policies in the Mining Act of 1995 to attract more foreign engineering and capital. The Act allows foreign corporations 100 percent ownership of the minerals, even though under the Philippine Constitution foreign ownership is limited to 40 percent. The government only taxes 2 percent of the value of the mined ore. So now the government is basically giving away its mineral riches.

Threats to the community aren’t just to their environment and livelihood. The Philippine military is terrorizing local and native people to make way for mining, logging, and agricultural corporations.

Since this farmer was a little girl, her indigenous Manobo community has been forced off their land at least four times by the Philippine military.

JOSAPHINA PAGALAN, FARMER: That is what happened, they (the military) occupying the houses and the school. They ransacked ALCADEV, the school. These are the reasons we quickly evacuated. Of course, because we evacuated, our means of livelihood was also affected. We had to leave our farm and the corn behind. When we went back there was nothing left.

RUIZ: The village children also leave behind their education as the entire community is forced into the jungle.

JOSAPHINA: It hurts us to evacuate, to leave our own houses behind. Instead, we have to go there where it’s difficult to find potable water, toilets, food, and places to sleep.

RUIZ: A Manobo chieftain and the chair of an indigenous organization told us about the military’s past and ongoing intimidation.

DATU JALANDONI CAMPOS, CHAIRPERSON, MAPASU INDIGENOUS ORGANIZATION: With every military operation, we are afraid. We fear about which members will be beaten up next, who will be killed or missing, who we cannot find, and who we do not know whether they are dead or alive. To this day, there are members of the organization who are missing amidst the military operation. We still don’t know where they are. We don’t know if they’re alive or dead.

RUIZ: Local cooperative miners are also being threatened by the military.

JUCY SALADO, SPOKESPERSON AND TREASURER, NAGAMI SMALL SCALE MINERS: So, why do the soldiers not want us to work here and allow our lives to get better? Because they want large-scale mining companies to operate here. That’s what the soldiers want, probably because it’s what the government wants them to do.

RUIZ: Jucy told us the military blasted their tunnels, burned down their houses, and destroyed their pipes.

Mining is their only source of income. These local miners don’t use chemicals, water diversion, open pits, or deforestation, unlike corporate mines. When they sell the gold to local buyers, they share the proceeds equally throughout their cooperative. But these small-scale miners are a threat to corporate interests, and that’s why the military is after them.

RUIZ: While the situation in Caraga is dire, with agribusiness, mining, and logging destroying the environment and communities, local people are finding strength in organizing.

In Han-Ayan in the jungles of Surigao del Sur, a community’s solidarity against corporate intrusions is based around a school founded by five native tribes. They founded ALCADEV, the Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development. The school teaches farming, community development, and what’s happening because of the corporations and military. They teach not just to high-schoolers, but adults as well.

One of the groups that established the school is MAPASU, an organization of indigenous peoples. The full Cebuano name translates into Persevere in the Struggle for the Next Generation.

The school and MAPUSU foster solidarity, which is why the military keeps trying to shut the school down.

JOSAPHINA: Because MAPASU organization always struggles against mining companies, we are being subjected to recurring military operations.

They see MAPASU is strongly united and the people are developing capacity because of the project we have here, which were not given by the government, but by the efforts of the indigenous people setting up their own school.

RUIZ: So far, Han-ayan has been successful in fending off mining corporations.

JALANDONI: At the present time, at the MAPASU organization there are mining companies that try to enter, but because of the strong resistance of the people and strong unity of the people, they have not been able to enter.

RUIZ: In the nearby community of co-operative miners, it’s clear that they’re ready to fight against the corporations and military to defend their way of life.

JUCY: When a really big company tries to go in here, we are against it. That is what we say–it is better to die from bullets than from hunger.

RUIZ: This is Dyan Ruiz for The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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