Issue No. 4 | 28 March 2019

Liberating the Landless: Reclaiming lands, reclaiming the future

Part 2 of a two-part features series on the Asian Peasant Coalition in commemoration of the Day of the Landless on March 29
The Asian Peasant Coalition (APC) together with Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek (PKMT) and Roots for Equity celebrate the Day of the Landless with the theme “Heighten the struggle against global land grabbing! Resist Imperialist Plunder on Land and Resources!” in front of the Lahore Press Club in Pakistan, 29 March 2016. (Photo: Roots for Equity)

Though they do not have lands to claim as their own, landless farmers are fettered in more ways than one. They brook back-breaking work on farms, for often no other job would hire them. Their measly earnings, even a year’s worth, would still fail to pay off debts that are somehow listed in their name. They answer to landlords who most probably live in the city or even abroad and get the lion’s share of the season’s harvest while they scramble for scraps. These many bonds by which they are confined are the most oppressive.

The injustices they suffer can only be pushed back by a collective response. This is captured by the declaration that every 29th of March shall be the “Day of the Landless.” It has been almost four years when the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), the largest peasant movement in the region, celebrated this assertion of rights to land and resources and has since worked tirelessly toward realizing its vision of a more just future for farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, and others.

As this year’s Day of the Landless draws near, the gains and travails in the past several years are worth recalling in order to map a way forward despite the direst conditions. More than mere recollection, it is a reaffirmation of the commitment of the peasantry to attract greater support by amplifying what the wider public knows of their rights and resistance and by solidifying if not expanding the mass movement for genuine agrarian change.

Disadvantaged and dispossessed

The fight for the landless demands the defense of people’s rights, and the fight for people’s rights necessarily defines the defense of the landless. It is this mutual correspondence that the first year of commemoration of the Day of the Landless emphasized in the APC’s pledge to “advance the struggle for the people’s collective rights to land and resources to meet their needs.”

The functioning of healthy democracies, after all, hinge on rights enjoyed by all. The same belief in the inalienability of the people’s rights, particularly that to land and resources, inspires the “No Land, No Life!” campaign that PANAP, one of the APC’s allies, launched on March 29, 2015.

“We wanted to have something that would create unity in the region and hopefully reach the global level,” said Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of PANAP. “We wanted to have… impact in terms of increasing awareness and understanding and of concretizing the broadest sector of communities to support the struggles of the peasants and their call for land.”

The campaign has since sought to monitor land-related rights violations worldwide. While it also meant to highlight how land and resource grabbing infringes socio-economic and cultural rights, the renewed violence against rural communities in the region has foregrounded more the trends and transnational actors that run roughshod over people’s civil and political rights.

Little wonder that on the Day of the Landless the following year, the APC noted with dismay the alarming expansion of oil palm plantations, one of the most aggressive agribusiness industries in Asia. Two issues stand out: landless farmers are not only worked to exhaustion in wage labor, as they are also exposed to toxic pesticides that contaminate waters and force nearby residents to migrate. Held to no account by the states, corporations profit off the yield from these farms.

This continued well into 2017, when the APC reported on the Day of the Landless that 263 deals involving oil palm on 5.6 million hectares were made together with hundreds more of other food harvests such as oil seeds and agrofuels. This is no trivial matter in a region where small food producers are deprived of their own lands, pay jacked-up rents, loan at extortionate rates, and stand at the losing end of million-dollar agreements between governments and big businesses.

Through all this, hopes that the current state of affairs will not be for the long haul remain high. Peasant organizations commemorated the Day of the Landless in 2018 along this line, looking forward to the vigor and passion of the youth who have lately been at the forefront of the fight against worsening landlessness.

For this problem would be theirs to inherit should this persist. For the rural youth, who comprise 55% of the world’s youth population, the stakes are even higher and could mean whether they will remain stuck in the informal economy like the generations before them. On many occasions, however, they have proven just as committed to taking up the cudgel for the poor and landless.

Former chairperson Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano (left) and current chairperson Poguri Chennaiah (right) discuss, respectively, the role of big banks in global land grabs and the need for rejecting neoliberal globalization in advancing the rights of the peasants, at the fifth general assembly of the Asian Peasant Coalition in Surat Thani, Thailand, 26 October 2018. (Photo: PANAP).

Exposition and education

Enjoining the youth and the broader public, in general, to defend the rural people’s rights requires a heightened drive to inform them of peasant issues, calls, and the victories so far achieved by the movement. Yet the trouble is not that there are only a few stories on the ground to go by. It is that certain players are keen to hold back data and keep the people from knowing the score.

“At the national level, just to get the data, they’re not easily available,” said Rengam, whose work at PANAP involves documentation of cases of land disputes that becomes pertinent when filing complaints to various government bodies. “In countries where there are freedom of information laws, you can get some of the information but it still takes a month or two,” she added.

This does not even touch on the intimidation, abuse, and harassment members of human rights and civil society organizations face in the line of work. Geographical constraints, by contrast, are lesser deterrents. They venture into far-flung areas that receive scarce media attention, since all too often the most flagrant violations by corporate land grabbers happen in these communities.

Evidence gathered from these fact-finding missions, like contracts, titles, testimonies, and other such documents, can form the basis of strategies the communities or involved individuals might wish to pursue. They can serve as points of leverage or grounds to seek legal means of redress. Should the issue be raised publicly, they can draw stronger support and, in contentious cases, can even turn the tide of public opinion when found to be reliable, accurate, and compelling.

Certain patterns are bound to emerge from these case studies when adequate information has been collated and examined. These can help the peasant movement gain insights, say, into the systematic approaches land grabbers take, the varied ways their actions impact the locals, or a new host of perpetrators that farmer groups shall be wary of. A regionally coordinated research, for example, can be undertaken to synthesize the results and guide future campaign planning.

Such is the contribution of regional organizations like PANAP to fulfill one of the APC’s original goals: to disseminate materials and documents for collective education.

New technology helps to this end, too. For instance, PANAP once tried global positioning system (GPS) for mapping in Sarawak, the largest state in Malaysia, where customary rights often lend confusion as to where a property ends and the next begins in most indigenous communities.

Various platforms such as social media have also lately been explored to broaden the campaign scope. “We want to reach out to the general public and other sectors like consumers, workers, for them to have a better understanding of the campaign,” said Rengam. “We also want to bring to the attention of the governments some of the documentation of land grabbing that goes on.”

The other upside with social media is that it corrodes conventional limits to dialogue and forges more than frustrates the ties among peasants and advocates otherwise separated by distance.

Allegiances and alliances

For coalitions must be built on the strength of relationships and shared values between groups from different nations. The APC believes that in fortifying the alliance there is a common ground that all its member organizations can stand on, to consolidate ranks and establish new linkages.

“In the face of intensified land grabbing, expansion of plantations, extrajudicial killings and criminalization of peasants, the one aspiration that unites peasant movements across the globe is the struggle for genuine agrarian reform and food sovereignty,” said Rafael Mariano in Filipino, former APC chairperson who now helms the Peasant Movement of the Philippines (KMP).

The unabated assaults on the rights of the peasants in no way diminish the correctness of the struggle for land redistribution. Rather, it is telling of its very relevance at a juncture where loss of land at present could mean the seizure of the future of vast swaths of the global population.

The need for the coalition to cohere becomes more pressing now than ever. Mariano said that, amid differences in historical, political, and social contexts, peasant groups in Asia witness the interplay of local ruling elites, state machineries, and imperial intents so glaringly that to deepen the divide among their nations would only spell their defeat. The anti-imperialist stance of the APC has not faltered over the years and instead served to unify similarly subjugated peoples who care to look beyond traditional points of divergence in Asia like religion, race, and riches.

To coalesce individual efforts of these groups into a streamlined resistance requires reminding of the gravity of the political work at hand: the lives at peril, the costs of bad policies bearing brutally upon the public at large, the generations to come at the mercy of vested interests.

If these prospects are bleak, there is much to derive inspiration from in the stories of triumphs and resoluteness of the dispossessed to arouse, organize, and mobilize.

It is the steadfast struggle of thousands of farmers from all over Asia that has impelled them to the streets in record numbers more than once lately. It is persistence that prompts peasant families to take tycoons to court and see class-action lawsuits through to the end despite years of dragging on in red tape. It is a sense of justice that unites communities against corporations primed to evict them in the name of so-called development, and it is no less than courage that explains how the landless can stare down the barrel of a gun in defense of the lands they till.

Now, every action the peasants choose to take carries the weight of their plights in the past and the possibilities of the future. Until then, there remains no clearer recourse than to brave the fray.

Read part 1 here


#NoLandNoLife Features discuss recent developments, events, and trends on land and resource grabbing and related human rights issues in the region as well as the factors and forces that drive it. Send us your feedback at