Issue No. 6 | July 2019

Democracies in Decline: Repression amid land struggles under Duterte and Bolsonaro

Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil received international attention for their controversial first months as presidents and would appear to draw more in the years to come. (Photo: ABS-CBN News)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rarely misses an opportunity to make headlines. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) probe is an exception. His presidential spokesperson insisted there are no state-backed killings in the Philippines, so an investigation into the country’s human rights crisis would be to no avail. This denunciation precedes Duterte’s preparations for his third State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 22 July, when such an international spotlight would only further pall Duterte’s profile overseas.

Official statements from his office provide scant facts. Reports from different human rights organizations have, however, amply covered the scourge of the President’s amplified crackdown on progressive groups, suspected criminals, critics and primarily the poor, including farmers, indigenous people, and other rural sectors.

The latter, in particular, comprise the most bedeviled segment of Philippine society. This year witnessed a spike in rights violations in the rural areas where Duterte’s murderous policies hit the hardest. On this front the media cannot help but draw comparisons between him and another president, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, whose almost seven months in power prove rife with menace to the country’s indigenous population.

A seven-term congressman and former military captain, Bolsonaro shares Duterte’s demagoguery in more ways than one, from their bombast, appeal, and much gusto for revering dictators to spawning turmoil in their countries’ most deprived quarters. Their vague platforms, apart from restoring law and order, bode bad news. Their supposed censure of local political elites has later been exposed as no match to their real contempt for the marginalized.

Both presidents represent two sides of the same coin. Their assumption of high office could not come at a more inauspicious time, when human rights standards wear away as democracies around the world are sliding dangerously down tyranny.

Cracking the whips

“Land to the tillers now!” So went the rallying cry painted in red on placards waved in protest of Duterte’s SONA last year. The same call, however, resonated not just that day, when protesters in the tens of thousands gathered in the capital region and elsewhere across the country. It has, in fact, been the banner campaign of the peasant movement that, to this day, remains unheeded and skated over with palliative land reform programs by consecutive administrations.

Yet the Duterte government does not so much offer even a broad-strokes agenda on land reform, like its predecessors, as stand in starker contrast for its hostility to peasants. In 2017 and 2018, PANAP ranked the Philippines as the deadliest country for those defending their rights to land and resources. This does not even account for the violence against farmers in 2016, when Duterte was just warming up in power.

The numbers, though appalling by themselves, are brought into sharp relief when one is to consider the frequency at which the cases of human rights violations against peasants occur. Less than two months into 2019, PANAP reported on six farmer killings and estimated that this trend, if left unchecked, could worsen. True enough, since then, 33 individuals have fallen victim to murder, which now roughly translates to two farmers slain every week, having outpaced last year’s count of a farmer death in every two weeks.

The most gruesome of these cases, with a total of 14 farmers killed (and 12 others arrested), happened last April during what appeared to be coordinated police operations against the “criminality” supposedly on the rise in Negros island in central Philippines. “A bloodbath is happening in Negros, victimizing farmers and mercilessly perpetrated by a government with no regard for human rights and due process,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary general of local human rights watchdog Karapatan, in a statement.

Similar violent acts in the provinces of Visayas, one of the three major island clusters in the Philippines, including Negros, have also made international headlines and put Duterte’s policies under greater scrutiny.

In October 2018, for example, the deaths of nine sugarcane farmers, who were occupying and cultivating a disputed land, at the hands of unknown armed goons in Negros Occidental drew flak. Farm help like the victims receives as low as USD0.93 daily, in a province home to about 1,860 big landlords controlling vast sugar plantations.

The massacre of nine farmers in Sagay City, Negros Occidental in October 2018 foregrounded the worsening human rights situation in the Philippine agrarian sector. (Photo:

The monopoly on land of a few families in the region contrasts with the insecurity, both in land tenure and physical safety, that besieges marginal farmers particularly now under the current regime. The few accessible economic opportunities are concentrated a couple of provinces away. The drivers of agricultural production, on the other hand, reel from hunger, poverty, and disasters, ranging from calamities like typhoons to blight and pests that routinely ravage fields in the area.

Relief may arrive in dribs and drabs, coming on the heels of catastrophes. Jobs remain scarce, though, if not still tied to land yet to be redistributed. Duterte would have done well to scrap the flawed land reform program instituted by Pres. Cory Aquino three decades ago and continued by successive regimes, including her son’s and Duterte’s immediate predecessor Benigno Aguino III, a scion of one of the country’s landed families. Yet, if anything, Duterte went on to double down on orders that impoverish and imperil rural communities even more.

Not even a whole month after the massacre in Negros last year, the president deployed more police and military troops not just to the region but also to the islands of Bicol and Samar, via Memorandum Order No. 32. He cited as grounds for such a directive some incidents he claimed to be due to lawless violence.

“Everyone can be a target now,” said Danilo Ramos, chairperson of peasant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), in the wake of the imposition of the order that took on the guise of Synchronized Enhanced Managing Police Operations — also known by its ominous name as Oplan Sauron. “It’s basically a shoot to kill order against anyone suspected of being critical [of] the government,’’ Ramos added.

Before long, these operations assumed a hybrid of sorts of the armed forces’ counterinsurgency efforts under Oplan Kapayapaan and the police’s anti-drug and crimes drive under Oplan Tokhang. The midyear of 2019 posted almost day-to-day murders in Bukidnon and Masbate provinces, both also in Visayas, not to mention mass arrests of land activists, rural workers and community leaders on suspicion of links to armed rebels. Peasant groups lament the false, trumped-up charges filed to justify these instances of legal persecution.

Some heavily militarized areas in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, have also turned into a hotbed of attacks and unbridled rights violations. This state of affairs stirs worries in the international community. “We fear the situation could deteriorate further if the extension of martial law until the end of 2019 results in even greater militarization,” said Cecilia Jimenez-Damary, UN Special Rapporteur on internally displaced people, and Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Unsurprisingly, Congress granted Duterte’s request for extension of Martial Law in the region, in December 2018. On the ground, economic and physical dislocation attends military assaults on ancestral domains. Indigenous groups like the Lumad are not just driven off their territories, but also uprooted from their life-ways and culture. Schools are closed down or bombed, while children bear the brunt of displacement. More alarmingly, counterinsurgency efforts have taken over civilian functions. Just recently, the education department shut down 55 Lumad schools upon the order of Duterte’s national security adviser. The said schools were supposedly teaching “left-leaning ideologies”.

Indeed, democratic safeguards, on paper, remain in place but any guarantee of dignified living, access to and control over agricultural and indigenous lands, and safety from threats, intimidation, and harassment fall by the wayside in light of the government’s renewed suppression of peasants and land rights defenders.

Making a killing

While the issue of land seemed to have been only an afterthought for Duterte, who is keener on wiping out criminality with his connivance with the state forces, this is not the case for Brazil’s newly inaugurated president. Bolsonaro quickly issued an order on his first day in office to bar the indigenous affairs agency FUNAI from listing any more land as indigenous territory. This decree robs national minorities in Brazil’s countryside of protections and, more so, augurs trouble for the Amazon rainforest which they look after.

President Jair Bolsonaro swept Brazil’s electorate last year despite predictions by pundits that his brand of populist politics would prove a hard sell. (Photo: Andre Coelho / Bloomberg)

This was in January 2019, and Bolsonaro has since released successive decrees after Congress blocked his bid to transfer the ambit of managing indigenous lands from FUNAI to the Ministry of Agriculture. Also a Supreme Court justice suspended in the interim the President’s yet another similar attempt last June, on account of its “flagrant” breach of Brazil’s Constitution, which provides for the rights of indigenous people.

Meanwhile, farmers who were once fed up with stringent environmental registry requirements, as per Brazil’s Forestry Code of 2012, cheered Bolsonaro’s temporary measure to extend the deadline for registration. This provides leeway for them to farm areas of their land previously set to be preserved as forests. Were the president to deliver on his vow to legislate this move, ranchers and loggers would be more brazen in deforestation and would stoke fears about the fate of the Amazon. The world’s largest tropical forest, along with other protected reserves, are being eyed for commercial development.

So-called development trumps conservation objectives. A report by The Guardian earlier this month told of a large number of cattle grazing in the Amazon. The traditional communities serving as stewards of the landscape at times clash with the cattle ranchers as a result: one underserved sector pitted against another. Bolsonaro, at first consideration, may seem to swing farmers to his side, but his allegiances are nowhere near their group, which after all does not stand to gain the most from the shrinking of the forest.

Amazon Watch, an environmental nonprofit, detailed in its 2019 report the collusion between Bolsonaro and his international financiers. The environmental crisis, though widely criticized, constitutes but a minor setback in the agenda of the ruralista congressional faction, a conservative coterie of men hammering home the despoilment of indigenous and environmental resources and wealth at the pleasure of Brazil’s agro-industry.

Maintaining a clutch on the legislative branch, this group comprises a caucus of different political parties beholden to landholders’ and agribusiness interests. They include lobbyists, local politicians, multi-million campaign backers, and lawmakers who leverage political clout to capitalize on finance law loopholes and to steamroll retrograde policies on land and climate, the better to favor their corporate associations.

One of its key members, Adilton Sachetti, hails from a soy- and corn-yielding landholding in Mato Grosso, in western Brazil. He allies with former Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, a billionaire magnate, and drew from him campaign contributions in exchange for strong-arming into passage several bills linked to land grabbing and the constitutional amendment (PEC) 215. The last one calls into question the authenticity of ownership claims of indigenous communities and aims to stonewall any more future land titling process.

The likes of Sachetti, with Bolsonaro’s facilitation, could proceed with severe policy rollbacks. All of them saw in the president a figure capable of mustering bluster and appealing to a broad base disenchanted with his predecessors’ failed programs. His ascension to power sustains the oxygen of the autocratic political climate in Brazil, one conducive to the plunder of resources while ushering in neoliberal reforms.

Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro pushes for policies that strip off environmental protections for the Amazon, which has now been deforested by more than 88% since last year. (Photo: Felipe Werneck / Associated Press)

“His antagonism for the land rights of indigenous and traditional communities and disdain for environmental protections jeopardize vast tracts of preserved forests, which could fall victim to reckless industrial development such as agribusiness and mining,” said Christian Poirer, director of Amazon Watch.

The president, for instance, may have backpedaled on his threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which his agriculture minister likened to a “toilet paper,” but he really could not care less about buffering disasters wrought by climate emergency or protecting the ethnic groups most defenseless against its calamitous upshot. To his thinking, the irreplaceable biomes in the Amazon could serve as a collateral damage if it means relaxing restrictions on mining and other industrial farming ventures in the area.

The same goes for the human toll of these incursions. PANAP included in its monitoring at least three massacres in the Amazon region in March this year, resulting in the deaths of landless peasant movement leaders and a dam rights defender. The killings took place along the deforestation front near the Madeira River, a major waterway in South America. Here, capital injection has sparked a land rush and attracted investors and land grabbers, at the expense of poor residents in the agrarian reform settlements close by.

Even before the 2018 elections, Bolsonaro did not mince words on the subject of landless campesinos. He was quoted as advising landowners to fire upon land occupiers using 7.62-mm ammunition. “If you ask if this means that I want to kill these layabouts,” he said, “then, yes, I do.”

His words, whether or not spoken in jest, could be read as incitement to violence. In Mato Grosso, alleged Bolsonaro supporters torched one of the huts in an encampment of landless peasants in October 2018.

To be sure, Bolsonaro is not the first president to dismiss the rights and welfare of farmers, indigenous groups, and environmental activists, nor the first to have permitted the pillage of the country’s ecology. Yet nobody has posed a threat so quickly — less than seven months into power — and on such a monumental scale. But to think his sort of politics is unprecedented is to overlook the advances of similarly tyrannical leaders and the history of failed democracies that has paved the way for their creep to political power.

Driving a hard bargain

In an age where diplomacy and common decency are in short supply, both Duterte and Bolsonaro fit right in. The two dispense with the niceties of statesmanship and fire off indecorous, divisive rants which, to the liberal democracies of the West, sound scandalous but still garner a groundswell of support at home.

Yet, as evinced by Duterte’s three years and Bolsonaro’s half a year in power, a rhetoric of intimidation and bravado simply sparks the tinderbox that their policies have already assembled. Overall, they embody the resurgence of, and capture of political power by, far-right populist and authoritarian forces globally.

PANAP remarked in its 2018 year-end report how gross socio-economic inequities set the stage for the emergence of these regimes. The neoliberal trajectory which countries like the Philippines and Brazil have trodden utterly countermanded its offer of prosperity for all. Instead, four decades of liberalization and deregulation, coupled with slashes in spending for basic social services in favor of the private sector, have simply driven a wedge deeper between the lot of the poor and the narrow elite hogging the public coffers.

The public that has yet to receive a slice of the pie could only look to right-wing leaders proffering a lion’s share of economic and political capital for security. Duterte and Bolsonaro tapped into these grievances and pent-up disillusion, even though their ilk have partaken in the rewards of neoliberal globalization and local civilian bureaucracy which ensnares in chronic poverty the very people they vow to act on behalf of.

Their track records so far prove to be case studies of where their loyalties lie. In the Philippines and Brazil, the failure of neoliberal economics and increasingly dictatorial politics, including their casualties among the ranks of the poor peasantry, provide a steady and ominous chorus. ###

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