#FoodAndRightsNow: Free COVID-19 relief volunteers and food security advocates in the Philippines

Press Statement

Relief volunteers for the Save the Countryside drive were scheduled to deliver food packs and goods to peasant and urban poor residents in Norzagaray town in Bulacan province when they were stopped and illegally detained by the local police, April 19. (Photo from KMP)

PANAP joins friends and fellow peasant rights and food security advocates in the Philippines in expressing utmost alarm over the harassment and illegal arrest of seven volunteers who were supposed to distribute relief packs to peasant and urban-poor households amid the COVID-19 lockdown in the country.

At a time of worsening vulnerability and hunger of impoverished communities due to the pandemic, we find it unconscionable that efforts to alleviate the suffering of the poor are being maliciously attacked and undermined.

The volunteers were on their way to the beneficiary families in the town of Norzagaray in Bulacan province (about 50 kilometers north of Manila) when they were stalled at a police checkpoint and told to proceed to the municipal police station. Though they were momentarily let go, they were later sent to the provincial police office, where police personnel intimidated them, according to accounts of Philippine-based farmers’ and rights’ groups.

The volunteers remain in police custody and are charged with violation of the government’s COVID-19 lockdown (also called enhanced community quarantine or ECQ) policies, as well as inciting to sedition. Meanwhile, the police charged pro-peasant partylist Anakpawis vice president and former lawmaker Ariel Casilao with usurpation of authority. Similar instances of reportedly trumped-up cases and repressive policies have compelled the international community to roundly criticize the Duterte government several times in the past.

PANAP partner Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines, KMP) alongside other local peasant organizations, with which the volunteers are affiliated, reiterates that the latter had brought with them all the accredited quarantine passes to conduct relief operations in line with its Sagip Kanayunan (Save the Countryside) initiative. This relief drive, begun in 2009 to assist rural communities impacted by disasters, provides no grounds for suspicion of resistance, like the police allege. Instead, the initiative aims simply to ease issues of looming food insecurity in quarantined areas.

We denounce what appears to be baseless persecution of civilians who wish to extend help to vulnerable communities that have been clamoring for adequate humanitarian aid from the government. These also include farmers and daily wage earners whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the raging pandemic.

We respectfully urge the Philippine government to show due regard for the civil and political rights of the detained volunteers. We support the calls for their immediate release and for an end to what many in the Philippines fear might be politically motivated attacks on peasant advocates on the pretext of draconian lockdown measures. Lastly, we express our solidarity with all the groups and individuals going out of their way to help communities wrestling with the ongoing crisis. ###

For inquiries and more information, please email nolandnolife@panap.net.