Impact of new world trade regime on peasant women in the Philippines

Globalisation and the new trade regime imposed by the World Trade Organisation are having a devastating impact on peasant women in the Philippines. But the women are fighting back.

by Teresita Oliveros

Unequal sharing of  agricultural resources

THE Philippines is basically a feudal agrarian, pre-industrial economy. The feudal structure of the economy is the fundamental cause of poverty of the peasants in the rural areas. Of the 11.2 million total labour force in agriculture, 8.5 million are landless. This is based on the government data which counts men primarily as farmers and therefore part of the labour force. However, the number of landless peasant women and women farm workers approximates that of their male counterparts. This is based on the total rural female population 15 years and above, with a total number of 8 million.

The tenancy system based on a 70/30 and 60/40 sharing scheme, in favour of the landlord, predominates. Therefore, millions of tenants toil under exploitative conditions. For instance, in the production of coconut meat (copra), work is done with bare hands and involves long working hours. Harvest of the crop is every three months, and every member of the family is engaged from dawn to dusk. For a hectare of land planted with 250 coconut trees, the tenant family gets a share of P130.00 or US$5 per harvest, while the landlord gets P450.00 or US$17 per harvest. Although the entire peasant family is involved, they get a meagre share of the product.

Similarly, in sugar plantations the quota system which is equally oppressive prevails. Here, the landlord contracts the labour of the man for the set phase of the production of sugar cane (i.e., planting of the cane seedlings) but the entire family is mobilised to finish the work contracted by the landlord. Clearly, the labour of the women and the children is both not accounted nor paid for.

As much of the prime arable land is planted with export/commercial crops that benefit landlords, bureaucrats and capitalists, women are forced to till far-flung rocky uplands needed for the family's survival. In addition, women also engage in non-agricultural activities to augment scarce family income. Prevailing patrilocal land ownership, meanwhile, incapacitates women's access to credit and training that can result in an increase in productivity. Due to sexual division of labour, women are also burdened with housework.

Impact of the imposed economic policies

Imposition of the world trade system on these rural agrarian structures has intensified the exploitation of the peasants and their families. For example, in the 1960s to 1970s, vast agricultural lands were planted with cash crops, in response to the huge demands in the international market. Despite huge profits raked in by landlords, the exploitation of the peasant women, men and their children intensified. When the demand for these crops in the world market plunged in the early 1980s, the peasants and their families experienced enormous deprivation and poverty. Hundreds of children in Negros islands (one of the major producers of sugar in the country) died of famine, malnutrition and diseases.

The new world trade regime has intensified demand for agricultural products according to the changing tastes, preferences and lifestyles of people in the Northern countries and the need for raw materials by multinational corporations. The Medium Term Development Plan (MTPDP) touted by the Ramos government as the country's vehicle to industrialisation in the year 2000, is speeding up redirection of agriculture to meet these demands. The Medium Term Agricultural Development Plan (MTADP) envisages a 65% reduction i.e. 3.1 million hectares currently devoted to producing rice and corn (the basic staple food) will be converted for planting 'high value export crops' like asparagus, bananas, eucalyptus and cut flowers such as anthuriums and orchids. The remaining lands will also be transformed into pasturelands for cattle breeding. This will be implemented despite deep shortages in the supply of rice and corn in the country.

In many of the large coconut and sugar haciendas, various schemes are afoot by the landlords, abetted by the government, to eject the peasants/tenants from the lands. In Guihulngan, Negros Oriental, 1,000 hectares of land tilled by 300 peasant families will be converted into pasture lands for foreign breed cattle.

This shifting of crops to meet the needs of the international market portends greater hardship for peasant women and their families. Apart from the intensification of landlessness among peasant women and the threat to food security, there are other costs. High-value crops require intensive use of chemicals for increased productivity. Studies reveal that peasant women and their children are most vulnerable to these destructive chemicals. In the banana and pineapple plantation owned by DOLEFIL-STANFILCO in Mindanao, women agricultural workers are constantly exposed to pesticides and other agro-chemicals used extensively in most major operations of the plantations. The women are hired as ground sprayers, harvesters, canners and packers because 'women do not smoke' and are 'easier to handle'. Moreover, as mothers they assume the role of family nurse and become automatic replacements for the unfinished work of their husbands and children.

The MPTDP is also transforming rural communities and fertile lands into rural industrial centres (RICs): enclaves for attracting foreign investors to undertake industrial, residential and tourism projects. Of the 23 areas designated as RICs, 16 will cover about 120,000 agricultural lands. Accordingly, the Republic Act 7652, the Investors Lease Act allowing foreigners to directly lease lands up to 50-75 years, was passed. The government, through the President's Office, the Department of Agrarian Reform and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, actively takes part in defrauding and criminalising peasants to eject them from their lands. Both government and landlords are involved in taking land from farmers and offering them for lease to foreign multinational investors. In only two years after the implementation of the MTDP, 118,000 hectares of agricultural lands have already been converted for other purposes.

Even lands distributed through the Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) were not spared from confiscation. A case in point is the issue of Fil-Estate's Harbortown in Batangas. This project involves building four golf courses and a luxury hotel. Many of the lands included in the project are being tilled by agrarian reform beneficiaries. The farmers discovered that their certificates were nullified without their knowledge and declared barren and eligible for conversion and subsequently sold by the government to Fil-Estate.

In Panglao, Bohol, a full-blown land conversion for a tourism project is being implemented. Unfortunately, farmers within this targeted land, only 200 of whom are women, have only tax declarations to show. Very few possess land titles. They are now faced with displacement from their homes and their livelihoods. There are no relocation sites that have been provided. In a similar condition, fisherfolk have been banned from their regular fishing grounds.

These problems are now luring many young rural women to look for other options of survival. Cases of young peasant women being hired as prostitutes for the beach resorts in Panglao have been reported. An initial investigation of the lives of peasant women and their families displaced in the grandiose CALABARZQN project (a development plan that aims to transform the five provinces of South Luzon namely Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon into industrial zones) shows that peasant women and their children end up in irregular jobs with very low pay and exploitative work conditions. Many women double as caddies in the golf courses developed in the tourist areas, domestic helpers in the town centres, service workers in restaurants and entertainment establishments such as karaoke bars and beer houses. This kind of work has made the women more vulnerable to sexual violence/harassment.

In Leon, Tubungan and Ingore, road-widening projects have led to the ruin of farmlands, crops and destruction of homes. Peasant women, even girls of elementary school age, are forced to look for work in the town centres as laundry women, domestic helpers, and sales ladies under these circumstances. However, there are few jobs as there are too many already looking for the same kind of work. Moreover, the middle class is increasingly doing away with hired help due to lower income.

The commitments of the Philippine government to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the agricultural sector presents another grim scenario for peasant women. Commitment to reduce tariffs has resulted in free entry of all agricultural products. Even traditional products of the peasants such as onions, garlic and potatoes, earlier protected by law, are not spared. Imported garlic and the like now flood local markets. The Philippine government is pursuing dismantling of other restrictive laws to fulfil its commitment to the WTO.

Of special concern to both peasants and consumers alike, is the government commitment to import rice gradually and subject to the discretion of the President. Just six months after the accession of the Philippines to the WTO in January 1995, the country rushed headlong into a severe rice crisis. Prices of rice doubled in a short time and even tripled in the rural areas. The fallout of the crisis forced millions of poor Filipinos to go hungry reducing them to one meal a day and in extreme cases, totally forgoing their consumption of this grain. The government attributed the crisis to low productivity and subsequent shortage. Millions of metric tons of rice were imported from the international market to meet the deficit. However, the efforts of militant peasant groups proved that the crisis was created to justify importation as per the government's commitments to the WTO.

These commitments have led to the undermining of the prices of the products of local farmers. In the long run, it is expected that farmers would be discouraged from producing these commodities for fear of bankruptcy. Withdrawal of farm subsidies as per the dictates of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has limited capacity to increase productivity, reducing farmers' chances of being able to compete in the international market. A case in point is the experience of approximately 50,000 Benguet potato farmers. With the influx of machine-sliced, ready-to-fry potatoes from the United States, prices collapsed to almost half of what they were in 1990.

For peasant women, these developments limit the options available to augment scarce family income. Rural women, when not involved in farming activities, are also responsible for vegetable production and poultry/livestock raising (a backyard endeavour), which are supplementary sources of food and income for the family. But even these 'fallback' income and food sources will be wiped out with the free entry of potatoes, garlic as well as livestock such as pigs, goats and chickens.

Finally, the Presidential order allowing bioprospecting in the rural areas is cause for concern. Incidents of groups asking the local people to gather for them certain plants which they in turn buy at very low prices have been revealed. The running prices of these plants in dried and fresh forms is P3.00 to P5.00 or US$0.11-0.19 per kilo. Samples of these plants are 'banaba', 'sambong', 'bayabas', 'damong maria', 'tsaang gubat' and many more. These plants are commonly found in the rural communities and are used for their medicinal properties in treating common ailments. There are fears that these plant species will be appropriated, developed and declared as the property of some groups, diminishing access.

Militarisation as a State instrument

Landlords, government and foreign investors resort to fraud, deception or the use of force by the military, Philippine National Police or hired mercenaries. The lands of Negros Oriental being converted to pasture-lands mentioned above is one example.

Another scheme is the criminali-sation of farmers occupying lands targeted for conversion. In San Isidro, Leyte, an ex-justice filed charges of qualified theft against farmers, most of whom were women whose children joined them in jail, for harvesting 500 coconuts which the peasants had planted in their own lands. Ironically, these peasants are legitimate holders of Certificates of Land Ownership Award (CLOA).

Peasant women's response: action and struggles

However, peasants from various parts of the country continue to struggle for their rights. Many are resisting the confiscation of their lands. Peasant women in Tartaria, who are members of AMIHAN, are in the forefront of the struggle to resist the schemes of the Aguinaldo. They have stood in front of bulldozers, upheld their barricades against the military and have been active in education work.

The key instrument in resisting the deleterious effects of the WTO agreements is the organisation of peasant women and women farmers and their families. Based on our experience in AMIHAN, be it a case of asserting our rights to the land, resisting eviction and militarisation or creating conditions for lightening of our workloads in the fields and at home through self-help systems and strengthening labour-exchange practices, organisation is the most effective weapon.

Bringing peasant women and farm workers into organisations where they are able to discuss their problems, develop a unified analysis on issues, and plan common actions for addressing their problems is a time-tested strategy. Without an organisation, the peasant women will perpetually be left at the mercy of the authority of the landlords and the whole set of feudal patriarchal values that keep them voiceless, meek and subservient. With their own organisations, the collective creative drive will be freed enabling them to control and set directions for their lives. (Third World Resurgence No. 86, October 1997)

[c] The above article appeared in Forum News (Vol.10 no.2, July 1997) produced by the Asia-Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development.

Teresita Oliveros is currently Executive Director of the National Federation of Peasant Women (AMIHAN) in the Philippines and also the Co-ordinator of the Asian Peasant Women Network (APWN), an alliance of national organisations of peasant women from various Asian countries based in the Philippines.