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For years, the international community has witnessed numerous disputes over how land and natural resources are controlled. One of these disputes is on land grabbing, which has many definitions but describes “the practice of governments paving the way for industr[ies] by handing over communally held parcels of land for economic development.” Throughout the 21st century of Filipino history, this practice has occurred between local communities and transnational financial investors, who often violate the human rights of the original landowners. According to the World Bank, these financial investors typically target nations across the globe where “local people lack land rights and [legal] protection” from these acts. This conflict has been held in many areas globally and is quite evident in the Philippines.

Since 2007, Filipino farmers have faced several legal disputes over their rights to land, farming rights and livelihoods. This ongoing struggle started with the Philippine government’s approval of foreign investors — multinational corporations — to acquire large plots of land which originally belonged to the local farmers. The Indigenous Peoples, in particular, have suffered from this land grabbing and have been displaced from their ancestral territories and locales of culture and identity. Approximately 3.1 million hectares of land have gone up for investments by multinational corporations and foreign governments due to the desire for the land and its profitable resources.

The International Peasants’ Movement has stated that the issue of land grabbing occurred since the Spanish colonization of the Philippines in the 1500s. Today, initiatives such as the Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) continue to uphold this struggle for territorial sovereignty. According to SLAPP, landlords and corporations can criminalize and silence farmers who assert their rights to their plots of land. Since 1987, there have been attempts to reform laws on land resource usage — the Comprehensive Reform Program (CARP) and Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA) are the most famous. But far more work needs to be done as millions of farmers continue living in impoverished conditions and hardly ever profit from these foreign investments.

From The People Themselves

A farmer from the Philippines who lived in a household of 4 described how he has worked on a plot of land since the 70s. He had an active lease agreement with the owners but was unknowingly stripped of his rights as the land became sold to APECO — a designated area for water imports. He lives in fear of eviction and says:

“This [land] is how we earn our money. This is how we send our kids to school. If you take this away from us, you’re taking away our source of income and our source of life. If I am forced to leave in effect, it’s like APECO has killed us already.”

In the Masungi Georeserve, “over 30 armed men” from the Sinagtala Security Agency came to disrupt this conservation site. The Singtala Security Agency intended to take over large plots of land in these areas despite being protected by the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992. Since their arrival, they threatened numerous forest ranges, and two park rangers have died. Masungi Georeserve has stated:

“[This area] is being conserved and reforested by our team under an agreement with the government. This is a critical area for the wildlife sanctuary[,] and the consequences of losing this area once again will set back forest protection and [will] be a huge injustice to Filipinos.”

In Queborosa village in Infanta, Quezon, it is clear that land grabbing endangers the environment. One legal and policy research institution noted that half of the Indigenous lands in the Philippines face the threat of biodiversity loss due to large-scale mining and logging projects. The executive director and lawyer of the LRC, Mai Taqueban, notes:

“The exploitation and commoditization of nature is sadly an enduring framework to manage our natural resources. This is contrary to [I]ndigenous [P]eoples’ conception of development.”

Strengthening Land Rights

The think tank, Focus on the Global South, effectively captures why land grabbing continues in the twenty-first century. The Filipino laws and policies surrounding the issue of land rights focus narrowly on the economic implications. The discourse around land rights is also typically framed in a Western sense of legal rights and overly focused on the human. These conceptions have continued to exploit nature for human needs. In the future, Filipino decision-makers must shift their thinking. Political leaders must redefine the relationship between humans and nature for sustainable development. Solutions also involve considering how land grabbing violates human rights and is — a struggle for governance and power. 

We see this with the former President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who promised to tackle this corruption but left his administration with the legacy of violating Indigenous rights and continuing environmental damage. The new government must comply with international law, persecute the perpetrators to justice and protect those claiming their rights to territorial sovereignty. Foreign governments and corporations must similarly become more socially conscious when pursuing business in the Philippines and consider the negative implications of buying land. 

Contextually, with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, decision-makers must consider the increase in tensions over land and natural resources. Since the pandemic, 9600 farmers have become displaced from their lands. Much of this is the weakened enforcement of land rights which has motivated corrupt individuals to land-grab. One solution may be strengthening collaboration between international organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme with local governments such as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in Southern Philippines. These two actors are already laying the groundwork for a solution by using data to update records, create property tax maps and improve the regulation process for land.  

Other organizations, such as the International Land Coalition (ILC), work tirelessly to strengthen land rights. The ILC is a partnership of civil society and intergovernmental organizations that work to build up land governance by centering the needs of those who live on the land. In the Philippines, the branch is composed of 9 members. Their operations have empowered “500 farmers and [I]ndigenous [P]eoples” through legal training or development of agreements such as the Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan. 

How Land-Grabbing Can Be Addressed

Land grabbing in the Philippines remains a pressing issue that violates human rights and threatens territorial sovereignty. In response, a comprehensive approach is necessary. The new government must uphold international law, hold perpetrators accountable, and protect those asserting their rights to their territory. Internationally, foreign governments and corporations engaging in business in the Philippines must consider the negative implications of land acquisitions. Locally, partnerships with organizations such as the ILC play a crucial role in strengthening land rights by centring the needs of those who live on the land. More policy reforms, accountability, international cooperation, and empowerment of local communities are essential to ensure we do not compromise the livelihoods of all these affected communities.

Edited by Alexandra Hu

Jacob Sablan

Jacob (he/him) is a second-year at the University of British Columbia studying Political Science and Law & Society. He was born in Edmonton, Alberta, but his family is from Bamban, Tarlac in the Philippines....