Asserting land rights

The Hacienda Luisita, Inc. (HLI) is a 6400-hectare estate in central Luzon island in the Philippines that was, on paper, owned by the powerful Conjuangco family. When the clan acquired the estate through legal machinations in league with the Philippine government, farmers who for generations tilled the land suddenly found themselves landless, poor and subject to the “generosity” and whims of the Cojuangco family.

On 16 November 2004, seven people were killed in a bloody massacre in Hacienda Luisita when State security forces shot farmers and farm workers who were demanding for distribution of HLI lands to land reform beneficiaries. No State security personnel was made to answer for the crime. At least eight other supporters of the farmers of HLI were killed in dubious circumstances by suspected state security forces in the months that followed.

In 2012, the Supreme Court of the Philippines issued a ruling that commanded the Cojuangco family and the HLI management to turn over 4000 plus hectares of land to the farmers, yet government agencies and security forces failed to assist in installing the farmers on their lands. In April 2017, tired of waiting for assistance from the government, the farmers started occupying hacienda lands awarded to them.

Portions of HLI have been gradually distributed to farmers in recent years, though this is mainly due to continued demands and pressure from farmer’s organizations and their supporters. However, a large portion of HLI still remains in the hands of the Cojuangco family.

These photos were taken on 09 June 2017 when, upon the invitation of the local farmer’s association, I joined a group of activists, students, and land rights supporters in participating in a “bungkalan.” The word literally means cultivation in English, but in the context of these land rights activists, the term has become synonymous with farmers occupying land that was rightfully theirs as well as collectively cultivating that land, with farmer’s associations managing the said activities for the community.

While the photos are not really that good, they still tell a story, one that I hope we can all learn lessons from. HLI is just one of numerous large agricultural estates that remain in the hands of the landed ruling elite in the Philippines. Genuine agrarian reform in the Philippines still seems like an unreachable dream, but it is one that land rights activists continue to fight for.


01 buwagin ang asyenda
The graffiti says “abolish Hacienda Luisita.” Though this is not the best photo in this essay, I wanted to put this here first because the message of the photo kind of sets the tone for the activity.
02 barbed wire
All around the HLI, you could see barbed wires such as this on placed on top of fences.
03 female leader
This woman is one of the leaders of the farmer’s association in the estate. A large percentage of the association’s most active members were women.
04 collective farming
The graffiti says “advance collective cultivation.” Numerous other graffiti could be found spray-painted on other walls all over the estate, such as the one below.
05 struggle for land and peace
“Struggle for land and peace.”
06 hacienda farmer
One of the thousands of farmers who cultivated Hacienda Luisita for decades.
07 high voltage
The warning was meant to ward off anyone who tried to scale the walls that enclosed the Hacienda.
08 barbed wire
But I and some of my colleagues were curious about what lay beyond the walls and barbed wires.

09 barbed wire

10 police
We took a peek, and lo and behold, state security forces were on stand by.
11 police
There were about 200 of them at that time. My heart was pounding, since those who were there during the massacre some 13 years before still remembered the role state forces played in the incident.
12 police armed
Members of the Philippine National Police displayed their high-powered rifles against unarmed protesters.

13 police car

14 down with feudalism
“Down with feudalism.”
15 bungkalan
The actual cultivation itself was an afternoon long exercise with students and other land rights advocates and supporters.
16 protesters
From left to right: “Abolish all haciendas;” “stop repression.”
17 longline protesters
The woman’s placard in the middle says “Abolish Hacienda Luisita.”

18 protesters looking on19 longline

20 buwagin
Land rights defenders continue to fight for their right to land.