‘We Are Farmers. We Are Not Terrorists’
A Q&A with a Filipino activist leading the fight for the rights of peasant farmers in their homeland
Early in the morning of August 10, Randall “Ka Randy” Echanis, 72, was murdered by unidentified assailants in his apartment in Quezon City, Metro Manila. Echanis was the chairman of the left-wing Anakpawis Partylist, and deputy secretary-general of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas — KMP, the Peasant Movement of the Philippines.
He joins a long list of human rights activists and farmers who, it is widely suspected, were killed by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte for fighting against feudal policies and defending the rights of peasants to own land.
Much of the farmland in the Philippines is concentrated in the hands of large corporations and wealthy families, a legacy largely shaped under centuries of Spanish colonial rule. In 1988, the government enacted the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which stipulated that the state would acquire and redistribute land to peasant farmers. But fierce opposition from landowners meant that acquisition and redistribution of land fell far short of what was projected. Duterte campaigned on the populist promise of redistribution, but since taking office in 2016, not only has he failed to deliver that land, he has cracked down on those who dare to fight for it.
According to a joint statement by KMP, The Oakland Institute, and A Growing Culture, since Duterte came to power, there have been 288 documented killings of peasants, farmworkers, and fisherfolk related to land dispute cases and advocacy for agrarian reform, including 87 farmers since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights corroborated that since 2015, more than 40 legal professionals have been killed, many of whom were advocating for land rights for farmers and indigenous peoples.
Since Duterte came to power, there have been 288 documented killings of peasants, farmworkers, and fisherfolk related to land dispute cases and advocacy for agrarian reform, including 87 farmers since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Authorities often label these targets as “communists” or “terrorists” — a process known as “red-tagging” — and many appear on hit lists that are circulated publicly and used by military, police, and vigilantes alike.
One week after Echanis was killed, on the evening of August 17, in Bacolod City on the island of Negros, Zara Alvarez, 39, was murdered by unidentified gunmen on her way home for dinner. She was a prominent activist and legal worker for Karapatan, a human rights group.
On August 22, a text message was sent to one of the offices of Karapatan with a list of names “subject for liquedition [sic].” The first name on the hit list was Zara Alvarez. According to an organizer with KMP, who, because of concerns for her safety, spoke to me under the condition of anonymity, members of Karapatan called the person who sent the text, and he admitted he was from the military.
To better understand the life of peasant farmers in the Philippines, the struggle for agrarian reform and justice, and the brutal crackdown of the Duterte regime, I interviewed Danilo Ramos, KMP’s national chairman. Ramos comes from multiple generations of poor farmers in Bulacan. His father died when he was 5 years old, and by the time he was 12, he had taken over many of the responsibilities on his family’s small farm. He has been fighting for land reform in the Philippines for decades and worked alongside Randall Echanis. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel Meyer: Your organization, KMP, is fighting for land reform. What are the exact reforms that you’re looking for? What are you hoping to change?
Danilo Ramos: Specifically, first, the right to own the land we till. And of course, our lobbying in the national government, since the founding of KMP in 1985, is to pursue or enact genuine land reform that recognizes and respects the rights of the farmers, seasonal farmworkers, and indigenous people who’ve tilled the land for so many years. There have been 35 years of continuing struggle for genuine land reform. And now, of course, food self-sufficiency and national food sovereignty.
Who owns the land that these farmers are working and why can’t they have access to it?
Here in the Philippines and, of course, in some other countries in Asia, basically the land we till is owned and controlled first by the big landlord. They own and control thousands of hectares in the Philippines. The second is Hacienda system remains. For example, Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac in Central Luzon. A big portion of the plant is owned and controlled by the Cojuangco-Aquino family. Imagine, 6,453 hectares — it’s almost as big as Manila City.
And the other is the big transnational corporations — the big plantations engage in agribusiness. They plant pineapples, bananas. For example, in Mindanao, Dole, Del Monte, Sumifru, and Lapanday Foods Corporation, they own and control hundreds, thousands of plants supposedly owned and controlled by the farmers themselves. But because of the policies and programs of the government, and, of course, prior, during the time of Ferdinand Marcos, and then during the time of Corazon Aquino…during her time, they enacted the comprehensive agrarian reform program, or Republic Act 6657. But there are many loopholes. So, the multinationals had ultimate control of the land for 10 years, 25 years, 50 years, or more. So, in short, in the Philippines exists feudal and semi-feudal exploitation all over our archipelago.
What’s the relationship like with these feudal landowners?
There is a tenancy relationship. For those lands covered under Operation Land Transfer, the farmer-beneficiaries received certificates of land transfer. But, you know, after the farmers obliged to pay amortization, in cash or in-kind, massive cancellation and complications happened for the farmers covered by that program. And even the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, they gave certificates of plant ownership, but later on, they were canceled and confiscated and many farmers were ejected from their lands.
So, the government set up a policy where the farmers would get the titles to the land transferred to them, but in reality, those got canceled or they didn’t go through, or the farmers got kicked off of their land?
Yes. They imposed, you know, market-assisted land reform. Our demand is first to give the land to the farmers, seasonal farmworkers, and also agricultural workers. And after that, the government must give support to increase agricultural production in terms of cash for production subsidy, and also, you know, post-harvest facilities. And the government must ensure to buy our products, especially palay and corn, which is our staple food.
A typical rice farmer, or grower of another staple crop, how much are they making?
Based on our case study, 130 to 133 pesos per day. So, if we convert it to U.S. dollars, more or less three dollars, no? Something like that. That amount is not sufficient for our daily costs of living, because according to the National Economic and Development Authority and the IBON Foundation, a Filipino family of five must earn at least 1,100 pesos a day.
To confirm: Your organization, KMP, and farmers across the country are fighting primarily for rights to own the land that you’re tilling, for reforms that ensure the government supports the crops that you’re producing, and to give you some real autonomy over your land and over your work. Is that right? Is that what you’re fighting for?
Yes. We’re fighting for our right to land and food. Land and food are very much connected. We have no food if we have no land. So, land and food mean life, no? So, no land, no food. No land and food mean no life. And no land, no community. So that’s why they’re fighting for land and for food because the right to food is very important to every citizen, not only the nation but the whole world.
The farmers and the activists who are fighting for land, who are fighting for food sovereignty, who are fighting for, as you say, “life,” they’re being killed at pretty alarming rates by agents of the government, we’ve been hearing. Why is this happening?
We as farmers, agriculture workers, and Indigenous people, we assert and defend our land, our right to own the land. And also we are opposing the anti-people projects and programs of the government under the Duterte administration, and also the expansion of plantations devoted to export and mining. So that’s why the persons pursuing or continuing the struggle for a right to own the land and defend our land and resources, we are the main target.
And now, you know, the anti-terrorism law, quote-unquote — the Duterte administration used that law, even in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. They pursue that kind of law so that the main target is not only the activists but also those people opposing and criticizing the anti-people programs and policies of the Duterte administration. As of today, there are 288 victims of extrajudicial killings — farmers, agricultural workers, and fisherfolks — in the whole of the Philippines.
And according to independent media organizations, more or less 30,000 people have been killed under the guise of the anti-drug campaign. That’s why we are urging the Duterte administration to stop, and justice for the victims of human rights.
Randall Echanis, on August 10, was brutally killed in Quezon City.
Can you tell me about Randall?
Randall Echanis, at a young age, he goes to the barrio, particularly in Northern Luzon, to organize the farmers, agricultural workers, the toiling masses in Cagayan Valley. After that, he was transferred to the national level in 1997. He worked at the peasant movement, and he helped to organize the agricultural workers at the national level. He was very active in the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) during the peace negotiation between NDFP and the Government Republic of the Philippines. In fact, he had a very significant role in drafting the comprehensive agreement on social-economic reform, which the two parties agreed upon in principle in the previous peace talks in Europe before the Duterte administration unilaterally stopped the talks between the two parties.
And, you know, more than 50 years of his life he devoted to the interest of the Filipino people. And not only that, Randall Echanis is an internationalist; he attended conferences in other parts of the world. As I remember, the conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Italy, he was the delegate of the peasant movement of the Philippines. Then also the first founding congress of the International League of Peoples’ Struggle in 2001 in the Netherlands; he was a Filipino delegate during that very important founding congress.
So, Ka Randy is a very respected person in the Philippines. He was committed, and he was three times detained during the time of the dictator Marcos, during Aquino, and the former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Then, after he was released, he continued to work pursuing land and justice — for peace based on justice here in the Philippines. So that’s why our demand is justice for Randall Echanis, justice for Zara Alvarez, and justice for all victims of extrajudicial killings under the Duterte administration.
So, what happened to Randall in the end? How was he targeted?
According to the witnesses close to his area, his neighbors, they observed an SUV parked regularly in front of his place during the month prior to his assassination. And also a lot of people going to his place asking for a vacant apartment. So, he was targeted. And based on our information gathered, five to seven people entered his room and they forcibly opened the door. They used the stairs because his apartment is on the third floor. Based on the forensic expert’s findings, the fatal one that killed Ka Randy was to his aorta, his esophagus. And according to the forensic expert, the assailant knew the body anatomy; knew which part of the body is fatal.
So, you know, during the time, in the national capital region, because of the lockdown, no person can travel after 8:00 p.m. until 5 in the morning. There are many checkpoints during that time. So, it is impossible that an ordinary person or citizen can do that. We believe that only the state forces can do that kind of very sophisticated operation. So, that’s why we are calling for justice for Ka Randy and justice for all victims of human rights in the Philippines.
So, ultimately, you concluded that it was people from the state, from the government, who must have been the only ones able to do this?
Yeah, we believe the state forces can do that.
What is it like for you to see one of your close colleagues in this fight, in this work, targeted like that? How does that make you feel?
You know, Daniel, after he was brutally killed, many of us cried, even the nuns. And the Filipino farmers and Filipino people mourn because they know Randall Echanis. He’s very friendly, very compassionate, and his life is dedicated to the toiling masses, to the Filipino people. So, that’s why during his burial, many people visited and sent different messages. And even when we bring his cadaver to the place where he lies, many people joined. And called for justice. After that, we formed last September 19 JEJA: Justice for Echanis, Justice For All.
Do you feel that your life is in danger?
Yes. Yes. Because aside from that, you know, there’s red-tagging. Many of our leaders, they put their name and photo in the tarpaulin, stating that they’re the recruiter of terrorists. So, our life is in danger because of red-tagging.
We are farmers. We are not terrorists. We produce food. So that’s why one of our important demands is to stop killing farmers. Stop killing peasants who feed the nation. And also we call on our colleagues that defend our rights, that defend people’s rights because we believe that we must strengthen our ranks as peasants and unite with other sectors.
We are farmers. We are not terrorists. We produce food. So that’s why one of our important demands is to stop killing farmers. Stop killing peasants who feed the nation.
So, that’s why for us, the peasant movement is very important to defend our legitimate and basic rights. It is enshrined in the constitution: freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and the right to form a union and association. We did not commit any crime.
Have you ever appeared in one of those red-tagging posters about being a terrorist recruiter?
For me, they haven’t mentioned my name, but KMP, our organization, nationwide. And in the past years, during the time of former general Jovito Palparan, for almost two years they’re looking for me and they want to assassinate me. Because aside from being peasant leaders calling for land reform, in 2004, we testified at the Philippine senate that during the time of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, 728 million pesos that were supposed to be used to buy fertilizers for farmers, no farmers received them. They were plundered, used by Arroyo for her campaign.
Most of the people who will read this interview, they’re all the way across the world in the United States, where our president, Donald Trump, happens to be a fairly outspoken supporter of Duterte. What message do you have for us? And most importantly, when it comes to the killing of farmers and activists in the Philippines and the reforms that you’re fighting for, what can we do to help?
First, we are calling President Donald Trump to stop military support — funds supporting the Filipino government specifically, or the anti-insurgency campaign. And also we call on the Filipino people, our compatriots, to support our cause. Call to stop killing farmers. Stop the attacks. And join with us. Calling for justice for Randall Echanis, Zara Alvarez, and calling for justice for the victims of human rights.
The European Parliament recently passed a resolution calling on the Duterte administration to stop the attack on the Filipino people. And we believe that is very important. We believe that under his term, we will not achieve genuine justice. So that’s why the international community and institution are very crucial and important, to pursue their independent investigation and make accountability. Because under the Duterte administration, there is impunity. No perpetrators and masterminds put in jail.
In addition to us calling on our elected officials to condemn Duterte, are there other ways that we can show support, through social media or by reaching out?
We believe that social media is very important to tell citizens from the United States and other parts of the world what is the reality, what’s happening in the Philippines: more hunger, poverty, human rights violations, attacking our basic and fundamental rights, especially the right to food, because as I mentioned, no land, no food. So that’s why we request the American people to post our position paper and our demands, and also the photos of victims. We believe that your support is very important. Your support is very vital to our call for land, food, and justice.
So that’s why we request the American people to post our position paper and our demands, and also the photos of victims. We believe that your support is very important. Your support is very vital to our call for land, food, and justice.
I want to ask you just one last question. We talked earlier about your colleague, Randall, and his death, and how you, and your colleagues, and your organization have been targeted for your work. I watched a short video about these killings where you appear in the video at the very end. You raise your fist, and you just say this: “Struggle. Do not be afraid.” Are you prepared to die for this fight?
Yeah, we are prepared. Because when we participated in this movement, we know that it is very risky. But, for us, it’s my honor, it’s our honor, that our work is for the people and serving the Filipino people, with solidarity with other peasants and toiling masses in the world, solidarity with the oppressed and exploited. We believe that it is our honor. And also we believe that the people united will never be defeated. So that’s why it’s very important to have international solidarity. So, long live international solidarity, and thank you so much for an opportunity to share our issues, our situation, our struggle, and what we are pursuing and doing here in the Philippines.
To show your support, KMP has suggested that you can urge your elected officials to condemn the human rights violations of the Duterte government, send messages of solidarity on Instagram or Twitter using the hashtag #StopKillingFarmers, or even just reach out to them to learn more about what’s happening on the ground.