In this special episode produced in collaboration with BEBESEA, Levi Masuli hosts an audio documentary telling the story of former migrants turned riverside vegetable farmers in Santa Ana of the Rizal Province, Philippines.
Host and Producer: Levi Masuli, New Naratif x BEBESEA Story Fellow
Transcript available below.
Hi. This is Bonnibel Rambatan, Editorial Manager for New Naratif and your usual host for this show. Today, though, I won’t be hosting, as we have a very special episode for you. It’s not going to be an interview in the usual sense, although it will feature several interviews with a few sources. You can say it’s more like an audio documentary.
The episode will be presented to you by Levi Masuli, who will be telling the story of former migrants turned riverside vegetable farmers in Santa Ana of the Rizal Province, Philippines. Without further ado, here is “Santa Ana: Stories by the Riverside”.
Holcim Philippines, a multinational cement industry giant reported a 79% loss in income in 2022.
But for the vegetable farmers in Santa Ana, Rizal, a community at the edge of the Marikina River, just below the mountains of Montalban, right across the urban slums of Metro Manila, life isn’t about sheer strength and resilience, but one’s ability to adapt to the flow.
Edited interview, September 17, 2022, Tatay Iko’s hut
You have to hack out the original soil underneath, to work it out. Because these roots are covering it, you have to dig through it like that. So if you put in the seed, cover it, it will be more likely to sprout because the soil is not too compact and hard.
Tatay Iko was an OFW – an overseas migrant worker – for more than 20 years, before settling down in Santa. Ana to till the land. We see the 74 year old man hack at the hard earth, talking about working the hard surface to spill its fertile guts and let it receive the seeds he has in hand.
God first made these plants before he made people. He said, you have to look for your sustenance in them. If we refer to the Bible, God said that through the fruits of your labor, you will live, until you return to the earth. Because that is where we came from.
We’re calling on the people in power to take a look. I’m already 74 years old, is it right for me to continue hacking the earth all day because of the lack of supply from the Department of Agriculture? What we really need are tractors, equipment, even light ones, that we can use.
Tatay Iko shares having spent decades in the vast deserts of the Middle East, trading his strength for foreign bills, to dig up precious oil from the fossils of the ancient world, now lifeblood of the modern world. Driven by the need to feed his family and finding greener pastures in dry dunes thousands of miles away, Tatay Iko’s story resonates with many others in Santa Ana and the whole so-called Global South.
We’re grateful when some people visit us, they give us even two tablespoons of seeds. We’re already very grateful for that because we’re not receiving anything from the Department of Agriculture. What we really need are tractors, equipment, even light ones, that we can use.
November 1, 2022, Sta. Ana Covered Court
South. A river always flows south, downstream. And now the the rain comes, again, and multiplies the river tenfold. Nanay Marissa lives just a few meters south of Tatay Iko’s makeshift hut, making a living out of stitching rags and reselling stuff off the Internet. She also was a migrant workers, and was taking care of other people’s homes.
We haven’t even recovered from Typhoon Carding, my clothes and things were still wet, when another typhoon hit, Typhoon Paeng. Even if I was not feeling well, I forced myself to get plywood from the flood debris. I cleaned them even when I was feeling unwell.
She will be spending her last night at the covered basketball court, because the mayor told them that they had to leave because there will be a basketball tournament tomorrow.
There was a time when they told us to leave because the covered court was supposed to be used for a school event. I was really struck, I felt pity for myself, they told us to leave just like that. We didn’t know or choose what happened to us. The government should give attention to those who are always affected by the floods.
February 15, 2023
The land cannot be own, yet the people are forced to leave it to survive from the larger, more cruel rapids, the flow of capital and profit, more ferocious than any river, pushing to carry them off to faraway shores.
A Despi is a community organiser of Damayang Migrante, a network of migrant advocate, she has been working with the vegetable farmers since 2020.
So when we think of turning the commons into private property, fencing off resources, this results in the exclusion of a community, the denial of the community’s access to resources that was once accessible to them or shared among them.
For the property owner, the main objective is to make a profit. And with this mentality, it becomes very easy for resources to be over-extracted or used without regards or with very little regards to sustainability or holistic development.
They’re less likely to take into account a project’s impact on people, the environment and even its non-human inhabitants. It’s a kind of thinking that looks at concrete infrastructure, skyways, and wider lanes as an indication of progress.
We can see that in the case of the riverside vegetable farmers on their growing concerns about the sewage treatment plant that’s going to be put in their community. There’s this private water concessionaire that’s laying the groundwork for the treatment plant that’s said to be operational by 2025.
And when you visit the riverside, there’s this backhoe that’s widening the pathway and has already encroached on a portion of the farmland that these agricultural workers have been tilling for years and decades.
This water concessionaire has already bought some parcels of this productive, fertile land at such a low cost because they had to pierce through it to make way for the treatment plant. Now this didn’t happen with any townhall or any consultation with the vegetable farmers in the area, and there is no given assurance of them that whatever land is remaining will not be further encroached on.
So one of tillers, the vice president of the local farmer association has even speculated that the infrastructure being built might aggravate the flooding in the area. He mentioned that he noticed the water brought by the recent typhoons have subsided more slowly since the early construction phase started.
Every monsoon season, a massive problem for the farmers has been their crops getting waterlogged by the heavy rains and the nearby river overflowing. Plus the province of Rizal is also at the foothills of the Sierra Madre, and there’s also the issue of quarrying operations in the municipality and the neighbouring municipalities, possibly weakening the capacity of watershed areas to control the amount of rainwater going downstream.
For quite some time there has been several environmental challenges that the farmers have been contending with, and here is potentially another one.
So we can see that the farmers are up against a private enterprise here, and in the eyes of the local government, their concerns don’t hold as much weight as the water concessionaire’s investors or stakeholders.
January 8, 2023, Cristobal Farm
My name is Alfredo Cristobal, a farmer. Right now I’m tending to the plants, not sure if I’ll succeed because the other day, the river grew, fortunately it didn’t reach the plants. Right now after the raining stopped, I’m dealing with worms. Which is why I’m here to monitor the plants.
When I was younger, maybe I was 20 years old, we used to catch all sorts of fish there. We did not think about where we’ll get our lunch. But when the landfill opened, all of those fish disappeared.
The Payatas dumpsite, right? Then the Montalban landfill. When the river started to become polluted, all the fish were gone.
Tatay Ido spent all of his life in Santa Ana. But things are changing, and he wants to give his children the option to leave and get a better life elsewhere.
Yes, because the garbage sludge flows into the river. During the dry season, even washing your hands is not possible, it stinks. Like sewage.
Tatay Ido says the stench becomes worse during the dry season, when the river spreads itself too thin and the garbage juice ferments faster. He says the toxic sludge also affects the crops. It brings in unexplainable blights that turn leaves into a devilish red, worms that can decimate a harvest in a single night.
Well, the garbage sludge and the air, those are bad for the plants. The worms suddenly attack. Worms, mosquitos, there are a lot of mosquitos when the sludge flows. And it really reeks.
Then he brings up the quarrying in the mountains of the Sierra Madre where the river’s headwaters spring forth. The silt that the big quarrying companies spill into the waters have piled up over the years and made the river a lot shallower. Thus–
(Cut into Holcim ad)
(Cut into: Landslide sound, increases in volume then suddenly cuts off at the peak)
February 15, 2023
But the fight for land in life is narrow sorrow in tragedy. In the south of Metro Manilla, a progressive group of farmers, scientists, and advocates have showed that something can be done.
And I think what’s being done by a progressive group of farmers in Lupang Ramos is worth emulating. Basically, Lupang Ramos is a 370-hectare patch of land in the province of Cavite that has a long history of dispute.
It’s gone to the hands of Spanish friars, American colonizers and in the 1960s, it was claimed by a landed family, the Ramos clan through their real estate company. In the 70s, a local ordinance in Cavite designated the land as a residential subdivision, and with that the threat of tillers being evicted from the land.
In the 90s, more disputes followed by periods when the farmers would occupy the riverside and the flatter areas to take back what is rightfully theirs. They sowed rice and corn but their efforts were met with threats.
Armed guards barricaded the farmers, roamed the land and harassed them according to one of the residents. Goons also tried to flatten their crops with tractor, but the women and children stood in front of them to stop them from destroying the fruits of their labor.
So this determined group of farmers sought the help of agrarian law experts and found loopholes in the Supreme Court ruling and ordinance that allowed the estate developer to turn the land into a residential area, as a result of KASAMA-LR disputing that ordinance and building a case to revise the Supreme Court decision, they were able to get equipment and funding from the Department of Agriculture.
In 2017, they successfully reclaimed 51 hectare of land for bungkalan or communal farming. And through these collective efforts, they were able to manage the land properly and the residents reaped the benefits.
With the help of MASIPAG which is a network of farmers and scientists that promote agroecology, they were able to heal the land through pro-people and ecologically-sound farming methods. The dominant food systems of food production rely mainly on mono-cropping and intensive use of chemical inputs from transnational corporations.
KASAMA-LR is building an alternative that is more climate-resilient and holistic.And because they’re not reliant on imports, because the Philippines is actually a net importer of fertilisers, we import 95 percent of it they’re making steps towards food sovereignty.
What’s amazing also is their approaches are democratically-planned, needs-based, and crops are planted for their own and their community’s subsistence which is a contrast to what we have in the south of the country where we have pineapple and banana plantations that serve the needs of countries such as the US and Japan. So, KASAMA-LR has a motto that is worth scaling up if food security is a priority.
I think these are some of the lessons that we can share with the Rizal farmers, that KASAMA-LR’s continuous fight for their right to till the land as a collective and the wins that they’ve had is a result of consistent organizing, educating, and raising the consciousness of their fellow members, as well as building networks of solidarity with agrarian reforms advocates and law experts.
For the Rizal farmers to push for mitigation strategies and resiliency in the face of massive deforestations, land grabbing, and quarry operations and consequent river siltation that aggravates flooding, it may help to consult with experts, engineers, and even environmental advocates to build a proposal that can be presented to the local government.
The challenge is there is a tendency for the riverside farmers to be individualistic. So as organisers, as advocates, the task falls on us to immerse ourselves in their communities, have regular consultations, spark conversations about the plights of tillers in different parts of the country while highlighting the ones that have collectively asserted their rights and made gains while learning from them, learning about them, and sharing stories of those who have struggled and continue to do so, it’s our hope that they can be emboldened by those who have fought and won.
We ask Tatay Ido what he thinks is the most beautiful sound he has ever heard.
The sound of the truck. Haha.
Haha. No, that, listen to that.
When I still had some geese, I really liked the sound here in the early morning.
When I have visitors, (imitates the sound of geese).
The turkey usually responds, (imitates the sound of a turkey). Haha.
Tatay Ido asks, who owns the mountains, who owns the river, who owns all this? We said, no one. He replied, so who gave them the right to level that mountain? He laughs and we laugh with him, I thought I heard the river laugh at us.
What is a river but many tiny drops of rain? the wisp of storms that rises from the seas and covers the earth, the beads of sweat of every toiling body, the glass of water that quenches the thirst – this river has seen everything.
We share a minute of silence watching the river in awe of its relentless vertical flow that can turn rock into mud, that can level anything on its way.
This episode was written, hosted, and produced by Levi Masuli, with additional engineering by Dania Joedo. Levi Masuli is a sound artist and community organiser for Migrante Philippines, whose community work focuses on strengthening local migrants’ formations, providing education, and empowering their capacity for political mobilisation and cultural expression.
This Southeast Asia Dispatches special episode was brought to you by New Naratif and made possible by the BEBESEA Story Fellowship. Find other stories produced in this fellowship, and find out more about what you can do to support migrant workers, stateless people, and other displaced populations at newnaratif.com/story-fellowship.
My name is Bonnibel Rambatan, and I’ll see you around.