Who owns the Philippines?

Three conflicts going on right now in the Philippines illustrate just how high the stakes are in struggles over rights and resources around the world.

I got an email this morning from Esther Penunia, secretary general of the Manila-based Asia Farmers Association and IATP board member, informing me that the Supreme Court of the Philippines has ordered that the country’s second-largest family-owned plantation should be divided up among 6000 farm families. (See the New York Times story on this decision.) Although the amount of land and number of beneficiaries is limited, the decision has a much larger significance. The distribution of land and wealth in the Philippines have remained staggeringly unequal since colonial times, and one of the most prominent popular demands following the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 was for land reform, but until now, the country’s plutocrats had skillfully used their influence over the government and courts to prevent any meaningful redistribution. After 25 years, the Philippines is taking a huge step toward realizing the People Power Revolution’s vision of equality and democracy. “We feel that this is social justice,” Esther said of the decision.

But the country’s famous ruling families are not the only threat to the rights of Filipino farmers. In recent years, and especially following the 2007-08 food crisis, international investors have been acquiring land rights on a massive scale to produce food, feed and fuel for international markets. So while the Supreme Court is beginning to undo longstanding inequities in landholdings, the Filipino Congress is taking up a law that would limit this new wave of land grabbing by foreign investors. According to Walden Bello, the sponsor of anti-land grab legislation,


This is based on the premise that the Filipino population, especially the basic sectors, should have preferential use of and benefit from our land resources, and that our national interest, food security, cultural integrity, healthy environment and right to self determination be protected and upheld in any investment agreement entered into between the Philippine entity and its foreign counterpart involving the use of land in the country.


On an even larger international stage, the Philippines is in a dangerous dispute with China over a small island off the Manila Coast. The island is one of hundreds in the South China Sea that are claimed by more than one country; some are claimed by four! The sovereignty conflicts have simmered for decades, but the new assertiveness of China on the world stage, along with the same jump in commodity prices that is fuelling land grabs, have ratcheted up the urgency and the stakes. (The marine region is an important fishery for many countries in Asia, and more importantly, is also reported to hold large, unexploited oil and gas reserves.) So has the American “Pivot to Asia.” The Times of India reports that China has reacted angrily to joint US-Philippine war games being staged this week which include “a mock assault to retake a small island in energy-rich waters disputed with China.”