Farmers, fisherfolk denounce Balikatan exercises

Apprehension also stems from a previous fishing ban and alleged encroachment of lands of farmers, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples

Anti-peasant? The 28th Balikatan exercises allegedly threaten the livelihood of farmers.

 

MANILA, Philippines – When you hear the phrase “war games,” what comes to mind?

Thousands of American soldiers in their Phthalo green fatigue holding drills alongside Filipino troops, the controversial rape case involving a Filipina we knew as “Nicole” and Lance Corporal Daniel Smith in 2005, the ghosts of the Subic military base, and prostitution in the early ’90s.

For the fisherfolk and farmer-groups in Central Luzon, however, “war games” evoke the fear of loss of livelihood and wariness about a purported fishing ban.

The regional farmers organization Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson or AMGL (Farmers’ Alliance in Central Luzon) expressed concern about the 28th Balikatan military exercises, which began on Monday, April 16.

The group’s apprehension stemmed from a fishing ban allegedly put in place in the previous Balikatan military exercises — particularly in Barangay San Miguel, San Antonio, Zambales.

This also happened in Bicol. In 2008, the local government reportedly enforced a “fishing ban” by implementing a curfew in the towns of Tiwi, Tabacco, and Malilipot in Albay province. Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas, a nationwide group of fishermen, said then that the curfew affected around 10,000 fisherfolk. 

Encroaching on land

The present 2-week war games involving 4,500 US troops and over 2,300 Filipino soldiers will be conducted in Palawan and mainland Luzon. The military exercises started amid rising tensions between the Philippines and China over the latter’s alleged intrusion in Scarborough Shoal, which is also called Panatag Shoal.  

AMGL stressed that the venues of the exercises — the Clark Airbase and Basa Airbase in Angeles City and Floridablanca, Pampanga; Subic in Zambales; Crow Valley in Camp O’ Donnel in Capas, Tarlac; and Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija — cover lands where not only farmers, but also the Aeta tribal community plant crops. Fisherfolk, on the other hand, go to the bay area in Zambales for their daily catch.

“The Balikatan exercises treat farmers and fisherfolk as mere pests as they are totally driven off their lands, their rights to livelihood are totally trampled upon. We totally condemn this recurring incident,” AMGL spokesman Joseph Canlas said.

Maj Emmanuel Garcia said, however, that the allegations are baseless. For one, he said there is “no sea or civilian farm” in the military camps. He added that the Balikatan exercises will be “mutually beneficial.”

“We would like to assure our people that the Balikatan exercise intends to upgrade our interoperability with US troops, not only in traditional military combat exercise, but for humanitarian assistance and disaster response,” he told Rappler in a phone interview.

Land disputes

But AMLG also raised the case of Crow Valley, a military reservation which is part of the ancestral domain of the Aetas. Twelve years ago, the reported displacement of the Aeta tribal community from Crow Valley hit the headlines, as the Department of National Defense allegedly disregarded the tribe’s ancestral domain claim.

The Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (the VFA covers the Balikatan exercises) admitted they have to enforce “extra measures” to ensure that tribal communities are not affected by the Balikatan exercises.  

A Camp Palacio has been constructed in Crow Valley, where 60 US marine forces from the Combat Logistics Battalion 3 will stay. The US forces arrived in March.

Land disputes involving military camps is a thorny issue. Over 3,000 hectares of the 73,000-hectare Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija has been the subject of ongoing protests by around 6,000 farmers who said the land belongs to them under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. 

Lt Tala Servidad, spokeswoman of 7th Infantry Division, said however, that a Supreme Court ruling already confirmed the government’s ownership of the disputed area. Servidad said that in the case, Diaz v. the Philippines, then Justice Renato Corona penned that the area is a forest land even before it was turned into the Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation and was already classified as inalienable. 

As to the alleged displacement of the Aetas, Servidad said they are now engaged in a dialogue with the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. – Rappler.com