The island of Negros is known as “the sugar bowl of the Philippines.” While the phrase might readily conjure the bountiful platters of leche flan, sans rival, and brazo de Mercedes that grace the tables at elite family gatherings in Bacolod, such scenes offer only one image of life on this agricultural island.
A panorama that unfurls beyond the gated communities of the capital city reveals disquieting contrasts. At the edges of the vast sugarcane fields that dominate the landscape lie clusters of bamboo and bare concrete houses where most of the island’s farming families live, malnourished. These jarring tableaus are a direct outcome of the hacienda system that was implanted here in the late Spanish colonial era and now controls virtually all social life on the island.
At the heart of this system is the several-month period of waiting between planting and harvesting known as tiempo muerto—or “dead time.” After the last fields have been sown in May, the new canes are left alone to shoot steadily upwards until their razor-sharp leaves tower above the workers who, come September, are recruited to harvest them when the season begins again. As the growing canes feed off imported chemical fertilizers, the sugar workers of Negros go hungry. Because these efficient, durable canes require little maintenance, laborers are denied work and wages during the off-season, a pattern they have endured for generations. Tiempo muerto is not a rupturing, exceptional episode, like a drought or flood. It is death built into the clockwork mandate of the sugar plantation.
In order to survive these periods of enforced starvation, hacienda workers have independently cultivated small pockets of their masters’ idle lands to grow sweet potatoes, pigeon peas, eggplant, okra, water spinach, and other crops. This practice is known as bungkalan (from the Tagalog verb bungkal: to till the soil, to dig out). Driven by the workers’ stubborn need to eat—and conceded by hacienda owners as a cheaper way to sustain their workforce—bungkalan embodies an insistence on preserving life in the face of an impossible structure. In this way, it echoes other practices across the world and through history that have similarly been born of the need to survive the plantation. We find resonances, for example, in the writing of Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter, who has theorized the space of the “plot” within the colonial plantation system of the Caribbean. Referring to the parcels of land that were given by planters to slaves so they could grow their own food, Wynter describes how the collective cultivation of various indigenous and African subsistence crops inside the plot was a way of maintaining an oppositional mode of life, a culture that was antithetical to the dominant market-oriented system in which it was embedded. “This culture recreated traditional values—use values,” Wynter writes. “This folk culture became a source of cultural guerilla resistance to the plantation system.”Sylvia Wynter, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou, No. 5 (June 1971), 100.
Recognizing a similarly resistant quality in bungkalan, leftist peasant organizations in the Philippines have consciously retooled it into a gesture of explicit protest. Acting on the state’s failure to effectively break up large landholdings in order to redistribute them to the millions of landless farmers in the country, as promised by the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, a political bungkalan movement for genuine agrarian reform began to emerge in the mid-2000s.The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program was initiated by the Corazon Aquino administration in 1988, in the wake of the Marcos dictatorship. While it was supposedly meant to strike at the root of long-entrenched feudal relations by redistributing land to the tillers, its promise has been largely impeded by built-in loopholes, feeble implementation, and the use of various evasion tactics, both legal and illegal, by the landed elite. Asserting their rights to land and food, organized peasants around the country have started occupying areas of disputed farmland and growing their own crops. This burgeoning movement has created a network for sharing knowledge and experience in both organic farming and political organizing. Seasoned peasant activists often move from one site to another, teaching farmers how to build legal claims or how to replace chemical fertilizer with a mixture of fermented fish guts, rice, and molasses. Communal bonds are born out of collective cultivation. At one bungkalan site we visited in Negros, no one in the community clocked work hours, as everyone was trusted to contribute what they were able. Despite repeated attempts by hired goons to destroy their crops and threaten them with violence, the members continued to farm with resolve. We were moved to hear this, especially as powerful landowners and state forces have responded to the bungkalan movement’s demands with escalating brutality, as noted in this article from 2019:
The Philippines was the deadliest country in the world for environmental and land activists in 2018 with at least 30 recorded deaths, according to a watchdog group.
… Global Witness said 18 percent of the 164 environment-related deaths recorded last year took place in the Philippines.
It is the first time the Philippines has topped the list since the organization began documenting killings linked to the environment and land protection.
In an average week last year, three people were killed while defending their land and the environment from industries such as mining, logging and agribusiness, the report said.
Among those killed in the Philippines last year were nine farmers working at a colonial-era sugarcane plantation in the central island of Negros.
On October 20, 2018, a bungkalan site in the city of Sagay was violently ambushed by a group of still-unidentified gunmen, resulting in the deaths of nine peasants, including women and children. The tragedy of this event, known as the Sagay Massacre, was further intensified when a human rights lawyer working on their case was shot dead on the street in broad daylight just three weeks later. These ten victims are only a few out of the many hundreds who have died in the fight for genuine agrarian reform in the country.
We understand that American readers may be struggling to center a narrative of plantation violence in the Philippine countryside within their embodied worldview. But it is important to keep in mind that when the United States made its late debut to colonialism at the turn of the twentieth century, engaging in a war against Spain in 1898 and, subsequently, against the newly founded First Philippine Republic, a large part of its incentive was to win access to raw resources, not only in the Philippines, but in Cuba and Puerto Rico as well. According to the analysis of Jose Maria Sison, the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the United States would continue to buttress the inhumanity of the hacienda system during its half-century rule in the Philippines and beyond, “conscious of the necessity of retaining feudalism so as to provide itself continuously with such raw materials as sugar, hemp, coconut, and other agricultural products.”Amado Guerrero (Jose Maria Sison), Philippine Society and Revolution, 5th ed. (Philippines: Aklat ng Bayan, Inc., 2006), 92. It is in this sense, Sison argues, “that domestic feudalism [in the Philippines] is the social base of US imperialism.”Guerrero, 64.
Sison’s historical overview speaks to the intimacy between the hacienda and contemporary capitalism, which continues to operate behind a political face of liberal democracy. In this way, we sense a kinship between Sison’s analysis and what philosopher Achille Mbembe has described as “necropolitics.” In his book of the same name, Mbembe demonstrates how liberal democracy has always expressed itself in “the subjugation of life to the power of death,” though the enactment of this violence has generally been “exteriorized in the colonies and other third places” and actively obscured by mythologies of “truth, reason, justice, and the common good.”Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019), 92, 27, 15. This is what allows the news of Third World peasant killings to register as an aberration, located squarely outside the walls of the civil society we believe we inhabit. But in actuality, “democracy, the plantation, and the colonial empire are objectively all part of the same historical matrix. This originary and structuring fact lies at the heart of every historical understanding of the violence of the contemporary global order.”Mbembe, 23.
Taking Mbembe’s words to heart, we want to propose that a sincere recognition of the deaths of farmers in the Philippines, from murder or poverty, should involve a fundamental rethinking of democracy. Such a rethinking would foreground the difficult work of mourning—mourning understood here as a form of collective labor. To grieve over the death at the core of our existing democracy would be one way to articulate a demand, on ourselves and on others, for new modes of political responsibility and action. In his essay “Mourning and Militancy,” art historian Douglas Crimp wrote of American AIDS activism in the 1980s by addressing the deep cross-entanglement of grief and anger within the process of shaping a collective political response to a normalized situation of brutality. The text describes in sensitive detail how the “profound sadness” of the gay community in reaction to the deaths of friends and lovers couldn’t be expressed in any straightforward way, given a homophobic civil society that refused to recognize these deaths as losses.Douglas Crimp, “Mourning and Militancy,” October, Vol. 51 (Winter, 1989), 18. Under such conditions, grief itself became a form of civil disobedience, linking it inherently to activism. With a poetic stutter, the essay ends by calling for “militancy, of course, then, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”Crimp, 18.
Suggesting the unlikely ways that grief can find comrades across disparate experiences of oppression, Crimp’s words have resonated, for us, with the hundreds of Filipino farmers who have responded to a regime of death with the militant practice of bungkalan. It is worth noting that this movement devotes much energy to recognizing the names of activists lost to political violence, making sure that every death is counted, publicized, commemorated, and, as much as possible, investigated. But we also want to suggest that the sense of loss that lies at the core of this movement extends beyond these individual victims and cuts much deeper. Mbembe tells us that “for a large share of humanity, the end of the world has already occurred.”Mbembe, 29. He is referring to the ruptures produced by the colony and by the plantation, the shattering to pieces of preexisting social relations and livelihoods; ways of growing food, caring for the sick, and burying the dead; languages, spirits, and terrains. It is painful to scan the unending horizon of sugar fields in Negros, perversely resembling blown-up versions of suburban American lawns, and to remember that once there was dense, lush forest.
But still, “a life is always there after the end.”Mbembe, 29. When Wynter revisits the “secretive history” of the plot, it is in order to locate a survivalist imagination that was there all along in the heart of the necropolitical plantation order.Wynter, 101. Insisting that the change that needed to happen never came, even after the plantation was reformed, her reading generously offers a path for the change that can still happen—by way of the plot.
Thus far, we have discussed bungkalan first as a practical means of survival and second as a form of militant political resistance. We want to turn now to a recent bungkalan initiative that self-consciously adapts it to imagine an alternative futurity for the cultural field. Currently, a Manila-based artist alliance called SAKA (Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo, or Artist Alliance for Genuine Agrarian Reform and Rural Development) is collaborating with members of a small farming community in order to maintain a bungkalan site on one of the last remaining pieces of agricultural land in Metro Manila. This land is being claimed by both the farming community and the University of the Philippines, which is threatening to develop what is now a coveted piece of real estate. Every weekend, the artists of SAKA have been gathering at the site to farm together. Most of them have little prior experience, but they have been able to source knowledge from farmers in the community as well as from experienced peasant activists from national organizations such as UMA (Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura, or the Federation of Agricultural Workers). It has been a struggle to reorient their city bodies around the stubborn demands of the land and the unpredictable exigencies of the weather. Still, they continue to show up every Saturday, as dawn breaks mistily over the grassy field, exchanging tools and sleepy chatter while collectively working to coax vegetables out of the earth with intentionality, clarity, and compassion. In a context where cultural activity plays overwhelmingly to the desires of the ruling class, the artists of SAKA are nurturing an alternative cultural imaginary, aligned with a larger political movement and centered around the growing of food.The owner of Silverlens, the most internationally prominent commercial gallery in the Philippines, is a member of the family that owns Lapanday Foods Corporation, one of the country’s largest agribusiness companies. In December 2016, Lapanday security forces open fired on protesting farmers in the province of Davao del Norte, just a few months before Silverlens unveiled its impressive new gallery space in the Lapanday compound in Manila. While many in the broader art community seemed willing to overlook the incident, a young artist collective called WALA produced a virtual exhibition directly addressing it.
As artists ourselves, we find such a proposition extremely compelling, because it relocates culture to the domain of collective survival and struggle. By seeking to learn from the innovative practices of the Filipino peasantry in order to fundamentally rethink what it means to be both an artist and a citizen beyond the conditions we were dealt, SAKA engages a wide, planetary outlook, one that allows it to articulate other kinds of desires within and beyond the specificity of its aligned struggle. This persistent unsettling of received ideas is also, in a deep and vital way, a gesture towards laying our dead to rest.
Examining the thinking of artists as citizens and change-makers, the Artist Op-Eds series features commissioned essays in response to the headlines by contributors including Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Postcommodity, Gordon Hall, Dread Scott, and others. Taking inspiration from artistic and political leafletting throughout history, each op-ed is also available as a print-on-demand pamphlet.