Every Saturday, members of the Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA) gather around a plot of disputed land near UP Diliman to till the soil and grow various vegetables. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On an early Saturday morning, a vibrant community near the University of the Philippines-Diliman bustles with activity. Various stores line up the narrow main street leading to a barangay health center, with vendors selling vegetables, poultry, fruits, and other raw ingredients to early weekend risers. Makeshift stalls in the street offer a variety of breakfast fare: spaghetti, pancit, suman, and buko juice to wash it all down.

Yet somewhere around the community — in disputed land near the university — a slightly different place exists. Rice plants stand tall against a backdrop of high-rises in the unlikeliest of places, and a vacant plot is tilled with bahay-kubo vegetables by a group of young individuals eager to let residents know that yes, they can still grow produce here.

Every Saturday, members of the Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA), an alliance of artists, cultural workers, and knowledge economy workers, gather around this area to coax the soil for growth. Already there are a few mustard greens, fresh and seemingly ripe for picking. But that day, the agenda is to weed and to aerate the soil.

Donna Miranda, an NGO worker, is one of the participants of SAKA’s bungkalan: a collective movement aimed to advance land reform and food sovereignty through organic and sustainable agriculture. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

“Meron kasing ibang ‘di umusbong, i-inventory ‘yung mga hindi umusbong,” says Donna Miranda, an NGO worker who is part of SAKA. “Natutunan namin na kaya hindi umusbong, kasi hindi buhaghag enough ‘yung lupa.”

In the midst of a Philippine agricultural crisis, Miranda and her companions practice bungkalan: a collective movement aimed to advance land reform and food sovereignty through organic and sustainable agriculture. Farmers and agricultural workers have been doing it for years, from azucareras in Tarlac and Negros to plantations in Mindanao and Central Luzon. But the term might be new, especially for people who dwell in the city.

At its core, bungkalan is simply backyard farming — for social justice and sustainability, as protest and advocacy.

“Bungkalan is something that the farmers really need,” says Angie Ipong of the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura. “First of all, ang gusto ng magsasaka talaga magkaroon siya ng lupa.” Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Bungkalan — the rootword of which means ‘to till’ — has always been at the heart of the mass movement for genuine land reform. “Medyo disservice gumawa ng totoong kasaysayan ng bungkalan, kasi gagawin naman siya at gagawin,” says Miranda.

“Bungkalan is something that the farmers really need,” says Angie Ipong of the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA), a federation of agricultural workers in the Philippines. “First of all, ang gusto ng magsasaka talaga magkaroon siya ng lupa.”

UMA, together with the UP Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, published a book titled “Bungkalan: Manwal sa Organikong Pagsasaka” in 2017. It’s a book revered as an essential manual for anyone interested in the “critical intersection between organic farming and healthy eating on one hand, and issues like land ownership and food sovereignty, on the other.” The book’s lessons transcend rural areas; even urban farmers refer to it for their edible gardens.

Bungkalan addresses two basic issues farmers face: control of the land they till, and food security.

The history of the Philippines is a history of land conflict. From the Spanish era, “alipin ang mga magsasaka,” says Ipong, and there never has been genuine land reform, even with the passage of laws like the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

“Until now, big landholdings exist. Tingnan mo ang Hacienda Luisita, tingnan mo ang Negros, ‘di naman talaga na-distribute iyan,” she says. “Tingnan mo ang Coron, [Palawan]. Marami pa, despite may sinasabi na CARP, they were never distributed.”

While bungkalan has always existed in principle, bungkalan as a mass movement traces its roots to Hacienda Luisita, when farmers picketed and were killed while rallying for better wages and regular work. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Farmers possess Certificates of Land Ownership Award (CLOA), but they lease them to multinational corporations. This is not genuine land reform, according to Ipong. “Ang land reform, it does not just mean na binigay sa‘yo ang lupa. Kasi halimbawa, sa Hacienda Luisita, binigay ang lupa, pero wala namang suportang serbisyo, walang kapital. Kaya ang nangyari, binalik ulit. Ninety percent of the land naibalik sa mga Cojuangco.”

While bungkalan has always existed in principle, bungkalan as a mass movement traces its roots to Hacienda Luisita, when farmers picketed and were killed while rallying for better wages and regular work.

Seven people died and hundreds were wounded in the Hacienda Luisita Massacre of 2004, when soldiers violently dispersed agricultural workers from picket lines. Their response was to form even more picketlines, from which the bungkalan movement — to sustain and feed the workers as they protested — was organized.

It has been more than a decade since, and even as the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is set to finish distributing Hacienda Luisita land, agricultural workers continue to fight for free land distribution and justice for their workers, promoting bungkalan as an essential part of the struggle.

Mustard greens or mustasa grow in SAKA’s backyard garden. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

The call is to be self-sustaining, for everyone to use available materials in cultivating their own backyard farms. “We call on everyone na, may mga farmers na may lupa, kahit around their houses … plant, produce,” Ipong says. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

The second essential aspect of bungkalan is food security. In a year, farmers and agricultural workers experience tiempo muerto or dead season. “May to September, walang milling, walang trabaho ang manggagawang bukid,” says Ipong. “So anong gagawin nila? They want to till land just so they could have something to eat.”

The call is to be self-sustaining, for everyone to use available materials in cultivating their own backyard farms. “We call on everyone na, may mga farmers na may lupa, kahit around their houses … plant, produce,” Ipong says. “Home-based food production is very important and should be a mass movement.”

Ipong also reiterates a call away from monoculture farming, harmful chemical fertilizers, commercialized seed sources — practices that originated in Ferdinand Marcos’ Green Revolution, which valued singular, high-yielding, and chemical-dependent crop varieties, which resulted to farmers being mired in debt.

“Rather than buy all of those napaka-expensive [seeds], na nilalako ng transnational corporations, na hindi tayo ‘yung nag-bebenepisyo, sila naman … Ang gusto natin, paradigm shift,” adds Ipong. “From the highly chemical seeds natin na binibili, gusto natin na bumalik tayo sa ideya ng organic farming system. Scientific din ‘yan, kasi umaangkop yan sa kalikasan, umaangkop yan sa natural ways.”

“Kung merong pwersa sa lipunan na pinaka-involved sa new, sa paghahanap ng bagong porma, o expression, paghahanap ng bagong arrangement ng lipunan, ang pinaka-invested talaga doon ‘yung artists,” says Miranda. In photo: SAKA members Alon Segarra, Donna Miranda, Angelo Suarez, Yo Salazar, Rogene Gonzales, and Karla Ipong. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

In Metro Manila, SAKA has adopted bungkalan in the disputed land near UP. In the context of the alliance’s loose membership of artists and cultural and knowledge workers, bungkalan is a creative way to express farmers’ assertions over land — part of an initiative they call “cultivating the new – paglilinang ng bago.”

“Kung merong pwersa sa lipunan na pinaka-involved sa new, sa paghahanap ng bagong porma, o expression, paghahanap ng bagong arrangement ng lipunan, ang pinaka-invested talaga doon ‘yung artists,” says Miranda. “Nakita namin na side by side ‘yung pag-question ng artist sa patronage and feudal system sa laban ng magsasaka na kalabanin ‘yung pyudal na sistema na nag-aalipin sa kanila.”

Miranda herself is a choreographer with a day job as an NGO worker. With her are Angelo Suarez, a poet and works in advertising; Karla Ipong, a historian and researcher, and Angie’s daughter; Yo Salazar, a photographer and art teacher; Alon Segarra, who freelances in theater; and Rogene Gonzales, a ‘gig-maker’ who also publishes zines. The group closely coordinates with peasant organizations such as UMA, Kilusan ng Mambubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), Amihan Women, and Pamalakaya Fisherfolk.

Every Saturday for two months now, SAKA encourages like-minded people to help them till the land near UP, both as a practical experience and a show of solidarity for farmers and agricultural workers. “Naisip namin, kung isinusulong natin ang kilusang agraryo at ‘yung struggles ng peasant, mainam na maintindihan natin kung gaano kahirap magbungkal ng lupa, kung gaano katagal mag-intay ng tanim, kung ano ba ‘yung mga kinakaharap ng magsasaka,” says Suarez.

Historian and teacher Karla Ipong. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Freelancer Alon Segarra. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

They are not farmers, but they are invested in making bungkalan work in that small plot of farmland. But it’s not without challenges: the land is difficult to work with, irrigation is almost non-existent, and the dry season means they have to visit the plot every once in a while, for watering.

The resident farmers in the area have also taken up other means of livelihood, and are skeptical if something will even grow out of SAKA’s bungkalan initiative. “May organic farming na sila dito dati eh,” recounts Suarez. “Nag-workshop na dito dati ng agri-ecology. Hindi na-sustain.”

Residents also live in a precarious, unstable environment: There is “low intensity passive harassment,” says Miranda. “Hindi malawakan, isang-bagsak na harassment, na ‘lumayas na kayo, informal settlers.’ Ginagawa niya, inuunti nila ‘yung community, pinaghihiwa-hiwalay.”

Various areas near UP are set for demolition, according to recent reports. Alyansa ng mga Samahan sa UP Diliman said that in accordance with the UP Master Development Plan, the UP administration is planning to clear out areas, such as the one near SAKA’s bungkalan project, for a partnership with property developers.

How then can residents still be engaged in bungkalan? “Skeptical sila kasi in danger sila na mapaalis sa lupa na ito, sa kanilang community,” says Karla Ipong. “So what’s the point na magtanim, eh paaalisin din naman kami?”

“Kung isinusulong natin ang kilusang agraryo at ‘yung struggles ng peasant, mainam na maintindihan natin kung gaano kahirap magbungkal ng lupa, kung gaano katagal mag-intay ng tanim, kung ano ba ‘yung mga kinakaharap ng magsasaka,” says poet Angelo Suarez. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

Bungkalan in their small plot is not without challenges: the land is difficult to work with, irrigation is almost non-existent, and the dry season means they have to visit the plot every once in a while, for watering. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

What SAKA does is couple efforts to cultivate the land with community consultations. This includes a plan to go house-to-house, explaining to residents what they do, as well as engaging local candidates on issues that affect the community, such as the threat of demolition.

All these tie up with current issues — rice tariffication and importation, the high cost of goods, and land-use conversion, among many others. “Particularly sa Metro Manila, tingin namin, mahalagang itampok siya, kasi si Duterte, minamadali niya ‘yung land use conversion,” adds Suarez. “Ayaw niyang kilalanin na may agricultural land dito, gagawin niyang commercial … Kaya ‘yung long view lagi ng bungkalan ay genuine agrarian reform para maibahagi ‘yung lupa sa magsasaka.”

There are successes: data from the Ibon Foundation, says Miranda, show that 6,000 hectares of contested land has been coverted to bungkalan. “Mahigit sa 10,000 pamilya na ang nag-benefit sa bungkalan,” she says. “‘Yun na lang ang ginagamit nilang benchmark. Kasi unstable ‘yung bungkalan, maari siyang baklasin any time, depende sa assertion ng komunidad.”

Bungkalan demands that in the process of food production, we think about the workers who have toiled away much, but have received little; and that we engage these sectors everytime we talk about farming and agriculture. Photo by NIKKI BONUEL

In Metro Manila, bungkalan occupies a much-neglected gap in discussions about sustainable and ethical farming practices, which can often lose meaning as mere buzzwords reserved for the next hip restaurant or food trend. While the practice of backyard and organic farming is not new, bungkalan grounds it in the collective history of farmers whose efforts for systematic reform still remain largely unrecognized.

From what bungkalan teaches, it’s not sustainable if your eating habits do not benefit the persons who grow your food. It’s not ethical if your consumption supports the exploitation of farmers.

Bungkalan demands that in the process of food production, we think about the workers who have toiled away much, but have received little; and that we engage these sectors everytime we talk about farming and agriculture.

“‘Yung kilusang bungkalan talaga, bahagi siya ng mas malaking panawagan para sa genuine agrarian reform at rural development,” says Suarez. “Kung wala ‘yung dalawang iyon, walang point na magkaroon ng bungkalan.”