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close this bookPeasants' Pursuit of Outside Alliances in the Process of Land Reform: A Discussion of Legal Assistance Programmes in Bangladesh and the Philippines (UNRISD, 1999, 40 p.)
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Case Studies

Nijera Kori's work with the Char Bajja and Char Majid communities: Cases from Bangladesh

Nijera Kori is one of many non-governmental development organizations in Bangladesh, but its strong participatory approach and activism have given it increasing prominence in recent years. The organization was founded in 1977 to assist famine-affected destitute urban women. Although women remain the focus of Nijera Kori's programme activities, since the 1980s the organization has been working in rural areas to help men and women, landless and marginal farmers, fisherfolk, artisans and petty traders. Over the years, it has emphasized the need to change the unequal nature of the rural power structure and resource distribution, arguing that "the cause of poverty in Bangladesh is not paucity of resources or overpopulation, rather unequal distribution of wealth" (Nijera Kori, 1997a:1). It further argues that the unequal distribution of resources has led to "divisions amongst the people and has exacerbated the problems related to social injustice, dowry, discrimination, oppression of women, exploitation, unjust possession of public resources by power cliques and corruption" (Nijera Kori, 1997b:1). It views popular mobilization and conscientization as essential to changing the situation in favour of the rural poor and deprived social groups such as women.

In Bengali, "Nijera Kori" means "we do it ourselves". As such, the organization encourages self-help, autonomy and awareness-building activities, and motivates the rural poor to form collective groups to resist social injustice, as well as seek to improve their livelihoods

The projects of Nijera Kori are spread across the country, with the exception of the north and north-east. In June 1997, they covered some 1,016 villages (Nijera Kori, 1997b:3). By June 1997, some 6,561 self-help groups were created, bringing together 146,394 core members of whom just over 50 per cent were women (Nijera Kori, 1997b:3). Group meetings, training and workshops permit people to exchange views, discuss specific events, devise plans and develop professional and leadership skills. In order to make group members financially self-reliant, or at least make recourse to fraudulent moneylenders unnecessary, it urges people to develop savings habits and contribute to various savings schemes that can make money available during emergencies. Group members are also encouraged to invest in pisciculture, agriculture, livestock rearing, small cottage industries and petty trading. A great number of Nijera Kori's activities, however, concern political mobilization and collective action against social exploitation, repression of women and access to local resources, especially khas land.

Nijera Kori considers title to khas land by the landless an integral part of poverty alleviation in rural areas. In theory, khas land, should be more accessible to the poor than privately held land, especially in view of the government's policy of distributing these areas to the landless. In practice, however, powerful individuals tend to grab any land that becomes available, which provokes conflict. Part of the problem is that it is often difficult to establish whether land is khas land or not; also, powerful individuals can enlist the help of officials to produce false ownership documents. Indeed, even in cases where possession is recognized, powerful people can evict the landless with the help of local police and thugs. To discourage the landless, land grabbers have been known to bring false charges (such as theft) against the landless (Kabir, 1994:72). This makes it difficult for the landless to have access to khas land, especially when they are not sufficiently organized and lack wider support.

Nijera Kori has thus sought to organize the landless, and influence public opinion and government departments, as well as provide legal support to its group members. In 1996-1997, it provided legal support to approximately 100 cases, a number of which involved defending its employees, who were often considered the main foe by landlords and elites. Cases involved access to and formal titling of khas land, land dispossession for shrimp cultivation, oppression of women and sometimes even deaths related to these issues.

Nijera Kori considers its legal aid highly successful. In most cases, suits brought against peasants and the rural poor have been unfounded, with encouraging verdicts in favour of the landless. By registering legal suits, the poor are becoming aware of the weak points in the administration and local power structure, and group members are acquiring competence in rural arbitration (Nijera Kori, 1997b:16).

Most of the NGOs providing legal assistance in Bangladesh have not been able to cope with the demand, and Nijera Kori is no exception. It does not have a legal division of its own and hiring outside lawyers is costly, particularly when a case must be tried in higher courts. Landlords and corrupt elites usually try to exploit this situation. Nijera Kori generally approaches broad-minded lawyers to handle the cases, where possible at a moderate rate. This is not always feasible, however, as lawyers are in great demand. The organization also seeks legal help from organizations with greater capacity, but others may be reluctant to accept additional cases as they are usually unable to meet even their own needs for legal aid.

Char Bajja and Char Majid are two "villages" situated a few kilometres apart at Sundaram Thana in Noakhali district in the Bay of Bengal (see map 1). A considerable amount of "new land" has been deposited in the area in recent decades as soil has washed down from the Himalayan region. In Bengali, char means "land rising from water". In theory, all char lands are government (khas) land. In practice, however, these lands are subject to individual claims. Conflicts over the possession and use of land may therefore arise between poorer households - for example, between those with land titles and those claiming to have possessed earlier titles; old and new settlers; households selected for entitlement and those rejected; households already settled and those buying the land from the proclaimed owner(s). Many such conflicts are resolved locally (at times with the help of NGOs and locally respected individuals) unless powerful landlords or elites incite one group against the other. Conflicts between poorer households and those with economic, political or judicial power tend to be especially complicated. Given that the price of land is attractive and because of its suitability for shrimp farming (because salt and fresh water are available), powerful landlords, local political elites, land speculators and shrimp cultivators have sought control of land in the area. Increased government and foreign funding for shrimp cultivation and its potential as a foreign exchange earner have also swayed local politicians and administrators in favour of powerful groups (Nijera Kori, 1996). Indeed, they may already belong to the same circle of people.

The land question in these two villages - or, more appropriately, settlements - depicts this process well. Char Bajja was established in the early 1980s when new land appeared on the banks of Mejna river due to soil deposits and the construction of a dike for flood protection. By 1997 some 200 households, mainly flood victims from the area, had settled there, each with 1 acre (0.4 hectares) of land to cultivate. As a result of the growth in shrimp cultivation and related earnings prospects in the late 1980s and early 1990s, powerful landlords, local elites and businessmen also sought possession of this land, first by producing false land "ownership" certificates and subsequently by using legal and then more coercive means. They also attempted to influence government departments in their favour by suggesting that the land in question was not suited for peasant agriculture because of poor-quality soil and its high saline content.

In October 1997, when this author visited Char Bajja, all available land was under the cultivation of paddy, sweet potatoes and several types of vegetables. People acknowledged that the land was not very fertile, but with their care, construction of bunds and use of manure, it had become more productive. In 1996, an average of 50 munds (2,000 kilograms) of paddy per acre were produced. Crop production was combined with limited livestock rearing, fishing and some outside wage employment, especially by young boys. In the settlement, peasants had their own dwelling and thus did not need shelter on their employer's land.

But over the past four years there have been intense conflicts in the area. In the beginning, landlords and their associates threatened the settlers and sought to divide them. Money was offered to potential collaborators. When it became clear that those manoeuvres were not working, harsher means were used. Local administrators were called upon to undertake police assaults, peasant huts were burned and crops were destroyed. At the same time, lawsuits were brought against the peasants in the local and high courts. During this author's field visit, three peasants were in jail serving life sentences, convicted in a bogus rape case. Landlords and other elites in Bangladesh have such influence over the judiciary and administrative system (especially at the local level) that abuse of the system is not difficult. Here, they had combined the land dispute case with another (fictive) criminal lawsuit as a way of discouraging peasants.

Without timely legal aid from Nijera Kori, the peasants would probably have been evicted from their land. When the case of rape was brought to local and then high court, and the peasants could not pay for legal assistance, Nijera Kori hired three defence lawyers. Nijera Kori was also able to publicize this case and attract the attention of independent NGOs that provide legal support. One of these, the Dhaka-based Bangladesh counterpart of Amnesty International, dispatched two of its local lawyers to investigate the case. Ironically, and to the great dismay of Nijera Kori and the peasants, these two lawyers recommended that the case be decided in favour of the landlords and local elites, apparently after being offered bribes (personal communication with a Nijera Kori activist). This indicates that many of the lawyers can be bought easily by peasants' adversaries, especially when they lack compassion for the peasants' cause.


Many comparable processes were discernible in the case of the second settlement as well. Char Majid was established in 1982, with 235 households and a total cultivated surface of 560 acres (233 hectares). A slightly larger plot per household and higher land productivity explains relatively improved living conditions in this village (bigger and more solid houses, higher school attendance, etc.).

The main problem in this settlement was that, despite having settled and cultivated the land for over 15 years, peasants had not received legal title. Instead, the government (for political reasons) distributed land titles to people who had fought for independence from Pakistan in late 1960s and early 1970s. Some 196 "freedom fighters" were thus given title to the entire area in 1991-1992, apparently without the settlers' knowledge. According to the peasants, not all of the people who obtained title were freedom fighters. Moreover, some title holders were in commerce or had other professions and had no interest in or previous knowledge of cultivating land. Their main interest was the resale value of the land. And, because of the high demand for land for shrimp cultivation, prices had surged in the area, especially for registered land. This created a strong alliance between the freedom-fighters and shrimp cultivators in the area. Moreover, shrimp cultivators were not in favour of peasant ownership of land, as they were likely to continue to use land for crop production. If it were controlled by the freedom-fighters and could be sub-contracted or bought, the land use could be changed to shrimp cultivation.

In this settlement there have been repeated conflicts during the harvest season, as freedom-fighters hire men to intimidate the peasants and collect harvested produce. However, due to strong peasant solidarity and generally supportive public opinion in the surrounding villages, people continue to reside in the area and manage to keep the bulk of their crops. The help of NGOs, such as Nijera Kori, has proved especially important.

Nijera Kori has brought peasants together in self-help groups and co-operatives to resist the control over their land by freedom-fighters and improve economic conditions. More importantly, it has maintained contacts with the local administrators involved in the case, as well as with influential freedom-fighters, and probably helped avoid direct confrontations between the peasants and freedom-fighters. During this author's field visit, negotiations were taking place, with Nijera Kori as mediator. One possible compromise was the allotment of 50 per cent of the land to peasant households and 50 per cent to the freedom-fighters, but the peasants were totally opposed to handing over their land to people who they deemed "undeserving". They also feared that acceptance of this formula would lead to the conversion of additional land to shrimp cultivation. This would make adjacent plots unsuitable for crop production because of potential infiltration of saline polluted water and diseases from shrimp farming. Solutions were far from clear and the tension was high, especially with paddy harvest season near.

Carruf and Mapalad: Cases from the Philippines

Carruf and Mapalad are two of the best-known cases of land conflicts in the Philippines. Both concern the provision of land and land titles to resident tenants and agricultural labourers where this has been fiercely opposed by previous landowners. The latter have repeatedly used professional "security guards" to intimidate the peasants and agricultural labourers. They have sought to exploit all possible legal loopholes and have brought peasant groups to courts on a variety of criminal charges. The Carruf and Mapalad cases have come to the attention of the regional and national media, government departments and political parties. A number of NGOs working on rural poverty alleviation and land questions have mobilized peasants and provided legal assistance and advice, which have been of crucial importance in Mapalad in particular.

Carruf and Mapalad cases are located in the province of Bukidnon on the island of Mindanao (see map 2) near one of the island's principal highways. Although they are quite integrated with nearby market centres and urban way of living, agricultural activities remain the main source of employment and income in the area. Fertile soil, high rainfall and irrigation possibilities, on the one hand, and abundant rural labour, on the other, have attracted transnationals and agri-business to the area. Cash crops - sugarcane, pineapple and banana - are produced for export, although rice (the main crop), maize (increasingly used as animal feed) and various legumes are also produced for the market (Municipality of Valencia, 1997). Both tenants and wage labourers work on the large estates and land conflicts in both Carruf and Mapalad have grown out of contentions between estate owners and these groups.

The Carpio-Rufino Agricultural Corporation (Carruf), previously a private cash-crop estate belonging to an affiliate of former President Marcos, is located in Barobo, Valencia. The area is planted mainly with sugarcane and some maize, and part of the estate was also used for cattle ranching. The owner lived in Manila and the estate was operated through farm administrators and resident hired labourers, who maintained dwellings and home gardens.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Valencia was marked by political agitations and actions against plantation owners, rich farmers and local elites co-operating with the regime. The owner of the Carruf estate abandoned it during the unrest, and the estate's labourers immediately took over the land. They agreed upon division of the land, but maintained earlier land use patterns.

In 1986 DAR placed the estate under compulsory acquisition. Some 148 hectares of the property were to be made available for acquisition by 111 landless households, but screening of beneficiaries and preparation of the CLOAs took 10 years (until February 1997). On behalf of the households, DAR negotiated a loan with the LBP to purchase the land from the owner for 8 million pesos. It also sought to organize the beneficiaries into three production co-operatives, and the implementation of this task was given to a local NGO, CART. The beneficiaries would gain full ownership title in 2007 (after 10 years of provisory entitlement). At the end of 1997, each household paid about 2,000 pesos to the LBP towards the mortgage, which extended over 30 years. This represented about 10-15 per cent of their annual produce (personal communication with peasants).


Delays in obtaining ownership documents and constant harassment from a "security agency" hired by the estate owner to protect his property created an environment uncertainty for the beneficiaries. There were few incentives to improve the quality of land or crops, and many of the households sought employment in the local market centres (such as Valencia) or as daily agricultural labourers in the surrounding areas. Such wage employment has been scarce, however.

In recent years, land prices have risen sharply in the area and cattle ranching has become an increasingly profitable use of land. The absentee owner thus attempted to recover possession of land, using a variety of means. In the early 1990s, two cases were filed before the Department of Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board (DARAB) in Manila and Malaybalay (the provincial capital), claiming that the CARP beneficiaries were "squatters" and had entered the property unlawfully, and thus that the land certificate given to them should be cancelled (DARAB, 1997). There were also attempts by the landowner to use the local power structure (the mayor of Valencia) in his favour (The Manila Times, 18 April 1997). The DARAB decided that the peasants were the rightful owners of the land.

When the legal cases were ruled in favour of the peasants - who were subsequently provided with the ownership certificate - the previous estate-owner took a more confrontational attitude. He hired the Tagabagani security agency. Twenty armed men verbally intimidated the peasants. They fired guns at night to frighten the peasants, and enclosed the cultivated fields with barbed wire to prevent the peasants from harvesting their crops. A truck used by peasants for transporting sugarcane and maize was also seized by the security agents (personal communication).

In another act of intimidation, a 30-hectare plot of sugarcane was burned one night in April 1997. This meant the loss of a year's work for the affected households. Peasants protested this act both in Manila and in the province, with the support of DAR and NGOs such as CART, Kaunlaranng Kanayuan, Balay Mondanao Foundation and Partnership for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development Services. These protests received significant national media coverage. The government was urged to uphold its promise for land reform and provide police protection for the beneficiaries of land reform. The local mayor (who had permitted the private security agents to operate in the area) initiated a dialogue between the two opposing groups (Sun Star, 22 April 1997; The Manila Times, 23 April 1997).

Ultimately, the peasants were again able to cultivate their land. But when this author visited the area in November 1997, the Tagabagani security guards were still intimidating the farmers. In May 1997, President Ramos ordered the investigation of a case of harassment by the agency, but no report was issued until the end of November 1997. Peasants still lived in uncertainty. Fear of eviction from their plots had receded due to widespread publicity and outside support for their cause. But economic hardship was forcing some households to borrow money, and others were making arrangements to sell their plots to moneylenders as soon as title was granted to them (personal communication with a local development worker).

The Mapalad peasants have endured a similar situation, although the landowner in this case has been even more hostile and has exerted influence over local landholders and elites, as well as government officials in Manila. Tribal origin (and thus unfavourable socio-political standing) and their overwhelming reliance on daily wage employment for survival have made the position of the Mapalad peasants extremely precarious, but they have been well organized, received extensive public sympathy and attracted a great deal of support from NGOs, professional organizations, the media and DAR.

Mapalad is a multipurpose peasant co-operative for co-ordination of land acquisition and livelihood improvement. The co-operative was established by peasants after they were offered the possibility of acquiring 144 hectares of land in Sumilao, Bukidnon. The land, generally well suited for agriculture and endowed with irrigation facilities, had been leased to Del Monte Philippines by its owner. Before the expiration of the 10-year lease in 1990, DAR included the area in its compulsory acquisition scheme and sought to distribute it to 137 landless agricultural labourers in the area. Most of these workers were employed by the Del Monte estate.

The decision by DAR to expropriate the estate and subsequent moves by the beneficiaries to begin cultivating their parcels in July 1997 were opposed by the landowner in a variety of ways. The landowner applied to DAR to convert the farm into an agro-industrial zone, suggesting that the scheme would create more employment and improve the municipal economy.

At the same time, the landowner hired 50 armed men from the Tagabagani security agency to protect the property. Agents evicted the peasants, burned peasants' huts, seized farm implements and other belongings, and told peasants that land mines had been placed in the area and that fences around plots were electrified. Other local landowners and former employers of the peasants were urged by the estate-owner not to hire workers belonging to the Mapalad group (Land Conversion Case: Sumalio, Bukidnon, undated:2). The landowner also filed a case before the Regional Trial Court in Malaybalay seeking to annul title and to obtain 10 million pesos in damages from the peasants.

The Malaybalay court decided in favour of the landlord and the peasants were ordered off the land. Moreover, although DAR rejected the estate owner's application to convert the land into an agro-industrial zone, the governor of Bukidnon, the local mayor and large landowners supported the landowner and encouraged him to appeal to President Ramos. The president reversed DAR's decision and approved the landowner's proposal to convert the farm into an agro-industrial zone (Mapalad Agrarian Reform Monitor, January 1998). The peasants were thus totally helpless.

The regional office of DAR, a few paralegal workers and local NGOs had been assisting the peasants in various ways. A Mapalad Task Force was formed by the Mapalad co-operative and several NGOs - PALAMBU-PAKISAMA, Balay Mindanao Foundation, PhilDHRRA-Mindanao - and youth and religious groups. Some larger agrarian NGOs, such as PAKISAMA, AR Now! and PhilDHRRA, gave the Mapalad case national exposure. And several newspapers began reporting on the case, especially the violent eviction carried out by the estate-owner. Farmers' groups and academic institutions, such as the Philippine Peasant Institute (PPI), called on the president to reverse his earlier decision on the Mapalad and several other similar cases in the country (Farm: News and Views, September-December 1997; Mapalad Agrarian Reform Monitor, January 1998; The Manila Times, 8 November 1997; Land Conversion Case: Sumilao, Bukidnon, undated).

The Mapalad peasants received legal aid and advice from Balay Mindanao Foundation, SALIGAN and KAISAHAN, who investigated the co-operative's legal standing and possible legal steps to be taken. These lawyers were supported by the Ateneo Law School and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP). The task force created by the NGOs to review the legal arguments of both sides found overwhelming evidence in favour of the Mapalad peasants and submitted these findings to the office of the president. No concrete reaction was forthcoming (Land Conversion Case: Sumilao, Bukidnon, undated:11).

Peasants sought to convince President Ramos and the Regional Trial Court in Malaybalay to revise their decision by initiating a hunger strike in October 1997. Twelve peasants camped out in front of the DAR central office in Manila and seven peasants staged a hunger strike in Cagayan de Oro city in Mindanao. This was the first occasion in the country's history that a hunger strike was used to draw attention to the plight of peasants' struggle for land, and it thus attracted a great deal of radio and television coverage. NGOs and other supporters had helped the peasants prepare for their hunger strike psychologically, and advised them on selection of the location, visibility of the camp and consultations with the media and concerned government departments (Mapalad Agrarian Reform Monitor, January 1998). During the 28-day strike, the peasants also received medical check-ups. The hunger strike ended with Ramos's announcement of a compromise solution: 137 peasant households would have the option of purchasing 100 hectares, with the remaining 44 hectares going to the landowner.

The striking peasants returned to Sumilao to a hero's welcome; their action was expected to encourage other groups to organize and mobilize in the face of similar problems elsewhere in the country (The Manila Times, 7 November 1997). Although the president's decision seemed to have been accepted by both parties, the peasants were not able to take possession of their property until the beginning of 1998.3 The proposed compensation of 6 million pesos, rejected by the landowner, was still the object of negotiations, however (Mapalad Agrarian Reform Monitor, January 1998). Furthermore, the preparation of land parcels, issuance of new land certificates and guarantee of loans from the LBP still had to be completed before peasants could settle on and begin cultivating their plots. Most of the peasants had used their limited savings during the mobilization and protest; preparing the land and ensuring family subsistence before the first harvest was expected to be difficult (personal communication with the peasants). The DAR regional office and NGOs that had supported the peasants during the land entitlement process did not have the resources to provide further assistance to peasants during the post-entitlement period.

3 On 24 April 1998, in an unexpected move, the Supreme Court declared the presidential decision null and void and the future of Mapalad peasants has again been thrown into confusion. This shows the complexity of land reform process in the Philippines, as well as the peasants' need for continued legal and extra-legal support from NGOs, farmers associations and other progressive actors.