On 9 January 2016, Benjie Sustento, a defender of the land rights of farm workers in the Philippines, was abducted from his house in Murcia town, Negros Occidental, by unidentified men. His body was found the next morning with gunshot wounds and showing signs of torture.
Sustento, aged 30, was a local farmer and a member of the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), a regional member organisation of the Federation of Agricultural Workers (Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura, or UMA). Through his work with the NFSW, Sustento had been helping to lead farmworkers in attempts to break a cycle of landlessness, poverty, and slave-like conditions of labour on vast sugar plantations in the Negros Occidental province, which has been described as “the sugar bowl of the Philippines”.
Sustento had recently been allotted land through the CARP land redistribution programme, but had been in disputes with aryendadors and land speculators, who are reported to have sought the land he had been apportioned. The CARP, or Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, was introduced in the Philippines in 1988 with a vision to “have an equitable land ownership system which would empower the beneficiaries of the agrarian reform programme to effectively manage their own economic and social development and have a better quality of life.”
However, the existence of the informal and unregulated aryendo system, in which aryendadors, wealthy and powerful individuals, offer money to desperately poor farmers for control of their land, has been seen as proof of CARP’s failure. The farmers, although recently they have become owners of their own lands, lack the money, equipment, and support needed to farm it, and so are forced to rent it out at very low rates.
Sustento and other members of the NFSW had been defending the right to keep and cultivate these allotted plots, which would provide food and a sustainable livelihood for the community, but had encountered much opposition and harassment. Sustento’s family also became a target; his brother was charged with arson over the burning of a sugar field, a crime for which his family believe he was framed so that land speculators would have a case to make against local farmers.
Sustento was abducted from his house at around ten o’clock in the evening of 9 January. He was tied up and dragged down the street behind a vehicle. According to witnesses, the police were notified of the incident, but did not respond. Sustento’s body was discovered at approximately six o’clock the next morning.
At Sustento’s funeral service on 16 January, his brother appealed to the public to help them identify the killers. Then, after the service, family members led a silent protest march against his violent death. Accompanied by crowds of supporters and local farmers, they made their way to his final place of rest, dressed in black clothes printed with the word “justice”.