Land reform program needs a new moral compass

Land reform program needs a new moral compass

At the root of many of the social, economic and political problems in the Philippines is a lack of genuine land reform. The word genuine in this case refers to a land distribution program in which the government expeditiously identifies and disperses land ownership to landless farmers tilling the land and others legally qualified to receive it. Land reform that is genuine does only one thing: it gives land to farmers.

At the root of many of the social, economic and political problems in the Philippines is a lack of genuine land reform. The word genuine in this case refers to a land distribution program in which the government expeditiously identifies and disperses land ownership to landless farmers tilling the land and others legally qualified to receive it. Land reform that is genuine does only one thing: it gives land to farmers. It does not substitute shares of stock for land; it does not allow landowners to make leaseback agreements with them or multinational agribusinesses a precondition for redistribution of the land; it does not permit agricultural land to be converted to non-agricultural uses as a means to remove it from the list of available land for distribution.

Unfortunately, these practices and others have occurred in the past 20 years since the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, or CARP, was enacted into law in 1988 under President Corazon Aquino. Their acceptance by a series of governments in the Philippines has meant that farmers are still waiting to receive as much as 1.9 million hectares of land two decades after the law was passed—not an example of expeditious land redistribution, not an example of genuine land reform.

Moreover, governments under a number of presidents—Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada and now Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—have not only failed the country’s farmers but have also failed to uphold the country’s 1987 Constitution, for Article 13 of the Constitutions states:

“The State shall, by law, undertake an agrarian reform program founded on the right of farmers and regular farm workers who are landless to own directly or collectively the lands they till or, in the case of other farm workers, to receive a just share of the fruits thereof. To this end, the State shall encourage and undertake the just distribution of all agricultural lands. . . .”

Farmers in the Philippines though have not been passively waiting on lethargic government officials and bureaucrats to acquire the land to which they are entitled. Rather, they have sought to uphold their legal rights to the land.

One of the most recent examples is the attempt by 30 farmers from the province of Negros Occidental to have 61 hectares in two tracts of land in Barangay Caranoche in Sta. Catalina and Barangay Villareal in Bayawan City awarded to them under CARP. Nineteen of the farmers received their certificate of land ownership awards (CLOAs) for the land in Barangay Caranoche in 1997, and 11 farmers in Barangay Villareal received the same document in 1999. Now, about a decade later, they are still waiting to receive the land to which the CLOAs entitle them. In addition to holding the CLOAs, the rights of the farmers to this land were upheld by the Supreme Court in 2004. Thus, after such a long wait, the farmers were naturally overjoyed to learn that the Dept. of Agrarian Reform (DAR) would actually turn over the land to them on Oct. 18. However, this promise was not fulfilled, and it was announced by the DAR that the final transference of the land to the farmers was cancelled. Consequently, the farmers sought a meeting with DAR Secretary Nasser Pangandaman on Oct. 15 at the department’s office in Quezon City but were beaten and forcibly evicted by DAR security guards, resulting in injuries to five farmers. One can only presume that the reason for the long delay in transferring the land to the farmers rests with the influence and status of the landowner: former Congressman Herminio Teves.

This incident illustrates the nexus between socio-economic issues, especially those involving land, and politics in the Philippines, a recurring problem in the country.

For historical references, one only need to examine the case of Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac Province owned by the Cojuangco family whose most prominent political figure is the former president of the country, Cory Cojuangco Aquino. When CARP was born in the late 1980s after the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos and the Aquino government decided to allow her family to transform the Hacienda Luisita sugar plantation into a corporation and issue shares of stock in it to its farmers rather than give them land, observers at the time in 1989 believed that Aquino and her government were not serious about land reform. Moreover, the hopes of those who looked forward to a new social, economic and political order in the post-Marcos era were disappointed. Today the same perceptions and disenchantment are evident for the succeeding presidencies over the past 20 years in the Philippines.

In recent years, Hacienda Luisita has been at the center of tension between the plantation’s landowners and the farmers on the hacienda involving, among other issues, an end to the stock distribution plan and the conversion of land to non-agricultural uses. On Nov. 16, 2004, the military and police fired on striking farmers and sugar mill workers at the hacienda, resulting in the death of seven protesters and injuries to 200 others.

Moreover, this deadly event seems to have accelerated the number of extrajudicial killings and disappearances that has plagued the Arroyo presidency since her term began in 2001, for a number of those extra judicially killed in the following months and years of the shooting had been supporters in various ways of the Hacienda Luisita farmers and sugar mill workers. These unnecessary deaths include peasant leader Marcing Beltran in December 2004, Tarlac City council member Abelardo Ladera in March 2005, an attempt on the life of lawyer Romeo Capulong a few days after Ladera’s slaying, the deadly shooting of Fr. William Tadena of the Philippine Independent Church, or Iglesia Filipina Independiente (IFI), in the same month as the Ladera and Capulong incidents and the fatal stabbing of IFI Bishop Alberto Ramento in October 2006.

With the target of the hundreds of extrajudicial killings and disappearances in the past seven years being critics of the policies of the Arroyo administration—peasant and labor activists, students, human rights advocates, lawyers, journalists, etc.—and a lack of genuine land reform in the past two decades, a conclusion that one can draw is that the entrenched political and economic elites of the Philippines see their self-interests in danger of being diluted or, even worse for them, taken away. They have thus decided to fight back with the government responsible for removing these obstacles in the form of the Filipino people with the military the predominant executioner and government officials, like DAR Secretary Pangandaman, the principal bureaucratic barriers to the development of the country’s people.

Furthermore, in addition to people’s lives and their legal and human rights, what is threatened in the Philippines is social justice and the alleviation of poverty whose attainment are underlying principles and goals of CARP. Both social justice and the alleviation of poverty are sorely needed in the country as the Human Development Report 2007/2008 of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) notes that 43 percent of Filipinos earn less than US$2 per day while the government’s own National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) reports that 32.9 percent of the country’s people in 2006, or 27.6 million Filipinos, were poor. In the eyes of the people themselves, 79 percent of Filipinos perceive themselves to be poor, according to an IBON Foundation survey in April 2008. Regardless of the figures that one uses, it is clear that poverty is a serious socio-economic problem in the Philippines that deserves the public policy attention of the government.

However, the percentage of people in poverty does not indicate the whole economic story of the Philippines. One must also examine the income gap, which reveals the wealthiest 20 percent of Filipino families, or 3.5 million families, held 52.8 percent of total family income in the country in 2006 while the poorest 80 percent of families, or 13.9 million families, divided the remaining 47.3 percent among themselves. Stated another way by the IBON Foundation, the income of the richest 10 percent of Filipino households was equivalent to 19 times that of the poorest 10 percent; or by Forbes Asia, the combined wealth of the 40 richest Filipinos—US$17 billion—equals the total income of about 60 percent of Filipino families or 52 million Filipinos.

Again, it does not matter which statistics one uses. They all indicate why the economic and political elites in the Philippines are intent are subverting CARP and even utilizing the resources of the military to eliminate any threat to their wealth and their means of attaining and maintaining it.

If land reform is to have any chance of being genuinely implemented and if an end to the country’s extrajudicial killings and disappearances is to take place, the elites of the Philippines will have to discover the political will to do so, political will that is guided by a different moral compass.

Bruce Van Voorhis

(Bruce Van Voorhis is a staff member of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong whose work often focuses on the Philippines. In addition to working at the commission since 2000, he is also a co-convener of the Hong Kong Campaign for the Advancement of Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines, a coalition formed in April 2005 to respond to the upsurge of extrajudicial killings in the country.)

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong Kong.  He serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.