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Philippines : Waterloo for agrarian reform ?

The Philippines still has a chance of meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the proportion of people living in poverty by 50 per cent from 1990 levels if it resolutely carries out the right policies, National Economic Development Authority head Arsenio Balicasan said at a recent congressional hearing.

Balisacan’s brave hopes were dashed a few days later when the administration conceded that agrarian reform, one of the leading poverty reduction programs, will not be completed by the end of June 2014. Agrarian Reform Secretary Gil de los Reyes said that the backlog of undistributed land stands at almost 700,000 hectares, 450,000 of which are private lands subject to compulsory acquisition. According to him, it will take up to the end of June 2016 to complete the distribution process.

Going back on a Promise, Violating the Law

The latest land redistribution schedule not only belies the president’s promise to complete the process that he made to farmer leaders in the middle of last year. It also violates the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform with Extension Law (CARPER), Section 5 of which explicitly states that the Department of Agrarian Reform “in coordination with the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) shall plan and program the final acquisition and distribution of all remaining unacquired and undistributed land from the effectivity of this Act until June 30, 2014.”

Defending his revised schedule, de los Reyes said that his interpretation of CARPER was based on the opinion of the Department of Justice that land acquisition and distribution may be extended so long as the notices of coverage (NOCs) are distributed on or before June 30, 2014. Yet one looks in vain for any provision in CARPER that would allow extension of the physical acquisition and redistribution of land covered by the reform. What CARPER does allow for is the advanced implementation of land redistribution, not late implementation. I was one of the authors of the CARPER Act, and we made sure there were no loopholes that would allow extension beyond June 30, 2014.

De los Reyes admitted that the DAR had only completed the “easy part” of land reform : the distribution of public land and voluntarily transferred private land. Still to take place in the next few years, according to him, is the compulsory acquisition and distribution of the nearly 450,000 hectares of private land that big and medium landlords have hang on to with grim determination owing their being the best lands in the country. Most of these lands are sugar lands in the Western Visayas and cash crop plantations in Mindanao. So critical are the next few years that de los Reyes admitted that developments in this period will spell the difference between a “Waterloo” or a “Normandy” for agrarian reform.

The DAR chief’s announcement of a unilateral extension of land redistribution has added to the anxieties of small farmers and land reform advocates who are already alarmed by the streamlining of the Department of Agrarian Reform that is underway. While the administration projects this as simply a “rationalization” of the DAR bureaucracy, many in civil society see it as the phasing out of the department. Their interpretation is lent credence by the recent admission of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala that the functions of the DAR will be divided between the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment and Natural Resources.

Judicial Counteroffensive

Asked what was blocking completion of land acquisition and distribution according to schedule set by the law, the agrarian reform secretary pointed to technical problems associated with land inventories, land record discrepancies, and classification of lands.

It is hard, however, to conceal the real reason.

In many parts of the country, more and more cases of revocation of Certificates of Land Transfer (CLOAs) are occurring, the most publicized of which are in Quezon. Indeed, there has been a 4.6% increase in the number of cases filed at the Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board between 2012 and 2013. There is a judicial counteroffensive by landlords taking place, and it is likely to intensify as land reform finally focuses on the most productive private lands in the Western Visayas and Mindanao. The struggle over Hacienda Luisita case is not the climax of agrarian reform. The tenacity with which the Cojuangcos held on to the plantation might simply presage the intensity of the coming battle in the Visayas and Mindanao, where big landed families will use every legal loophole, along with coercion, to retain effective control of their lands.

Poverty, Corruption, and Agrarian Reform

The central challenges to the country are the radical reduction of inequality and poverty and the achievement of sustained and sustainable development. The completion of agrarian reform is a precondition for both. We must not allow the dazzling statistics on economic growth to blind us to this.

Also, while the elimination of the pork barrel is a critical step in the battle against corruption, unless there are major gains in the battle against poverty, of which land reform is one of the key weapons, the gains in the struggle against corruption will be evanescent since the poor will be constantly tempted to resort to patronage by the powerful in order to survive. Patronage politics, recent events have shown, is one of the fundamental sources of corruption

It is not enough for President Aquino to not stay in the way of the redistribution of Hacienda Luisita. If the battle against corruption and against poverty that he intends as his legacy is to be successful during the rest of his term and beyond, he must transcend his class background and prioritize agrarian reform.


Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.