Standing on Tenuous Grounds
“I left my husband and nine children,” says Tessie Opeña during song practice inside a makeshift tent outside the Department of Agrarian Reform. She and 20 more choir members tirelessly rehearse a spoof of a popular Filipino Christmas carol amid one of the biggest struggles of their lives, one that has made them walk hundreds of miles and leave their families behind.
It has been a month since more than 300 farmers journeyed from their homes to seek land equality and justice from Congress, if only through extension of funding for and meaningful reforms in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
Still, no hope is in sight with only two days before Congress takes a break for Yuletide. The House of Representatives and the Senate seem busy scuffling over another issue of extension; that of Arroyo’s term, through Charter Change. Without legislative action before the December 31 deadline, CARP may die at year’s end and put a sad note on the song of 52 year-old Ka Tessie, who came on foot all the way from the sprawling Hacienda Yulo in Canlubang, Laguna. She and fellow farmers would have to retrace their steps, back to farms they could never call their own.
Land is Life
Why the farmers braved the treacherous road to the seat of the government comes as no surprise. The absence of an effective land redistribution program spells doom for Filipinos relying on agriculture for livelihood. Land is their only means of survival. No less than the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, which was attended by representatives of governments, recognized that access to land and security of tenure are critical to rural poverty alleviation and a hunger-free world.
Current statistics on the country’s rural conditions paint the farmers’ bleak situation. Rural folk
See www.nscb.gov.ph. Also see “Philippine Agrarian Reform: Partnerships for Social Justice, Rural Growth, and Sustainable Development”, Country Paper on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development in the Philippines presented by Secretary Nasser Pangandaman, Department of Agrarian Reform, Philippines, in the International Conference for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD), Porto Alegre, Brazil on March 7-10 2006. , majority of whom are women, comprise three out of four poor Filipinos. Poverty incidence is particularly high among landless agricultural workers and farmers cultivating small plots of lands and in areas where the concentration of land ownership remains with a few prominent clans. Highest poverty incidence is found among corn farmers (41%); rice and corn workers (36%); sugarcane farm workers, coconut farm workers, forestry workers (33%); and fishermen (31%)
Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD), 2003..
Agrarian Reform: An Unfinished Business
The agrarian reform challenge facing the country today is how to finish CARP’s land acquisition and distribution (LAD) phase, ensure economic viability and political empowerment of its beneficiaries, and usher a lasting era of social justice. At the heart of CARP, as enshrined in the 1987 Constitution, is the redistribution of land, wealth, income, and power to millions of Filipino families who have long labored under unequal relations with their landlords. Under CARP, eight million hectares or 83 percent of total agricultural lands are to be given to more than six million landless farmers and farmworkers.
LAD’s extension, however, depends on definite determination of intended beneficiaries, the land for acquisition and distribution, the resources for ownership transfer, and the historical record of the pace by which land transfer is undertaken. The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), primarily responsible for distributing private agricultural lands, has failed considerably in these requirements. Figures from the National Statistics Office’s 2002 survey show that 348,297 household members engaged in agricultural activity still worked in landholdings not their own.
In 2007, after 20 years of program implementation and with 140 billion pesos in total budget allotment, CARP boasted of a partial accomplishment of distributing nearly six million hectares of land and a million hectares in leasehold areas to around four million peasant households.
Table 1: CARP’s Changing Land Distribution Scope and Accomplishment, 1972-2007 (in million hectares, rounded figures)
|Original Scope 1988-94||3.8||6.3||10.1|
|Revised Scope 1997||4.3||3.8||8.1|
|Inventory of CARP Scope 2006||5.1||3.8||8.9|
Source: DAR Planning Service
This seeming feat, the accuracy of which is still under question, looks sizeable. What is missing, however, are 1.2 million hectares of private lands deemed as the “meat” of the program. DAR estimates that the remaining balance is composed of the most contested landholdings (see figure 1), which are in the Visayas and Mindanao. The Negros island, known as the country’s bastion of landlordism, has 182,780 hectares or 15.6 percent of private agricultural lands still to be redistributed. Bicol and Western Visayas, covering almost 34 percent of the balance, are considered agrarian hotspots, where landlord resistance is most severe and marked with intense agrarian-related violence and conflicts. If the government is serious with real redistributive reforms, LAD in these two regions will serve as its litmus test.
Source: DAR Planning Service
Beyond Land Redistribution
CARP is a product of a compromise to accommodate competing interests, resulting in tensions and inconsistencies in implementation. For the program to finally see completion, it needs both political will and an overhaul of the government’s economic policies.
Provision of support services is an inseparable component in the success of CARP’s development objective. DAR’s own experience with Agrarian Reform Communities (ARCs) cancels out claims of CARP extension opponents who insist that land distribution be abandoned in favor of focusing assistance to agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs).
Launched in 1993 under secretary Ernesto Garilao, the creation of ARCs is DAR’s strategy of concentrating available funds for support services to an area cluster of a threshold number of both farmer and non-farmer beneficiaries. Although outreach has been constrained by limited resources, the ARCs proved that agrarian reform works when adequate, sustained, and systematic assistance is delivered to ARBs. Based on DAR’s 2007 accomplishment report, there are 1,959 ARCs/Special ARCs confirmed nationwide covering 995,114 beneficiaries (not including leasehold areas).
Further, CARP fails to fulfill its Constitutional mandate to promote social justice and development due to contradictory economic policies. Economically vulnerable ARBs lacking support services are unable to compete in an environment of liberalized entry of agricultural products. Also, the Department of Agriculture has prioritized the agribusiness sector leaving DAR, with its limited funds and technically-challenged personnel, with the task of transforming ARBs into a competitive sector.
Still, the major obstacle for CARP’s extension is the low priority given by the president herself. Arroyo’s performance is the worst since 1988 with a mere 13.86% share in land reform output compared to Ramos’s 52.34% and Aquino’s 22.51%. Arroyo’s was slightly higher than Estrada’s 9.24% share but Estrada stayed in office for only 2.5 years compared to her 7 years.
Borras, Saturnino, Manahan, Mary Ann, and Tadem, Eduardo. “Foreign Aid and CARP Extension” in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Talk of the Town, July 6, 2008. If Arroyo is concerned about protecting the legacy of her father, who is the “father of land reform”, it is high time she rethinks the government’s unilateral trade liberalization program. (See related articles in the Development Brief.)
The gamut of problems embattling CARP is primarily due to bureaucratic inefficiencies, policy lapses, and landlord resistance. A recent Supreme Court’s recent ruling captures the essence of CARP’s woes:
“… To Our mind, part of the problem lies with the CARP law itself. As crafted, the law has its own loopholes. It provides for a long list of exclusions. Some landowners used these exclusions to go around the law. There is now a growing trend of land conversion in the countryside suspiciously to evade coverage under the CARP law.
…The dubious use of seemingly legal means to sidestep the CARP law persists. Corporate law is resorted to by way of circling around the agrarian law. As this case illustrates, agricultural lands are being transferred, simulated or otherwise, to corporations which are fully or at least predominantly controlled by former landowners, now called stockholders. Through this strategy, it is anticipated that the corporation, by virtue of its corporate fiction, will shield the landowners from agricultural claims of tenant-farmers.
…The continued employment of the scheme in agrarian cases is not only deplorable; it is alarming. It is time to put a lid on the cap (Sta. Monica vs. DAR, GR 164846, June 18, 2008).”
Examples of ploys undermining right of farmers and farmworkers to own lands they cultivate are non-redistributive schemes of Stock Distribution Option (SDO) and leaseback arrangements. Last year, the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC), the highest policy making body on CARP, issued an order revoking Hacienda Luisita’s SDO. Now, it is reviewing 13 more SDOs due to non-compliance of big landowners with the required benefit package for ARBs.
In leaseback and other alternative venture arrangements (AVAs), a cooperative of worker-beneficiaries or individuals leases land to a multinational agribusiness corporation or former landowners. These deals have been found to circumvent the agrarian reform program by becoming a precondition to land redistribution—the landowner will only allow coverage under CARP if potential beneficiaries enter into an AVA with them.
Clearly, CARP has to be extended but not in its present construct. Meaningful reforms should be introduced and this requires an act of Congress. Currently, House Bill (HB) 4077, which harmonizes proposals from the House of Representatives’ Committee on Agrarian Reform, awaits attention of the lawmakers. The bill proposes:
provision of subsidized credit for agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs),
recognition of women as program beneficiaries and the provision of gender-responsive support services,
upholding the legal standing and interests of ARBs,
the indefeasibility of Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOA) and emancipation patents (EPs) after the lapse of one year to arrest the alarming trend of CLOA and EP cancellations and strengthen the titles of the farmers over their land,
upholding the DAR’s exclusive jurisdiction on agrarian-related disputes, and
creation of a Joint Congressional Oversight Committee.
HB 4077 is a product of the Committee’s extensive process of consultations with farmers, farm workers, rural women, and other stakeholders. All of their regional meetings have ended with overwhelming support for the bill even amid clamor for further reforms such as compulsory acquisition as the primary mode of land transfer, stoppage of land use conversion of irrigable and irrigated lands and tighter regulations on land conversion, revamp of DAR, improved process of identification and selection of beneficiaries, and removal of non-redistributive schemes.
DAR Needs to Step Up
Curiously, DAR’s top officials led by Sec. Nasser Pangandaman, show no effort to pursue a future for CARP. This speaks volumes about their low regard for proposed measures pending in Congress. Pangandaman could not even answer basic questions the Senators posed during their deliberations on CARP.
This is alarming considering that even with the extension of a reformed CARP, its effective, equitable, and efficient completion is equally, if not more, important. Right now, what is needed from DAR is transparency and accountability so as to build the public’s trust in the implementing agency’s capacity to make agrarian reform succeed during the extension period.
There is a need for confidence-building measures such as providing people more access to information and allowing effective monitoring of key aspects of implementation—budget and expenditures for land acquisition and distribution, support services and credit facilities; identification of target beneficiaries; and the status of land ownership disputes. This may also prove as a counterweight to corruption in DAR.
During its 20-year implementation, CARP has worked because of tremendous efforts of peoples’ organizations, NGOs and ARBs, and some reform-minded government officials. Farmers groups have pushed the boundaries of law, and oftentimes, went beyond it to claim their rights. The plight of Sumilao farmers, who walked more than 1,700 kilometers from Bukidnon to the capital to reclaim their ancestral lands, is a constant reminder that while grounds have been gained and pockets of improvements achieved, more remains to be done.
Just last December 3, on what was deemed as the National Day of Action for CARP Extension with Reforms, thousands of farmers all over the country held simultaneous activities to urge Congress to act. From Hacienda Bacan, Banasi, Sumalo, Macabud, Canlubang, Bondoc Peninsula, Calatagan, Sumilao, and various parts of Mindanao, the demand rang for the extension and reformation of the agrarian reform program.
However, considering the current administration’s preoccupation with self-preservation, there is a narrow window to make CARP work. Congress can choose to renew its commitment to CARP and the landless farmers or abandon them at a time of global food and financial crises; a sure recipe for rural unrest.
The throngs of farmers who have walked kilometer after kilometer in their struggle for genuine agrarian reform have now arrived at crossroads. Whatever happens, Ka Tessie and her fellow farmers will certainly know who will be accountable.