MANILA - Land reform has been implemented in the Philippines for two decades, with few results, and policy researchers and academic experts have constantly highlighted its failures. So why is it still popular among Filipino leaders and lawmakers?
One reason could be attracting votes, as the nation's electorate tends to view populist social programs favorably. Then there is the danger of unrest if the nation's militant landless movement were to get out of hand. A very influential group of prelates and nuns, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines, also wants agrarian reform.
The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), which aims at allowing the government to acquire and redistribute private and public farmland, started in 1988. It expired in June 2008, but was extended to December 2008. Failing to enact a new law to replace CARP, Congress issued a joint resolution extending the law for another six months.
On Wednesday, the lower chamber of Congress approved a bill to extend CARP for another five years. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had said the extension was urgent.
During the six months extension, Congress replaced the CARP provision on the compulsory acquisition of agricultural lands from landlords with an optional one giving them leeway to sell or voluntarily subject their lands for transfer.
But Congressman Edcel Lagman has noted that since the CARP extension took effect in January this year, no landowners have applied or petitioned for voluntary land transfer or sale. "This only proves that any agrarian reform program will fail without the provision for compulsory acquisition," Lagman said.
Six left-leaning new party-list representatives are calling for the extension of CARP - but with the compulsory land acquisition component. In a statement released last week, they said the House should focus on the CARP extension bill, instead of scrapping protectionist provisions in the 1987 constitution that ban foreign ownership of land. This will only push land prices beyond the means of Filipinos, who can barely afford them now, they argued.
Data from the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) show that 130 billion pesos (US$2.7 billion) has already been spent on CARP since it was first implemented in 1988 following the ouster of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Philippine agrarian reform involves not just land reform but also support services such as credit, infrastructure, agricultural extension and marketing.
Despite coming from a well-to-do and landed family, agrarian reform became a centerpiece of former president Corazon Aquino's tenure. She saw it as a means to redistribute land and to correct the injustice and inequality suffered by poor rural people during the Marcos regime.
An additional objective of agrarian reform in the country is political. Agrarian unrest has been one of the main causes of the communist insurgency in the country, so CARP also aims at promoting security and social stability.
But though more than 9 million hectares of mostly public land have been distributed to more than 6 million farmers under CARP, poverty remains high in rural areas and farmers and fishermen remain the country's poorest groups, while the threat from communist rebels persists.
Senator Miguel Zubiri has blamed the farmers themselves for the failure of CARP. He has said many farmers lost interest in tilling the land granted to them and had sold it to land developers, reducing the program to a farce.
Zubiri, who belongs to one of the richest families in Mindanao, said that about 3,000 hectares of agricultural land owned by his family in Bukidnon had been distributed to tenant-farmers. But the ownership of the land had changed already through selling and reselling in flagrant violation of the CARP.
Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman has not denied that the illegal sale and transfer of titles of these lands has been rampant - especially during the early stage of the agrarian program. Under CARP rules, land titles can only be transferred to family members of the farmer-beneficiaries.
However, farmers explain that because of poverty, many are cashing in on the land bonanza to raise money for their children's education, pay for family members to work abroad or simply to retire early.
"Farming is tough and laborious. None of our children want to work on it anymore," said Saro Manzanero, a former farmer who sold his share to developers.
Sometimes it is politicians themselves who buy land from the beneficiaries. In the town of Cabuyao, some 40 kilometers south of Manila, most of the plots now belong to local politicians who bought them at cheap prices or are speculating on future land prices.
Zubiri abstained in the third and final reading of the Senate bill on Monday, which voted 12-0 on extending CARP for another five years, with only two abstentions. The other senator who abstained is Benigno Aquino III, son of former president Aquino, another landed clan.
Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile voted in favor of the bill, despite his earlier reservations on the issue of forced land acquisition and distribution. He has emphasized the need for the government to focus instead on the development of farmland already distributed.
According to a working group formed to study the extension, an additional 147 billion pesos is needed by DAR, mostly to pay to landowners. This is on top of over 300 billion pesos that the Land Bank of the Philippines is asking Congress for to fund payments for about 600,000 hectares taken but not yet paid for.
According to Fermin Adriano, an agriculture policy expert, one of the program's problems is that it is anchored on the "land to the tiller" concept. This means that those who actually till the lands "should be given the property right to the land they till". However, 70% of the rural labor force is largely composed of landless agricultural workers.
Unless they are in plantations, agrarian reform is not relevant to them since they are not entitled to owning a piece of the land. Yet poverty is highest among these landless persons. They have become the hired labor of land reform beneficiaries, who have engaged in non-farming to earn higher incomes. "This arrangement has transformed [the beneficiaries] into petty landlords and the landless workers into sub-tenants."
There is also lower farm productivity among agrarian reform beneficiaries compared with local commercial farms or farmers in other countries. For example, rice production is only a little over three tonnes per hectare among them compared with Indonesia's four tonnes per hectare and South Korea with a rice yield of some six tonnes per hectare.
Farmers have learned that they cannot compete with lower-priced imports. Adriano said that the positive impact of the program cannot be realized without adequate services to make land more productive and production efficient.
There is also the reality that land is no longer the primary source of accumulating wealth in the Philippines and agriculture is no longer the primary source of livelihood for the masses. The country has become mainly urban and access to jobs is a better way to reduce rural poverty, not land ownership.
By Joel D Adriano
Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.
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