Posted February 1998
IN THE PHILIPPINES, as the country is about to celebrate 100 years of independence, the century-old struggle of the small farmers for agrarian rights continues. Skewed landownership patterns remain unsolved and continue to plague agriculture. It is estimated that 2.9 million small farms (<5 ha) occupy slightly more than one-half of the total farm area, while only 13 681 medium-sized and large farms (>25 ha) account for 11.5 percent of the total farmland. In most cases, the farmer-owner relationship is still feudal, and landownership is concentrated among a few who are not so much interested in agricultural sustainability and productivity but in controlling the use of their land and consolidating their political power in the rural areas.
Tenancy rates in the countryside range from 50 to 70 percent. Just like other marginal farmers, tenants - whether sharecropping or leasehold - have to contend with a rural élite which not only enjoys a monopoly in land resources, but also single-handedly controls the distribution of technological inputs, rural banking, the renting out of farm machinery as well as the storage, transportation, processing and marketing of farm produce. Taken as a whole, marginal farmers, tenants and farm workers total 10.2 million, 70 percent of whom are landless. The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL or RA 6657) was passed in 1988 to change this situation. With an allotment from the Congress of about p 50 billion (US$1.92 billion), the ten-year law has a remaining balance of p 4.91 billion (US$0.18 billion) to date. However, distribution of lands to the tillers is below the expected targets and may not be accomplished during the last year of CARP. After a quarter of a century, from 1972 to 1996 the government distributed a cumulative total of 2.56 million ha or 60 percent of the planned allocation of 4.3 million ha.
The government's slowness in land transfer activities is due to its lack of political will to implement agrarian reform, manifest in operational and legal bottlenecks and in blockades by big landowners who have seats in Congress and posts in the government bureaucracy. As a result, massive agricultural land conversions are being carried out under the government's fast-track industrialization programme. The legal moves by Congress to stop CARP include: exemptions of big prawn farms, fish ponds and aquaculture areas from CARP coverage; foreign investors' leasing of private lands for up to 75 years; and the proposed 25-year moratorium on CARP implementation in the Mindanao region.
A number of undocumented farmers' testimonies and agrarian cases regarding the plight of the farmers mention harassment and, at times, murder. Those who have been issued land titles were not physically given lands while those who had secured ownership of their farms were not receiving the support and resources that were supposed to enable them to enhance their welfare. Despite the farmers' grave situation, big landowners continue to threaten CARP beneficiaries and explicitly mock the agrarian reform law.
The farmland in question is a 147.95 ha sugar estate owned by the Carpo-Rufino Agricultural Corporation (CARRUF). There are claims that one member of Carpo is the treasurer of the administration party, Lakas-NUCD, while a member of Rufino owns a large percentage of a major daily newspaper. CARRUF, whose owners are reportedly friends of the former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, was sequestrated by the Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG) on 19 April 1986. Subsequently, the estate was subjected to CARP.
More than ten years after the sequestration, in February 1997 the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) issued CLOAs to farmer beneficiaries. CARRUF filed a case before the DAR Adjudicatory Board in Bukidnon to stop the issuance of CLOAs to the farmer beneficiaries and then hired the services of the Tagbagani Security Agency, a private army owned by the former Colonel Alexandre Noble (one of the leaders of the Reform Armed Forces of the Philippine Movement or RAM) to guard the estate. With the consent of Valencia's town mayor Berthobal Ancheta, the guards of Tagbagani occupied the disputed farmland on 31 December 1996.
Henceforth, they fenced a total of 150 ha, including adjoining public lands. The guards reportedly prevented the farmers from harvesting their produce: corn, sugar cane and vegetable crops. The farmers have said that they have been constantly harassed and have been warned not to enter, or else there will be bloodshed. Last April, the farmers resorted to a policy dialogue with the national government through the DAR and Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG)/ Philippine National Central Police Offices. The DAR and DILG assured protection and immediate installation of farmer beneficiaries. However, while negotiations were under way, Tagbagani security guards reportedly burned about 30 ha of the sugar estate.
After long and tense negotiations, the farmers finally entered their lands. However, the Tagbagani security guards are still in the area, harassing the farmers. ANGOC, together with other NGOs and farmers' groups, urged President Fidel V Ramos to take stronger and decisive measures and, in response, in May 1997 the president ordered the DILG and DAR to investigate this reported case of harassment by Tagbagani security guards against the farmers. To date, no report has been issued.
There are bound to be more incidents like that of the CARRUF sugar estate. Thus, there must be stronger political will on the side of the government and more involvement of all government line agencies, local government units and Philippine National Police in ensuring the implementation of the agrarian reform programme and the security of its beneficiaries. The government is expected to be accountable in upholding the CARL, despite its many loopholes and limitations. NGOs and people's organizations in the Philippines will be ever-vigilant against the forces that impede agrarian reform while, at the same time, continuing to collaborate critically with government to expedite the implementation of CARP.
Agrarian reform requires a redistribution of political and economic power so that democratization, social justice and peace can be created. Ultimately, the struggle for a genuine agrarian reform lies beyond the implementation of CARP.