JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1994 - VOLUME 15 - NUMBER 1
T H E P H I L I P P I N E S
Agrarian "Reform," Ramos Styleby Anotnio Ma. Nieva
MANILA - Across the Philippines, tens of thousands of hectares of agricultural land are undergoing "conversion" - the official metaphor for exclusion from land reform - leaving tens of thousands of hand-to-mouth farmers landless, restless and angry.
Landlords openly harass peasants, driving them off their farms at gunpoint, fencing them out with barbed wire, bulldozing crops. Certificates of land titles are worthless; in some areas they are confiscated. The countryside seethes with tension while the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) itself is hobbled by legal constraints.
For all intents and purposes, land reform is dead, killed by the government's consuming pre-occupation with becoming a NIC (newly industrializing country) by the year 2000.
One thousand or so embattled farmers from Southern Tagalog, a region just south of the Manila region, declared so on May 20, 1993, in a funeral caravan that sought to focus the Ramos administration's attention on the moribund state of Republic Act 6657, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL).
Elsewhere, thousands of others are fighting desperately to keep what they have- and are gradually losing. Riddled with loopholes at its enactment on June 10, 1988, the "centerpiece program" of former President Corazon Aquino was dealt what has been described as the mortal blow four years later by another law: Republic Act 7160, the Local Government Code of 1991, which was, ironically, meant to empower the people by strengthening local government.
From the northernmost Philippine island of Luzon down to the southernmost island of Mindanao, an epidemic of land-use conversion from agricultural to industrial, commercial, residential or tourist purposes is systematically reversing land reform in a way that was never foreseen by the framers of CARL.
More of nothing
"We had nothing then, now we have more of nothing," says an embittered Elias Kasunuran, president of Damayan rig Mga Magbubukid sa Bayan ng Binan, a farmers' group locked in a life-and-death struggle with land developers.
Land use conversion is authorized by CARL, itself. The law charges the DAR with reviewing conversion applications according to lenient criteria.
The DAR approved 866 of 1,200 applications for land-use conversion in 1992, removing 12,047 hectares from land reform coverage. This figure could easily swell to 23,033 hectares if 324 pending applications are approved.
These government data do not reflect the full extent of land conversions, according to the Philippine Peasant Institute (PPI). The PPI reports, for example, that the DAR's office in Santa Cruz, in the Southern Tagalog province of Lagima, documented the conversion of 1,568 hectares in the municipality, but the DAR's national records listed only two cases covering 218 hectares. Southern Tagalog-Agenda, a farmers' organization, reports an additional 2,464 hectares converted elsewhere in Laguna, a development which the PPI claims also escaped the DAR's master list. The DAR's statistics also ignore illegal conversions that occur without its knowledge. Overall, the PPI estimates more than 100,000 hectares of land have been converted to industrial, commercial, tourist and residential use.
By 1998, the DAR expects to distribute 2.5 million hectares to almost a million land reform beneficiaries. But the country's breakneck drive toward industrialization will likely dislocate nearly a fourth of the country's estimated 10 million farmers over the same period, as farm lands are cleared to make way for factories and plants. In fact, the pace of land conversion appears to he rapidly increasing in direct proportion to the slowdown in land distribution, notes Corinne Canlas, PPI director for research.
A May 1993 position paper by the PPI identifies Southern Tagalog as the area hardest hit by land conversion on the island of Luzon because of two ambitious industrial projects - the Calabarzon estate (located on lands in five provinces south of Manila) and the Bondoc Peninsula Integrated Area Development Program. Sixty-eight percent of the rice lands converted to nonagricultural use was concentrated in this area, according to the PPI.
Another impetus for massive land conversions are the 23 Rural Industrial Centers (RICs) to be set up under President Fidel Ramos's development plan. Sixteen of them alone require 10,547 hectares of agricultural land, says Economic Planning Secretary Cielito Habito. Seven of the RICs are to be constructed within irrigated and irrigable areas that, until 1989, were covered by land reform. Thirteen more such estates are being planned for Mindanao, on top of the two already set up in Cagayan de Oro and General Santo cities.
Land conversions for the RICs, says the PPI's Canlas, will cause untold hardships for farmers, who have no guarantee whatsoever ofany livelihood more productive and socially edifying than a hired hand once they are dislodged from their farms.
Still anotherproblem is illegal land conversions, a phenomenon which has only barely been documented. From 1991, according to Southern Tagalog-Agenda, illegal land conversions have claimed at least 15,557 hectares in Southern Tagalog alone, mainly through direct transactions among farmer-beneficiaries of the CARP, landowners and foreign investors. In the Southern Tagalog city of Santa Rosa for example, 522 farmer-families occupying a five-hectare tract are being forcibly evicted by a company, Andasol Finance Corp., to make way for an "industrial complex." The project has not been approved by the DAR. In December 1992, also in Santa Rosa, Agricultural Reform Secretary Ernesto Garilao intervened in the nick of time to stop the conversion of 11 hectares into an industrial estate - supposedly a joint-venture partnership between Toshiba World Philippines and Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) beneficiaries. In rejecting the application for conversion, Garilao invoked regulations which prohibit conversion of CARP lands within five years of their having been awarded to a beneficiary. The land proposed for conversion, part of the 1,645-hectare estate which alleged Marcos crony Jose Yao Campos had surrendered to the government, was awarded as recently as 1989 and 1991.
The illusion of protection
The Filipino magbubukid (farmer) is fighting a lost cause. One sheet of paper bearing the signature of President Fidel V. Ramos is all that stands between the small farmers and the night stalkers standing in line to take away what little land they till.
But even Administrative Order No. 20 (AO 20) is not protection against the persistent battering of the landlord and big-business lobby that equates land reform with a big leap backward for the country, a social deadweight to economic growth. In the government's frenzied drive to industrialize, the spirit and intent of an inherently flawed CARP is inexorably being bulldozed under.
Signed December 7,1992, Ramos claimed AO 20 was intended to stop the indiscriminate conversion of productive rice lands for commercial, industrial or residential use. While it establishes regulatory safeguards against land-use conversion, AO 20 is often sidestepped by landowners. In more than a few documented instances, it is disregarded outright by profit-hungry speculators engaging in wholesale- and grossly illegal-conversion of agricultural land into subdivisions and tourist resorts that the Department of Agrarian Reform is hard-pressed to stop.
Worse still, AO 20 is as plagued with loopholes and exceptions as CARL and the Local Government Code. Although it purports to strengthen land reform with guidelines that forbid land conversion on most irrigated lands and on irrigable lands covered by fully funded irrigation projects, AO 20 declares all other agricultural land eligible for conversion, conditional only "upon strict compliance with existing laws, rules and regulations."
And even the prohibition on conversion can be easily circumvented. Water can be shut off and irrigation systems destroyed by landlords, with little prospect of rebuilding. Such is the case in Laguna, where unscrupulous land developers and their police bodyguards have wiped out a centuries-old network of irrigation dikes relied on by about 5,000 farmers.
With the land rendered "negotiable" for conversion, it becomes a fairly routine matter for landlords to comply strictly with "existing laws, rules and regulations," as required by AO 20, and still turn their property into a subdivision or tourist resort.
'Reclassifying' agricultural lands
AO 20 makes a poor executive plug to stop the hemorrhage in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program induced by Section 20 of the Local Government Code. The Code authorizes cities and municipalities, after a series of public hearings, to reclassify up to 15 percent of their lands as no longer suitable for agriculture. These reclassified lands are then exempt from the land reform.
The Code stipulates two bases for reclassifying lands: that the lands to be converted cease to be "economically feasible and sound for agricultural purposes," as determined by the Department of Agriculture; and that the city or municipal council determine that the lands have greater economic value for residential, commercial or industrial purposes. The Code's only express injunction is a prohibition on reclassification of lands already distributed under CARL and other relevant agrarian laws.
The limitations on reclassification in the Code are cosmetic. One key provision allows the president, "when public interest so requires" and on the recommendation of the National Economic and Development Authority, to authorize towns and cities to reclassify lands above the limits set by the Code.
If there is any doubt that the Code means to favor landlords, Article 42 of Section 20 erases it by providing that approval of applications for reclassification "shall not unreasonably be withheld." It furthermore stipulates, "failure to act on a proper and complete application for reclassification within three months from receipt of the same shall be deemed as approval thereof."
Adding to these problems, local government units have recently been undertaking their own land conversions, a development that seriously undermines the DAR's authority and mandate. "Our position is that local governments can only reclassify," says Agrarian Reform Secretary Ernesto Garilao. "They have no authority to convert" But the damage has been done. Former DAR Secretary Benjamin Leong says that up to 371,000 hectares may be lost to CARP due to indiscriminate reclassification under Sec. 20 of the Local Government Code.
Plagued by loopholes
There are a wide array of anti-farmer implements available to landlords and developers, many in the form of gaping loopholes in CARL. Among the loopholes in the land-reform program are:
"CARL is like a sack of rice - the sack is full of holes, and is now almost empty," says Ed Mora, chairperson of KASAMA, an alliance of farmers' groups in Southern Tagalog.
Efforts to further emasculate CARL continue in Congress. Two House bills seek to exclude commercial farms scheduled for redistribution in 1997 from CARP. Another House measure proposes to exempt agricultural lands with a slope of seven degrees planted with fruit and forest trees for lumber. Still another bill would suspend land reform in Mindanao until the year 2020.
Only recently, the president signed into law RA 7652, which allows foreign investors to lease agricultural lands up to 50 years, renewable for another 25 years. The KMP, a mass-based peasants' association, charges that RA 7652 is patently anti-farmer. The new law legitimizes the forcible eviction of tenant-tillers, legalizes conversion of agricultural lands and institutionalizes the expansion and control of multinational corporations over vast tracts of plantation lands planted with export crops, the organization claims.
The PPI's Canlas sums up the uphill legislative struggle facing farmers' advocates. "The landlord lobby is very aggressive, attending all sessions in the House committee on agrarian reform," says Canlas. "The PPI can only present position papers, and hope that the committee chairman is sympathetic to the farmers' cause."
Enforcement of agrarian reform is as trouble-filled for farmers as the laws themselves. "Landowners think we are proceeding too fast," says Agrarian Reform Secretary Ernesto Garilao, "while farmers say we are moving too slow."
The DAR's mandate is to implement land reform, Garilao says. "And we're doing it within the scope defined by [ RA 16657. "The government agency, he points out, cannot do more than what is provided for in the law, without violating the same law.
But precisely because the law is flawed, the DAR now finds its time and resources strained to the limits by legal challenges initiated by landowners in municipal and regional trial courts. Judges abet the frivolous suits, issuing decisions on agrarian disputes that CARL places under the legal jurisdiction of the DAR Adjudication Board. Many judges were uninformed about the issue of jurisdiction until recently, when Supreme Court Chief justice Andres Narvasa issued a circular reminding them to remand all agrarian cases to the DAR's Adjudication Board. The critical situation raises the specter of justice being methodically miscarried on a nationwide scale, with farmers at the receiving end.
"We have had to `slug it out,"' says Garilao, citing an instance where a municipal court in Bago City issued a temporary restraining order on a motion by a disgruntled landowner, to stop the DAR from redistributing his estate in Bacolod. The DAR won the case, says Garilao.
In Montalban, on an eviction case filed by the heirs of a 47-hectare estate, the municipal judge simply declared CARP beneficiary Antonio a "squatter" and, therefore, "outside the coverage and protection of land reform," in spite of the title in his possession. Antonio's case remains lost. "It's really a question of jurisdic tion," says Garilao.
Reestablishing the DAR's jurisdiction would hardly be a solution, though. Severely understaffed, its adjudicators and lawyers poorly paid, the Adjudication Board is unable to cope with the number of pending cases that clog its dockets, as of early 1993, the Board's backlog stood at 77,443. At a recent hearing of the House Committee on Agrarian Reform, Garilao conceded the Board's "serious problem" with personnel. Because of poor pay - lawyers at the DAR receive only $240 to $280 a month- many of its legal officers are leaving, and there are few replacements.
Much of the energy that the DAR is able to muster is sapped by its responsibility of approving conversions of farm lands to nonagricultural use. "Conversion is tying us down," Garilao admits.
As if this were not enough, the DAR's Adjudication Board's decisions, orders and writs are often left unenforced by the Philippine National Police (PNP), which is more inclined to side with landowners than farmers. In don Jose, a community in Santa Rosa, for example, 22 farmers fighting to retain 17 hectares of land awarded them by the DAR won a favorable decision from the DAR Adjudication Board stopping their eviction - but were evicted nevertheless. The Laguna PNP flatly refused to enforce the Board's order and instead is helping keep them out, according to peasant activist Graciano Manto.
The military's subversion of land reform
The final bludgeon against farmers is the most vicious. Landlords frequently use the military and police to muzzle, intimidate or soften opposition to land consolidation or conversion. Some of the most brutal repression is unleashed in connection with the military's counterinsurgency program. Aimed at dismantling guerrilla fronts, the military's clear-and-hold strategy, which depends on concentrated and prolonged troop deployments, provides a standing security force for landlords and developers, say leaders of the KMP, the peasant organization.
As an example of the effects of militarization on the land-reform process, the KMP cites the illegal conversion in 1992 of 114 hectares of CARP-awarded land in two communities in Binan, Laguna into the Laguna International Industrial Park of businessperson Elena Lim. This conversion, denounced by Presidential Commission on Good Government Chair Magtanggol Gunigundo as the "mother of all land scams," involved lands transferred to farmers five years earlier, even though CARIL requires a 10-year waiting period before conveyed lands can be transferred.
The land conversion was preceded in 1988 by the entry in the villages of Mamplasan and Ganado of Army special operations teams which harassed leaders, of a local farmers' organization. The total-war units imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, controlled movement, conducted spot checks and surveillance operations and broke up meetings. Four years later, the farmers were totally cowed - and more than willing to sell their lands.
The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program spelled out in Republic Act 6657 is widely perceived by its critics as a package of' mass deception in the way it strengthens rather than unshackles the bonds of the country's 10 million or so tillers of the soil.
Unless the government moves fast to redress it, the problem may derail the peace process initiated by President Ramos and abort the country's drive to achieve full industrialization by the year 2000.
Land reform is a major demand of both rightist rebel soldiers and the Marxist Left that the Ramos administration has been trying to coax to the negotiation table. Social justice, encompassing agrarian reform, is one of the talking points raised by the RAM group of rebel soldiers, while the leftist National Democratic Front is pressing for "genuine land reform" as one of its conditions for ending its more than two-decade old insurgency.
Rather than promoting the goal of liquidating the insurgency, a requirement for unimpeded industrialization, an unreformed CARP might trigger a more volatile resurgence of internecine warfare in the countryside, as landlord intimidation and harassment escalate, and more and more farmers are distocated.
Antonio Ma. Nieva is a writer with the Philippine Daily Inquirer. This article is based on a series of articles that ran in the Manila-based newspaper.