Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program: Aquino’s legacy or a mockery?

Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program:  Aquino’s legacy or a mockery?

Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program: Aquino’s legacy or a mockery?

By Kris Bayos

ASIDE from restoring democracy in the Philippines in 1986, the administration of the late President Corazon “Cory” Cojuanco-Aquino was noted in history for instituting a Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) that aims to give land to the landless. But 28 years later, the Cojuanco-Aquino’s own 5,000-hectare sugarcane plantation in Tarlac is yet to be actually distributed to the beneficiaries of her own social reform program.

The Cojuanco-Aquino’s Hacienda Luisita is one of the many vast parcels of agricultural lands that are under the mandatory coverage of CARP under Republic Act 6657. Each of the Hacienda’s 6,212 tenant-farmers is expecting to own at least 6,600 square meters of land from the 4,099-hectare distributable area of Hacienda Luisita. Despite government’s initial payment of at least P471 million as just compensation to Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI), the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is still struggling to install the beneficiaries in their CARP-awarded lands.

In September, DAR Secretary Virgilo delos Reyes said copies of Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOA) are currently being distributed to the farmer-beneficiaries. But almost three years after the Supreme Court ordered the actual land distribution to Hacienda Luisita farmers in 2011, DAR is still in the process of surveying the boundaries of each of the parcels that will be awarded. Mr. delos Reyes himself could not say how “soon” the farmer-beneficiaries can access and till the land they have been promised to have.

The stock-distribution option (SDO), which had delayed the actual distribution of Hacienda Luisita, is among the many loopholes in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law of 1988. Mrs. Aquino had included the SDO as a means for land-owning families like hers to evade the mandatory coverage of CARP. Under this loophole, corporate landowners may give farmer-beneficiaries the right to purchase capital stock of the corporation instead of turning over their land for CARP coverage. For years, farmers held HLI stock certificates instead of land titles as is the essence of the program. Although the Supreme Court had finally ordered the nullification of the SDO deal between HLI and its tenant-farmers, it failed to finally declare the unconstitutionality of the SDO as many agrarian reform advocates would have wanted.

Lawyer Christian Monson, who was appointed as Election Commissioner under Mrs. Aquino’s administration and was a member of the commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution, admitted that the SDO was proof that Mrs. Aquino would not betray her own kind: the landed. Despite being propelled to power by the very farmers she had promised land reform with, Mrs. Aquino “only paid lip service to it”—just like what her son does now despite referring to the masses, farmers included—as his boss.

 

Looming expiry

Theland acquisition and distribution (LAD) component of CARP is due to expire on June 30. Although the CARP as a social justice program will continue, only the lands with notices of coverage (NOC) issued before the deadline would be processed. In a status report, Mr. delos Reyes disclosed that there are still 822,488 hectares of land that comprise the LAD balance as of June 2013. Of the LAD balance, 210,067 hectares have been tagged as “problematic.” Despite DAR’s backlog and the agency’s need for more time to cope up, Mr. Aquino is yet to respond to calls for him to support the extension of CARP’s LAD component three months into the deadline.

In an interview last February, Ifugao Representative Teddy Brawner Baguilat, chairman of the Congressional Committee on Agrarian Reform, said there are separate proposals to extend LAD by five more years, to amend the existing law on CARP and to legislate a new and genuine agrarian reform law. Baguilat admitted that his Committee can endorse any of the proposed measures but said that the real battle will be at the plenary where landlords dominate the floor. “It cannot be denied that majority of those in Congress are landlords or are scions of landed families. But there are younger set of legislators who are open to the concept of social justice and human rights. There is a general sense of social reform. But let’s see (how they handle their biases) in the plenary,” he said.

Given the fast-approaching deadline, Baguilat said it may not be feasible for Congress to legislate a new agrarian reform law but it would significantly help if the incumbent President “would make a categorical statement or issue an executive order saying that all of the LAD balance are considered as covered,” even if NOCs are not issued before the June 30 deadline. Although Mr. Aquino promised to complete CARP during the his third state of the nation address, the government’s direction to wind down the operation of DAR and delegate its functions to other government agencies was seen as an outright contradiction of his claim.

Anxious about then apparent abandonment of the CARP, farmers made all sorts of noise just to get government’s attention and get it to seriously implement the program. Farmers from across the archipelago went on hunger strikes, barefoot marches, camp outs and demonstrations—the latest of which was held inside Malacañang grounds last February 11—were ignored, arrested, and even harassed for pushing for justice that is due them. Some even failed to live long enough to hold their elusive CLOAs.

Aware of the plight of the farmers, the civil society groups and Church leaders have rallied to support moves to further extend CARP. Atty. Monsod, representing the Multi-Stakeholder Task Force on Agrarian Reform, and Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, representing the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) National Secretariat for Social Action, Justice and Peace, were among the numerous signatories in a January 22, 2014 letter urging Mr. Aquino to extend CARP for two more years and to see the full implementation of the program until he steps down from the presidency in 2016.

“Decisive action to ensure the success of CARP will be especially timely, given that 2014 has been declared the International Year of Family Farming by the General Assembly of the United Nations. There would be no stronger statement that your administration champions the cause of family farmers by sustaining the very program that would give land to the landless, and thus allow the family farm sector to flourish within our country,” the agrarian reform advocates told Mr. Aquino in their letter.

 

Nullify circumventions

The agrarian reform advocates and farmer groups have also urged the Chief Executive and Congress to create an independent commission to look into the lands that avoided or circumvented the law. Among other purposes, the proposed commission would look into the lands that avoided or circumvented the law, such as the voluntary land transfer (VLT), unwarranted exemptions and conversions, excessive retentions, fake joint ventures, and “take steps to have them declared null and void and subject the lands to coverage and distribution,” they said.

Aside from the SDO, the VLT had also been another means for landowners to circumvent the law on agrarian reform. Under this option, landowners may enter into arrangement of land transfer directly to qualified beneficiaries. But Monsod said farmers are usually shortchanged under these arrangements. “Government must not allow landowners to negotiate directly with farmers because the bargaining positions are not the same. The farmers are in an inferior and weaker position,” he said.

Citing stories from the grassroots, Bishop Pabillo said landowners that availed of the VLT has actually defied the purpose of CARP when they identify the beneficiaries, “who are usually their dummies or their family members.”

The law also allowed landowners and farmer-beneficiaries to enter into leasehold agreement. Leasing back the lands from the farmers is actually considered a transition period where the farmers are being taught of capacity building as owner-cultivator of the farmlands but Monsod assailed DAR for consenting to leasehold agreements lasting for 20 years with some applying for further extension. “How can a transition period be as long as 20 years? Five years is enough. It is very difficult for them to undergo the transition from tenant-worker to owner-cultivator that is why the government should step in a big way to help them towards this transition.”

Monsod said these lands that evaded the law should be brought back to CARP coverage. “If you allow landowners who circumvented and defied the law to keep the land, it will make a mockery of the CARP. They are keeping their land and they brag about the fact that they were able to circumvent the law. How can that be social reform when you allow that to happen?” But Monsod also admitted that from the beginning of its institution, CARP was meant to fail. “All social reform laws have loopholes because they were legislated by the elite and for the rich and the powerful to take advantage of,” he said.

 

‘Give it a chance’

Agrarian reform advocates who wrote Mr. Aquino last January also urged the government to condone all unpaid amortizations for lands awarded under CARP. Ideally, farmers will pay for their awarded lands within 30 years but almost 90 percent of the farmers have been delinquent in their obligation.

Pabillo said the lack of support services like credit facility, planting technology, irrigation systems and farm-to-market roads have greatly affected the productivity of farmer beneficiaries. “It’s best to condone the unpaid amortization and unconditionally award the land to the farmers because there has been no support services to make them productive enough to earn,” the prelate said.

The lack of support service for farmers was traced to the underfunding of CARP.  Initially, the program has a funding requirement of P225 billion for its 20-year implementation. However, landlords-dominated Congress only allocated P175 billion for the program and appropriated less than the P150 billion funding requirement for the five-year extension.

Monsod added that recouping the investment in CARP or merely meeting targets should not be government’s motivation. “They missed the point, agrarian reform is not about numbers or deadlines. It is about the outcome. Have the lives of the farmers improve?  Has rural poverty been reduced?”

“The deadline is only for the acquisition and distribution of lands,” he added. “The support service will still go on. We hope that there will be a massive example of this government of funding support services to show what can be done if it is done right.”

“Give CARP a chance” is the farmers’ outstanding appeal to Congress. Monsod said a proper audit of the DAR’s performance and the continued implementation of CARP will put new life into the farming sector. “Imagine what that can do to the morale of the poor farmers?”

 

Earth belongs to all

For his part, Pabillo said the Church would continue to rally behind the farmers in pursuing their rights under CARP. The CBCP NASSA has been instrumental in arranging farmers’ meetings with government officials, providing food and lodging to farmers during their marches and camp outs.

“According to the social teachings of the Church, the earth belongs to all and not only to some. It is not justice if only a few have lands while the majority are landless,” he said. “Until justice is not met, the Church’s support to the poor and oppressed will continue.”

Pabillo lamented the government’s lack of resolve in implementing agrarian reform and the Aquinos’ real intentions for not making CARP succeed. “Is it by design or by incompetence that the CARP is not completed?” the prelate asked. “I don’t know if it is just a lack of resolve or if there is really an intention to not make agrarian reform succeed.”

Mrs. Aquino may have restored democracy in a country torn by dictatorship but her leadership only ushered in an era that stinks of oligarchs and breeds political dynasties.  She may be regarded as an icon of democracy but her track record of serving her family’s interest over the common good will remain a stain in her and her son’s brand of leadership and a kind of legacy nobody in their family would be proud of.