Since 1988, the Philippines has had one of the world’s longest state-led land reform programs: the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). It was instituted with a 20 year mandate to redistribute private and public lands to peasant beneficiaries.
The program ended in 2008 with mixed results. Because well over 1 million hectares of private lands had escaped redistribution and private deals were deliberately set up to immediately take advantage of the reform program’s expiry, a new initiative was forced into law in 2009. Known as CARPER (CARP with Extensions and Reforms) it is due to expire in 2014. Despite a massive budget, it has thus far succeeded in redistributing about 20 percent of its mandated domains. Philippine land reform conditions differ markedly from those undertaken in Brazil by the MST over the past 25 years (MST, 2009a). The following is a synopsis of how the sclerotic land reform conditions in the Philippines evolved.
Land Reform in the Philippines
The context for agrarian reform in the Philippines begins decisively with U.S. colonial control from the end of the 19th Century. The U.S., as immediate successor to Spanish domination, exacerbated extractive and exploitative conditions rather than alleviated them as was originally posited (Franco, 2000, pp. 37-38, 72; Borras, 2008, pp. 3-6). Furthermore, U.S. control instituted a landed oligopoly as the legislative controllers of the archipelago; and, in the promotion of a cash crop export economy, drew large numbers of the rural population into entrenched conditions of economic and social servitude. The resistance that this fomented has contributed to contemporary configurations in the Philippine political economy.
Historically, Philippine resistance over unjust relations on the land has been continuous in differing degrees of intensity since at least 1745, the date of a major uprising against the religious orders that dominated agricultural land holdings in the Spanish colonial era (McAndrew, 1994, p. 19; Franco, 2000, p. 64). Responses to the struggle over land control, use and ownership have involved a range of political ploys. Prior to the Japanese occupation in 1942, this included the eviction and transplantation of tenant farmers from politically sensitive areas of Luzon to other parts of the archipelago, notably to Mindanao under Manuel Quezon’s presidential policies (Escalante, 2002, p.1; Tricom, 1998, p. 8; Franco, 2000, p. 88). To the extent that this reduced contested land rights in Luzon Province, the principal island in the archipelago, it multiplied problems in the southern-most islands.
Under President Magsaysay in the 1950s, according to David Wurfel (1988, p. 15), the first significant land reform ideas were promulgated but achieved little, in part because both tillers and owners of the land were not capable of being mutually placated and, as under Manuel Quezon, landowners dominated the legislature so securely that change to the ownership status quo was effectively sterilized (McAndrew, 1994, p. 45; Abinales & Amoroso, 2005, p. 182). Actual land distribution did make significant headway under the Ferdinand Marcos era (Wurfel, 1988, p. 169) but was limited to rice and corn, and was staged experimentally in Luzon, specifically in places like Neuva Ecija (Calderon, 1978, p. i). This area was notable for conditions of tenant servitude owing to indebtedness, excessive usury, and generations of inherited poverty that escalated drastically under the U.S. administration (Franco, 2000, p. 76).
Calderon’s (1978) explanation of this land reform scheme following Marcos’s Presidential Decree No. 27 of 1972 reveals several key points.
Firstly, agrarian reform in the Philippines was deliberately technocratic or centrally planned, accommodating the institutional concerns of multiple state agencies. This excluded the preferences or perspectives of farmers themselves, whose perceived backwardness was a factor in their very exclusion (Calderon, 1978, pp. 2, 7). Secondly, the complexity and cost of contingencies like credit, infrastructure, post-harvest facilities, marketing and chemical inputs needed in the long term to make a success of reform initiatives, effectively crowded out any peasant participation (Calderon, 1978, p. 5). Yet, as Brazil’s MST has taken pains to demonstrate in over 25 years of peasant-led land reform initiatives, land reform from above and without input and post-harvest support is fatally flawed.
In the Philippines, research by IBON (1998), Tecson (2009) and Flores-Obanil (2008) show that basic problems like poor health and expensive medicines, low quality and access to education, and unfair valuation of farmers’ produce, are common obstacles to the developmental prospects of peasant farmers. Moreover, farming inputs required for production are both prohibitively priced, if at all available, and not endogenously designed or developed by the farmers themselves, which in turn often results in debt. Land reform beneficiaries are trapped in a paternalistic web of agencies, departments, and institutions that govern but do not build their capacity. Worse, the tendency exhibited by Calderon (1978) is to blame the peasant farmers for failure: they are depicted as not constituted, ordered or independent enough to deal with freedom and enterprise on the land.
In short, the conditions necessary for successful participatory development did not obtain under Marcos’s limited set of reforms but the deficiencies of the model of land reform have created a legacy that persists until the present.
The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and its Extension
The era after Marcos is fundamental to an understanding of the agrarian reform program’s impetus and contestation in 2008-2009.
The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), emphasizing the return of the land to those who worked it, was the centrepiece to the new constitution enshrined in 1987 under President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, whose presidency followed the 1986 ‘People Power Revolution’ (Abinales & Amoroso, 2005, p. 234). Redistributive land reform was thus originally drafted during what was deemed an opportune time for left-of-centre politics (Riedinger, 1995, p. 13).
However, obstacles to its realization surfaced almost immediately via presidential hesitancy amid struggles for legitimacy from both the far left and the far right; congressional delays, dilution of the terms via loophole clauses, exemptions, and demands for landlord compensation; and outbreaks of violence between landless peasants and the state, most notably the Mendiola Bridge massacre of 19 farmers on January 22, 1987 (Riedinger, 1995; Putzel, 1992, p. 221; Borras, 2001, p. 546). President Aquino herself was severely compromised since her elite landed family owned a 6,435-hectare sugar estate, Hacienda Luisita, located north of Manila that had been founded on a contractual obligation of redistribution to the peasants that inhabited it – a promise that was conveniently forgotten over time (Abinales & Amoroso, 2005, p. 235). Distribution of this estate to its tenants has remained a perennial flash point in owner-tenant politics across the country and only in 2011 was given unanimous adjudication by the Supreme Court in favour of the peasant farmers (Business World, 2011, November 24).
Since the enactment of CARP in 1988, its poor implementation was attributed to a number of factors including, but not restricted to, lack of leadership of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), shortfalls in budgetary allotments, the capacity of owners to evade requirements, and conversion of estates into residential or industrial lots (Bello, 2009, pp. 52-58). While a statistical analysis conducted by Reyes (2002, pp. 20-46) shows that “agrarian reform had a positive impact on farmer beneficiaries” in terms of higher real per capita income and reduced poverty incidence between 1990 and 2000, Borras and others (2009, p. 14) point out that the DAR has achieved far less than it set out to do, and less even than it claimed of its targets. Gross figures suggest that 6,000,000 hectares was distributed to 3,000,000 beneficiary families over the 20 years of CARP’s implementation (Borras et al., 2009, p. 14); but since much of this distribution did not represent real land reform but made use of public, marginal or idle lands, or even distributions purely on paper for bureaucratic purposes, an area of 30 per cent less may constitute fair representation (Borras, 2008, p. 9; Bello, 2009, p. 80; Riedinger, 1995, p. 194). The least budgeted and most limited land distributions are reported by Bello (2009, p. 57) as having taken place under the pointedly neoliberal presidency of Gloria Arroyo (2001-2010).
By the end of CARP’s allotted period of implementation in 2008, it had become what Bello (2009, p. 65) terms an “orphan program”. Its achievements in having come to life at all were offset by various stalemates: ideological exhaustion, interminable political and financial costs, and population growth outstripping productive possibilities. As the Philippines became more industrialized, populated, and tourism oriented, land prices and the pressure by developers for conversion of “rice bowl” agricultural zones, such as in Cavite and Batangas, became clamorous (Serote, 2004, p. 302; Bello, 2009, pp. 51-52; McAndrew, 1994, pp. xii-xiii). To this, annual weather calamities, particularly during harvest season, as Boudreau (2001, p. 44) and Ofreneo and Serrano (1991, p. 3) note, further adversely affect sustained rural development in the agricultural sector.
For many observers, particularly landlord legislators, the opportunity to let CARP end in 2008 was therefore well regarded and the idea then that CARP could be prolonged was deemed almost impossible (Lim, 2009, pp. 5-6).
Furthermore, a concurrent model of land reform under market leadership championed by the World Bank held that land distribution on voluntary terms, rather than by expropriations, was optimal. But Market Led Agrarian Reform (MLAR), as Borras (2009, p. 14) points out, achieved extremely limited distribution at a cost approximately six times higher than even the state-mediated model, it was not a fit solution to any pro-tiller movement. Herein lies a significant point of bifurcation among Philippine development organizations engaged in agrarian reform, and which is focal for the analysis in this paper.
Contextually, Herring (1999, p. 2) points out a paradox in the politics and philosophy of agrarian reform: where the political change needed for real reform must be made to work through the existing political process itself, little or nothing can be expected to happen. Only under revolutionary or interventionist conditions, as in China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan in the mid-20th Century, might general effective change happen (Putzel, 1992, p.116; Hayami, 1990, p.3).
Along this line of reasoning, perhaps ironically, the far Left democratic platform in the Philippines mirrored that of the conservative right in seeking an end to CARP, yet for entirely different reasons.
The Left’s insistence had consistently been for a Genuine Agrarian Reform Program (GARP) that eliminated loopholes and pointedly ignored elite special pleading and the right of landowners to market-based compensation (Riedinger, 1995, pp. 149-151). As in the decision of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to boycott the elections of 1986 that ultimately collapsed the Marcos regime and which split the party, a point made by Fuwa (2000, p. 38) and Riedinger (1995, p. 127), the decision to reject the continuation of CARP poses necessary and acute questions for participatory democracy in the Philippines: to what extent could new schisms or a hardening of approaches result? Equally importantly, the steps taken to promote CARPER create other questions about participatory development: to what extent is a unifying force or, conversely, a new competitive wedge driven into the arena of resistance against the status quo?
The coalition of civil society organizations supporting the CARPER bill in 2009 was constituted by centre-left reformist groups that might be loosely termed “Social Democratic”, as well as pro-poor branches of the Catholic Church and associated peasant groups, particularly the Bukidnon peasant farmers of Sumilao who, as Lim (2009, p. 52) describes, marched to Manila to protest Quisumbing-San Miguel Corporation’s reneging on a land distribution pledge. At stake was a platform of issues overshadowing the specific intentions of the Bukidnon farmers. These included the future of the DAR; prospects for Constitutional Change, as had been long argued for by negotiators on behalf of foreign investment interests, prohibited since 1987 from open or full ownership of Philippine land holdings; peasant resistance of all affiliations to elite ownership; media and academic interests; aid donors; and state budget comptrollers. The supporters of the action behind CARPER endured the assassination of activist members, Rene Peñas and Vic Panglinawan, police assault, hunger strikes, and political obstruction, as Lim (2009) describes.
Success was proclaimed on August 7, 2009 with the signing into law of Republic Act 9700 or CARPER, a program designed to run until 2014.
While the law has been in existence for almost three years, implementation has been stalled and debates are not yet settled. The DAR is on target to redistribute less than 50 per cent of the designated lands by the time CARPER expires. Nevertheless, critics of the CARPER program, particularly the far left National Democrats, maintain that the program was always structurally designed to fail because it ignored or eliminated the voice and engagement of those groups that have consistently argued for full participation on terms determined by peasant communities themselves.
In other words, as in the reform program instituted under Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s, a top down, elite-administered system is in place without the requisite investment in and support for the peasant beneficiaries. Valuable and decisive lessons remain to be learned from the experience of Brazil’s MST (MST, 2009b).
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