Filipino Land Reform Still Tardy in Tarlac

Despite a 2012 Philippine Supreme Court order requiring the family of President Benigno S. Aquino III to redistribute its vast Hacienda Luisita sugar plantation to poor farmers, critics say the pace of divestiture is slow and that redistribution targets are not being met.

Nor, say activists, is the powerful Cojuangco dynasty alone. They say the program is problematic and running well behind schedule, with impoverished beneficiaries who do get redistributed properties often leasing them back under the table to the landowners who were forced to divest, and with poverty rates increasing among those who do get the property.

Farm advocates say that although the Rancho Luisita divestment is moving ahead, the Cojuangco family is being paid far too much for its land by the government, and that forced evictions and destruction of farmers’ homes continue, with Tarlac Province police and private security guards clashing with farmers in early February.

The land is controlled by the Tarlac Development Corporation, known as Tadeco, which is owned by the Cojuangco clan. President Aquino is related to the family through his late mother, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, the daughter of Jose Cojuangco, the family patriarch. Despite his position as a lightning rod in the controversy, the president plays no role in either the family businesses or the plantation.

In 1987, attempts to push reform forward resulted in an episode called the Mendiola Massacre when state security forces in Manila violently dispersed a farmer’s march on Malacañang Palace, then occupied by Corazon. Thirteen farmers were killed and many more were wounded.

Tadeco says the lands the farmers are being evicted from are not part of the 6,000-hectare sugar plantation that is covered by the reform program. The activists and farmers disagree, saying the lands do come under the program. Under its provisions, all lands exceeding seven hectares were to be bought by the government and resold to the landless farmers.

On Feb. 11, farm activists and leaders of the Catholic Church rallied at Malacañang to demand that the acquisition program be extended. It was supposed to have ended in 2012 but was extended by the Congress to this coming June. The farmers say land distribution targets aren’t being met and that politically influential families and the national government itself own more than half of the land that has yet to be distributed.

In fact, the apparent failure of land reform in the Philippines is a story that stretches back at least a century and more, with the arrival of the Americans at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The then US colonial governor, William Howard Taft, attempted to reform the centuries-old hacienda system put in place by the Spanish, only to be thwarted by American agricultural interests that did not want competition from Philippine agricultural exports.

Filipino land reform officials deny that the reform pace is behind schedule and that the government can meet its June targets. By the end of the year, they say, the program is expected to have redistributed 5 million hectares, or 99 percent of the lands in question, and that 2.6 million farmers will own an average of 1.2 hectares each.

A bigger concern, according to a report by the Manila-based Pacific Strategies & Assessments, is that productivity is declining once the distribution is completed. Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio De Los Reyes acknowledged that that 44 percent of all agrarian reform beneficiaries, or 1.16 million people, were without access to integrated support services that would aid them in tilling the land as of December 2013. The number of beneficiary households below the poverty line, at 36 percent in 2009, actually grew to 54 percent in 2013.

In fact, according to PSA, the remaining lands to be redistributed – almost a million hectares – are the most contentious. They are private agricultural lands, where landowner resistance is very strong. Another 800,000 hectares are state-owned, meaning the government will need to pay the landowners. Some 39.3 percent are large private agricultural lands, mostly more than 24 hectares

It also appears that the cash-strapped recipients, despite supervision on resales, actually engaged in underground land transactions, leasing the properties back to their original owners. According to the PSA report, the proportion of farmer beneficiaries who engaged in these illegal land transactions ranges from seven to 100 percent.

Thus, the report says, “the two goals of land reform – reducing poverty and eliminating the system of feudalism in the Philippine countryside – remain unrealized.”

Improving land reform efforts, PSA says, “would require the government to use effective political will especially in enforcing claims against the landed interests. It would also entail modifications of any future land reform mechanisms. According to economists, the current property regulatory regime involving land use is a “poverty trap.” The present model, which is a compromise between the national government and farmers associations, is manifestly unsustainable.”