Positive signals toward peace talks continuation


Two media announcements from Malacanang this week, reaffirming President Duterte’s commitments on two crucial issues at the start of his term in July, have evoked positive responses from the peasant and worker sectors. These sectors constitute the majority of the poor whose socio-economic conditions Mr. Duterte has vowed to uplift.

The first, announced after a meeting last Tuesday of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) headed by the President, is that the executive order for a two-year moratorium on the conversion of agricultural lands to non-agricultural uses will be issued soon. The second is President Duterte’s reiterated avowal, made during his long meeting on Monday with leaders of a big labor coalition, that he stands firmly on ending all forms of labor contractualization that workers oppose.

Controversy has attended both issues, as resistance to them has been raised within and outside the government.

Although the PARC (which met last September for the first time after 10 years of dormancy) discussed and approved in principle Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano’s recommendation for the two-year moratorium on land conversions, the Cabinet’s economic managers subsequently formally objected to it.

The moratorium aims to enable the Department of Agrarian Reform to review all the land conversions that it approved from 1988 to 2016, which totalled 97,592.5 hectares (excluding those converted by local government units and those illegally converted by private parties). Secretary Mariano wants to identify cases of “rampant and unchecked conversions of prime agricultural lands” in order to rescind or curb them. The longer view is to safeguard the nation’s food security, in the light of our long-running reliance on rice and other farm-product imports, rising population, and rapid urbanization.

In their objection, the economic managers (the secretaries of finance, budget, economic planning, and trade) claim the two-year ban will have adverse impacts on the housing backlog (placed at over five million), infrastructure development, and other expanding economic activities utilizing land.

On contractualization, the initial step taken by the Department of Labor and Employment – defining contractual workers as employees of the labor-contracting agencies, removing their labor-management relations with the firms where they are deployed – was resoundingly rejected by unionized workers.

Thus, doubts have been raised over Mr. Duterte’s sincerity in carrying out his declared commitments. With the twin reassurances from Malacanang, what needs watching and scrutiny will be the process of implementation.

Aside from issuing the executive order on land conversions, the President was urged during the Tuesday PARC meeting to certify as urgent the genuine agrarian reform bill, filed by the Makabayan bloc, long pending in the House of Representatives. The bill aims to cover all agricultural lands in the country and calls for the distribution of land to landless farmers and agricultural workers at no cost to them, and the provision of support services and facilities to ensure improved productivity.

If followed through assiduously, the Malacanang reassurances can also help boost the prospects for continuing the GRP-NDFP peace talks, which were last held on Jan. 19-25 in Rome and, as agreed, would be held again in Oslo on April 2-6.

(You may recall that on Feb. 4, in a fit of bluster over the death of two AFP soldiers as the CPP-NPA withdrew their unilateral ceasefire, Mr. Duterte said he was cancelling the peace talks. However on Feb. 21, after meeting the three Cabinet members nominated by the NDFP, the President reiterated publicly, through presidential peace adviser Jesus Dureza, his “desire and passion for bringing about just, lasting and inclusive peace in the land.”)

Both land conversion and contractualization are among the many issues sought to be resolved in the negotiations on a Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER). At the third round of formal negotiations held in Rome, the GRP panel already agreed in principle to the free distribution of land as a basic element of genuine agrarian reform.

In his initial statement on the peace talks cancellation, Dureza rued the sudden turn of events as “unfortunate”; only two weeks earlier the two sides had jointly declared the talks held in Rome to have been a success.

Dureza may have realized a bit late that similarly unfortunate was the apparent lack of a timely briefing that he and GRP peace panel chair Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III should have given the President about the significant advances achieved in the Rome negotiations. Had they done so, perhaps the latter wouldn’t have blurted out that he was cancelling the talks. Bello in fact acknowledged, in a public forum at UP Diliman on Feb. 18 – three weeks after returning to Manila – that he had not yet talked to the President about the many positive results.

Probably Dureza and Bello were able to brief the President on such positive results before they joined him at his Feb. 20 dinner-meeting for a discreet discussion with the three progressive Cabinet members (Liza Maza, Judy Taguiwalo and Rafael Mariano). One would like to think that it was then and there that President Duterte decided to mend his administration’s good relations with the CPP-NPA/NDFP before the fissure grew any bigger.

It would be interesting to find out what were the “specific instructions on how to deal with the situation“ that Dureza said the President gave to his peace adviser and chief negotiator during or after that dinner.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in The Philippine Star
March 4, 2017

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