Thirty years under a sham agrarian reform program and one year under a progressive agrarian reform chief.
By DANIEL BOONE
There are at least two ironies concerning land reform. The first one is the fact that the Philippines remain to be among the top importers of rice despite being an agricultural country with the majority of its population being farmers. The second and more obvious is the fact that farmers remain to be the poorest among all sectors despite working tirelessly day-in, night-out, to put food on every Filipino table.
It is hard to just accept that the world is full of contradictions, especially when these have hindered the development of the country itself. And partly — if not fully—to blame is poor implementation of agrarian reform program in the country. For the longest time, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) has failed to do its primary job of distributing lands to farmers.
This is why hopes were high when President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano as the secretary of the department. Former chairperson of peasant group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and representative of peasant partylist Anakpawis in Congress, Mariano is the first legitimate farmer to assume the position as DAR chief. He is one with the hundreds of farmers who joined the 40,000-strong protest parallel to Duterte’s second State of the Nation Address.
Former peasant leader Mariano in DAR
The first thing Mariano did after taking his oath in the position was to remove the metal gates that surround DAR office. But apart from welcoming the farmers to the Agrarian Reform office, Mariano did spearhead distribution of lands and dismantling of haciendas across the archipelago. It started in his first months in office when he sped up land distribution in Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac, with at least 370 hectares of land was declared ready for acquisition.
Mariano also campaigned for a two-year moratorium on land use conversion, which hinders conversion of agricultural lands to other use, like commercial or residential. Provisions on the currently implemented Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and its extension with reforms (CARPER) allow farmlands to be converted, and it has been used undeterred by landlords to retain ownership of the lands, said KMP Secretary General Antonio Flores.
The department order for the moratorium has been pending since last year in the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC), the highest policy-making and coordinating body for agrarian reform programs.
But as former mass leader, Mariano has united DAR with the farmers to collectively push for the institutionalization and passage of House Bill (HB) 555, otherwise known as the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill (GARB). Progressive peasants believe GARB will -put an end to CARP and CARPER and truly distribute the lands to its tillers. The bill was first filed in the landlord-dominate Congress in 2008 by the late labor leader Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran.
Three decades of bogus land reform program
Peasant groups like KMP and Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) have long declared CARP a failure.
An estimated 7.8 million hectares of land were to be distributed under CARP from 1988 up to 1998, but a law amending and re-channeling additional funds for the program extended the deadline for another 10 years. Come 2008, however, lands are still not fully distributed, which paved the way for another extension with reforms, also known as CARPER.
While more than 6.9 million hectares or 88 percent of all CARP-able lands have already been said to be distributed to farmers, a whopping 44 percent of this are public lands, according to findings of KMP. Meaning, farmers will pay amortization fees for using lands that have been public all the while.
But the bureaucracy that slows down the process of land distribution is just one of the many problems that haunt CARP and its implementation. Certificate of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs), which are given to farmers who receive parcels of their land, are getting cancelled because of loopholes in CARP, Flores said. DAR is still investigating the issue and is soon to publish data regarding farmers with CLOAs cancelled.
The exacerbating conditions of farmers under CARP have forced farmers to mobilize, which government responded to with violence. Human rights violations against and killings of peasants and farmworkers have been rampant and, in fact, drastically increased under Duterte, reaching its peak in March with almost one farmer getting killed every two days, according to KMP data.
But Mariano as DAR chief continues to gain support from the farmers’ sector, especially that DAR has forged unity with peasant groups to push for a genuine land reform through GARB.
Unity among peasant groups and DAR
On his first year report State of Agrarian Reform Address held on July 20, Mariano stressed that while he remains in DAR, he will continue strengthening the campaigns to fully distribute lands among its tillers and dismantle haciendas and land monopoly in the country.
“Kami naman po sa DAR ay kaisa ng sambayanang Pilipino [sa laban] … Bilang kalihim ng DAR, nanatili at naniniwala [ako] na ang pangunahin pa ring mapanghahawakan, masasandigan na dedepensa sa karapatan ng mga magsasaka ay ‘yung mahigpit na pagkakaisa at organisadong lakas ng magsasaka (We in DAR are one with the struggles of the Filipino people … As DAR Secretary, I stand firm and believe that we could always rely on our collective action and organized movement in defending our rights),” Mariano said.
Farmers group have welcomed the statement of support coming from no less than the Agrarian Reform Secretary. Any support from the administration should reinforce the campaigns to later fully realize farmers tilling their own lands, said Flores, who reiterated that Mariano also accepts the challenges posed by farmers groups for him to accomplish within next year.
Aside from strengthening campaigns for institutionalizing GARB, the farmers also demanded Mariano to put an end to land-use conversion and return the coco levy funds or the taxes which have been collected from coconut farmers during Marcos’s Martial Law. The total coco levy fund is pegged to be around P75 billion, and concerns more than three million coconut farmers, whose products remain to be the country’s top agricultural export.
DAR is reaching new heights with their recent achievements in terms of helping peasants, according to assessments of farmers groups. But Mariano in DAR alone could not possibly turn around a long-running system, said Flores.
“Si Ka Paeng, kung nag-iisa siya sa DAR, hindi niya kakayanin, dahil may mga batas na nagiging hadlang sa kanya. Kailangan pa rin ng push mula sa hanay natin (Ka Paeng cannot handle it alone in DAR, and there are laws hindering him. We need to give a push from our ranks),” Flores added.