Agrarian reform revisited
By Gina Mission
Second of two parts

hen President Joseph Estrada appointed the current officials of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), it was with the express wish that he would like to be known as the president who completed land reform in the country. At present, DAR has distributed approximately 60 per cent of the total land coverage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). The target is to finally complete land acquisition and distribution phase before June 2004.

___Quantitatively, this means distributing some 3.4 million hectares of agricultural lands to another two million farming families. Majority of these is public agricultural lands within the jurisdiction of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

___On the other hand, DAR has under its jurisdiction around 1.5 million hectares of private "CARPable" lands. Of these, 80 per cent are coconut lands, 15 per cent are sugar haciendas, and 5 per cent are commercial farms.

___To achieve its goal, Secretary Horacio Morales said that DAR must be able to distribute an aggregate annual output of 267,000 hectares of land until 2004. This means the current DAR leadership must surpass the 200,000 hectare yearly accomplishment of the then-DAR Secretary Ernesto Garilao.

___Those who know Morales’ background believe that CARP will flourish under his leadership. After all, prior to his appointment as DAR Secretary, he headed the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), one of the country’s largest development NGOs that is actively involved in land reform. But while the Morales DAR undoubtedly has the political will to implement a genuine land reform program in the country, problems concerning land distribution still abound.

___In a recent symposium on "Poverty Alleviation and Agrarian Reform: Promoting Entrepreneurship and Productivity in the Rural Sector," DAR Undersecretary for Operations Conrado Navarro talked on the many problems confronting the implementation of CARP.

___Topping Navarro’s list is the continuing resistance of many landowners to have their lands subjected to land distribution. "We still have many landowners who will not give up their lands because of their desire to maintain the country’s economic, social and political power and disparity," he said.

___As an example, Navarro cited a case where a landowner told him quite unapologetically, that he’d rather see his tenants unable to send their children to public elementary schools, than deprive his own from pursuing graduate studies in the US.

___That lands subjected to CARP have low valuation, according to Navarro, strengthens landowners’ resistance to land distribution. "They feel they’re not getting enough for their lands," he said. He however warned that there has been a recent reversal of trend as DAR tries to raise the value of CARP-able lands. "There have been cases when the landowners themselves, after knowing the current valuation of lands in their area, come to our office and demand that their properties be covered by CARP," he revealed.

___Landowners solely dependent on land as their source of income, naturally resist land reform. Said Navarro: "This is especially true among small landowners, many of whom have used their pension money to acquire lands only to find it CARP-able later."

___These problems are so rampant Navarro admitted to be spending three-fourths of his time dealing with these problems rather than working on the more developmental aspects of agrarian reform. But again, he conceded that there will be no developmental work to do if no land is distributed.

___The continuing illegal conversion of agricultural lands, Navarro added, proved to be a serious obstacle in land reform. "It’s not easy to monitor 8.1 million hectares of land. Most often than not, we found ourselves outdone by landowners. They would show us approved applications for conversion even before we could determine whether such lands are CARP-able or not," he said.

___In most cases, DAR rebukes the approval as the applications are prematurely applied. As should be the case, applications for land conversion, according to Navarro, should be done after there has been a notice from the DAR informing the landowner that a certain land area is being considered for distribution.

___From 1993-1997, a total of 43,598.45 hectares of agricultural land have been converted into golf courses, housing projects and other uses. An average of 10,000 hectares of the country’s 3.2 million hectares of rice fields is being converted into housing and business complexes every year.

___Relative to the issue of illegal land conversion is what Navarro referred to as the "large-scale exemptions" under the Department of Justice (DOJ) Opinion No. 44. DOJ Opinion 44 exempts lands reclassified before June 15,1988 from CARP. As Navarro revealed, almost everyday, the DAR office is visited by land developers showing them certificates of exemptions after all attempts to have subject lands illegally converted have failed.

___"It’s surprising to know the recourse people would resort to just to circumvent the law," Navarro stressed. The fact that certificates of exemption are used as the ultimate weapon to avoid land distribution, Navarro said, only shows that such certificates were acquired illegally. "Why are they showing us these certificates only after their application for land conversion has been rejected? Why not show them to us right away?" he asked.

___DAR also encounters some technical problems in its implementation of CARP. Navarro disclosed that up to now, they are still not sure if the total coverage of agrarian reform is 8.1 million hectares, as provided for in the CARP, or 7.8 million hectares, as identified in the Medium Term Development Program of the Ramos government. Worse, they have recently discovered errors in the surveys of lands.

___"Once we were helping install the beneficiaries in the area awarded to them when suddenly we were alerted by the provincial DAR officers that the technical description in the CLOA belongs to a different landholding," Navarro related.

___In some instances, landowners would file harassment cases against DAR officials to intimidate them from performing their duties. "These have happened to many of our regional officers and it’s causing tremendous delays in the distribution of lands," he revealed.

___Staff inefficiency, which is common among government offices, also hampers the implementation of agrarian reform. As Navarro said: "Retrieving misplaced/lost/erroneous files and other documents is such a waste of time."

___Farmer beneficiaries themselves have their own share of violating the agrarian reform law. As Navarro revealed, there have been cases when awarded lands were sold to land developers and the beneficiaries taking an active part in the conversion of lands.

___A case in point he cited was a sugar hacienda in the Visayas. The beneficiary was negotiating to sell the awarded lands for P3 million per hectare. Navarro also pointed out that selling of awarded lands is very common in industrial growth areas where the buying price could go as much as P5 million per hectare.

___Selling awarded lands is definitely illegal. But Navarro revealed that they have not filed a case against any violators. Prosecuting them, he lamented, would be tantamount to prosecuting the poor, the landless, the very same people for whom agrarian reform exist.

___Clarifying that he is not trying to justify such illegal acts, Navarro also added that in most cases, the farmers could not afford to develop or maintain the land, which would then result in dismal harvest and earnings not enough to support the farmers’ families.

___"If land developers are willing to pay millions of pesos for the lands, can we really blame the beneficiaries for selling their lands?" he asked.

___But then again, given the "land for the landless" slogan of agrarian reform, wouldn’t the selling of awarded lands, even if justified under special circumstances, defeat its purpose?

CyberDyaryo | 1999.06.03