CARP: Opportunity or threat?
(First of Two Parts)
by Gina Mission

After the expiration on June 1998 of the 10-year deferment period for commercial farms, the 1,021- hectare Marsman Estate Plantation, Inc. (MEPI) in Davao del Sur is finally up for distribution to more than a thousand agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs). But unlike the usual 'raise the roof' reaction by most farmers who are eager to finally own the lands they have tilled for so many years, Marsman ARBs are apprehensive about agrarian reform.

___Located in Sto. Tomas, Davao del Norte, MEPI is the largest banana plantation to be distributed under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) or RA 6657. The 29-year old plantation is considered the most successful banana story in the Philippines. Just last May, it registered the highest monthly production record in its history with 689,674 boxes of bananas - at 13.5 kg. per box.

___Aside from its production success, MEPI is also known to be "employee-friendly." For one, it pays a daily minimum wage of P180 when the prescribed rate for the agriculture industry is only P132. For another, according to employees interviewed by CyberDyaryo, "management knows how to share profits" with its employees, in terms of providing them competitive benefits and packages, as well as "extravagant" bonuses. Last December, for instance, the management gave the employees four months’ bonus when the company realized it made "so much money for the whole year."

___Said Patricio Mejorada, MEPI employee: "Getting hired by MEPI is a dream come true. It is where a family can start to dream of providing its members with basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter, health, and education. At MEPI, these dreams come true."

___One very important figure in the company's success is its owner, Mr. Drysdale, who, according to MEPI employees, "has a very strong social commitment." His guiding principle, they said, is the biblical concept of stewardship over material possessions in this world.

___Stewarship is also emphasized in MEPI's "strategies for the next millennium" through its "firm social commitment" which reads: "Our success as a company should not be measured solely in terms of financial achievements but on how far we have gone in our effort to improve the lives of our people. We must remain firm and steadfast in our social commitment, with programs that will touch on health, spiritual growth, livelihood/income generation and other multi-purpose projects for employees' dependents and neighboring communities."

___True enough, the sprawling MEPI compound is complete with facilities like a school, hospital, gym, sports facilities, middle-class dwellings for its employees, among other things. In the words of one MEPI employee, who asked not to be identified, "What more can we possibly ask for?" Certainly, he added, MEPI employees don't need agrarian reform.

___Alas, the law can be harsh to some people, but it has to be followed. And so on June 15, 1998, MEPI went under compulsory land acquisition. At present, the MEPI land holding value is being determined, and the ARBs are being identified and revalidated.

___Seeing the inevitable, MEPI management supported the program. "If it is for the better of the employees, why not?" was the official word of support from the management.

___Most ARBs, however, are apprehensive. "Will owning the land improve our lives?" they ask. Implementation of CARP, they are afraid, might affect labor relations, wages, and job security in the company, just like what happened in other banana plantations in Davao.

___MEPI’s CARP consultant Danny Dayanghirang said that while owning land is an age-old desire of every farmer, there is always the fear of CARP being a threat to one's source of income, instead of being an opportunity to augment it. One reason for this is the fact that the distributed land would have to be paid for by the beneficiaries themselves, albeit over a period of time, as provided for in the agrarian reform law. For the highly-developed land of MEPI, this means a beneficiary would have to pay one million pesos per hectare over 30 years.

___Because of this, there is a growing fear among MEPI employees that instead of helping their lives, CARP may even worsen their life condition as a result of the added burden of paying for the valuation of the land distributed to them.

___"If I were a MEPI employee, and I have a secured and well-compensated job, plus other benefits, why should I invest this much money without even an assurance at all of any return on my investment?" asked Crispin Lanorias, executive director of Agribusiness Center Davao.

___"The whole concept of CARP is a complete paradigm shift for the farmers. They've been workers all their lives, and suddenly they're going to be landowners. Unfortunately, this process is not without cost to them," Lanorias added.

___For an agribusiness to succeed, Lanorias continued, it has to consider such factors as labor, management, research, technology, and others that most ARBs don't have the capability to do. The workers, he said, don't normally think they need to learn these things when they are just ordinary employees doing "just another job."

___Getting ARBs ready for this change Lanorias said, should be a priority of the Department of Agrarian Reform. (DAR).

___Elaine Meris, editor-in-chief of the MEPI publication Agri-Group, however, admitted that there has not been clear support from the government in terms of maintaining the productivity of the plantation when it is finally divided among its employees. "Of course, the employees would be afraid of their future. They are not sure, after all, if the present management will help them maintain the cost of production, or if the ARBs themselves would be able to maintain the same productivity," she said.

___At present, Lanorias said, MEPI employees, are not ready for a complete role reversal, which makes CARP risky. Added to this is the history of agrarian reform itself. Out of the 33 countries which adopted it as a means to "democratize land ownership," only Japan, Korea and Thailand have demonstrably succeeded so far.

___As Dayanghirang said, "You can't play politics with the lives of the people."

___Beyond the issue of equitable land ownership and other forms of social justice, Dayanghirang said, is the economic issue. "At the end of the day, you still ask the same question whether this CARP is going to increase my income or not."

___As shown by the experience of other banana plantations in Davao, which have earlier been distributed to farmer-beneficiaries, CARP doesn't really make things better. The Hijo Plantation "CARP experience" even led to an "industrial war" that cost the life of one of its workers.

___Added to this dim scenario of "CARPing" banana plantations is what Lanorias called the deteriorating export performance of the banana industry as a result of plantation landholdings distribution under CARP. "Because there is so much conflict in their companies, most banana plantations were not able to reach their export quota. Some of them deteriorated in terms of quality," he said.

___After the land valuation process, the next step would be the selection of which business the workers and management should get into. The CARP Task Force of MEPI identified three options: joint venture, lease back, and growership.

___Still, most MEPI employees, who are obviously satisfied with their employer, are asking: "Is CARP really the answer?" To which Dayanghirang could only remark, "DAR should not treat CARP on an industry basis, but rather, on an area-to-area basis. It should be more flexible in its rules especially when there's a real case that merits an exemption."

Next week: DAR's answer and Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association data showing how CARP has adversely affected the export performance of the banana industry.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.08.05