Friday, 03 March 2000

Looking for a responsive land,
water use policy

By Gina Mission

LAND and water form a precious heritage that sustains the Filipino nation in its quest for development and a better quality of life for its people. And yet, the poor among us are asking, how come some people and some groups do not want to share these resources with others?

...In a press briefing, members of the National Land and Water Use Act (NLWUA) Multi-Sectoral Technical Working and Advocacy Group called on Congress to hasten the passage of a comprehensive land and water use policy that, they said, is "reflective of and responsive to the needs of the basic sectors in the country."

Exactly what kind of policy is it?

...For landless farmers, explained Rafael Musngi, policy advocacy officer of the Philippine Peasant Institute (PPI), the kind of policy they want is one that protects prime agricultural lands from illegal conversion. For the urban poor, it means one that allocates settlement areas for them and protects them from demolitions. For the fisher folk, the policy must grant them rights over the land they occupy in the coastal areas, from which they are being eased out by developers of beach resorts.

...The PPI is one of the non-governmental organizations represented in the NLWUA Multi-Sectoral Technical Working and Advocacy Group.

...Carrying the interests and concerns of small fisher folk, rural peasants, and urban poor, the group aims to unite the efforts of its members in having their voices heard in Congress. Group co-convenor Lia Esquillo said that they have to be very vigilant, for they are up against the giant Chamber of Real Estate and Builders’ Association (Creba).

...Since the 9th Congress during the Aquino administration, many NGOs and people’s organizations have been pushing for the passage of a comprehensive land use policy in the country. Up to now, however, it has not yet come about.

...Because of this, problems relating to land use have been increasing. Party-List Representative Loretta Ann Rosales (Akbayan) says many farm workers have been displaced with the conversion of farming communities into non-agricultural land. Examples of these are Sumilao in Bukidnon, Hacienda Looc in Batangas, Sumalo in Bataan, and Langkaan in Cavite.

...At present, six House bills dealing with a national land use policy have been filed. A technical working group is being formed to draft recommendations before the bills are consolidated into one.

...Among their significant common provisions is one that would consider actual land use and the physical properties of the land, such as its fertility or lack of it, as basis for defining agricultural and non-agricultural land. The bills also propose the creation of a network of protected areas for agriculture, agrarian reform, and rural development, which should be non-negotiable for conversion.

...The bills define the authority and responsibilities of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) regarding the approval of applications for land conversion. Stiffer penalties for illegal conversion of agricultural land are sought.

...Opposing the proposed new legislation, the real estate developers’ group argued that it would not resolve the problems identified in the bills.

...In a position paper, it said: "Existing laws such as Republic Act 6657 on the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (Carp), RA 8435 on food security, RA 7279 on the provision of lands for housing, and RA 7916 on employment are more than adequate to address the needs that the proposed (measure) seeks to address. Hence, its passage will be tantamount to a pronouncement by Congress that it had made a terrible mistake in passing these previous laws."

...The bills, Creba said, will lead to the repeal of laws on non- agricultural development and "leave the entire nation no choice but become a nation of farmers." The benefits from the land reform program, it added, are illusory because the program, so far, has not answered the food security problem.

...The developers also presented another argument: the ``disturbance compensation’’ given to farmers who are displaced by land reclassification turns them into instant millionaires, which in turn can result in increased standard of living, availability of housing facilities, increased employment and socioeconomic progress.

...The NGOs’ technical working group, however, is not convinced by these arguments.

..."The NLUWA does not seek to curtail non-agricultural development,’’ the group said in a position paper. ``It is merely protecting the rights of farmers to land, which should have long been given to them through the CARP, against landowner’s attempts to put their lands beyond the reach of land reform by converting them for other uses.’’

...Ananias Loza, president of Pakisama, a national federation of peasant organizations, said that while they recognize government’s efforts to industrialize the country, this must be done without over-exploiting the land and undermining food security.

...Land conversion, especially illegal ones, has always drawn criticism from NGOs.

...Musngi said conversion prevents land distribution because most landlords sell their lands to real estate developers, instead of the tenants. Worse, he said, rampant land conversion severely reduces the area used for food production, thus threatening food security in the long run.

...The peasant organization Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) estimates that, each year, an average of 10,000 hectares of the country’s 3.2 million hectares of rice fields are being converted into housing and business complexes every year. From 1993-1997, KMP recorded a total of 43,598.45 hectares of agricultural land converted into golf courses, housing projects and other uses.

...Loza said that the agrarian reform program has not been fully implemented and that, therefore, its benefits have been fully realized. For CREBA to say that the proposed National Land and Water Use Act does not guarantee food security is like saying that the granting of lands automatically translates to the production of food, he said.

...Agrarian reform is very slow, Loza said, precisely because certain individuals, such as the developers and builders who compose Creba, evade it. In addition, government hardly gives support to farmers who have been granted land, to enable them to make their land productive, contribute to food security and improve their lives through increased incomes. On several occasions, even DAR officials have conceded the absence or inadequacy of that support.

...Because of these constraints, some farmers who have been granted land are tempted to resell their lands to the former owners. "It’s a cyclical trap," Loza said.

...Worse, he said, large windfalls of money are not enough to ensure a sustainable means of livelihood, particularly when the recipient does not have the knowledge and training necessary to invest or use the money wisely. A case in point, he said, is that of the Hacienda Looc farmers who, after getting compensation money of as much as P1.5 million each, spent most of their time, and their money, in entertainment establishments. In time, the compensation money ran out before they could invest part of it in a productive venture. Worse, they no longer had lands to till.

..."It is a band-aid remedy," Musngi agreed. "There is no sustainability in that form of compensation," he said.

...In the long term, what the "disturbance compensation" does, Musngi said, is that it takes away from the farmers their source of living, which is land. Psychologically, he said, its effect is that farmers lose control over their land, and in a way, their lives.

...The advocacy group asks: Who then stands to benefit from these huge amounts of money or, as Creba puts it, from the "socioeconomic progress" resulting from the disturbance compensation?

...Not the displaced farmers, said Lucy Caber of Dampa, an urban poor NGO. These farmers, she said, are hardly qualified to work in factories that require technical know-how or use automation that renders manual labor unnecessary. Assuming that they are hired for factory jobs, the pay they get for unskilled workers will hardly enable them to raise their standard of living.

..."If any socioeconomic progress is to be had at all, it won’t be for them," Caber pointed out.

...In the meantime, both the Senate and House committees on natural resources have yet to set another discussion date for the different land use bills. Despite the President’s pronouncement that the proposed National Land and Water Use Act is one of his priorities, the current list of priority measures of Congress does not include it.

...Advocates of a comprehensive land and water use policy can only wonder why.