By Jonathan de Santos, VERA Files
Civil society groups say President Benigno Aquino III has been unable to narrow the gap between rich and poor in the country, and that he has failed to wield agrarian reform to close that gap.
Aquino’s critics came out recently to urge him to speed up the distribution of land to the landless, as the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reform (CARPER) nears its end.
“Time is running out. The extension period of CARP is a narrow window of opportunity for the country,” the groups said.
Lawyer Christian Monsod of Sulong CARPER said he had hoped that President Aquino would fulfill the promises left by his mother, former President Corazon Aquino. He said, though, that with the slow pace of reform, and with the deadline looming, “inequality today is the same as it was in 1986.”
Cory Aquino rose to power on the crest of a pro-democracy movement in 1986, and one of the first laws passed under her term was the original Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law that aimed to distribute land to the rural poor.
Akbayan party-list Representative Walden Bello said the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) was only able to distribute 103,732 hectares of land in 2011 when it needs to distribute 320,242 hectares a year from 2001 until 2014 when the law extending the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program lapses.
Reforms overlook agrarian issues
Bello, whose party is friendly with the Aquino administration, said the President has made “significant strides” in government reform and poverty alleviation. “Unfortunately, those successes have not been matched by advances in agrarian reform,” he said.
Without successful agrarian reform, President Benigno Aquino III's “reform program will be incomplete and fragile,” Bello said.
He added that distributing land, securing farmers' property rights, and providing farmers with government support will help drive the economy and reduce poverty in the countryside.
“I do not see how the DAR can deliver,” he said.
In a statement, 27 other agrarian reform advocacy groups—including DAR's own employee association—said agrarian reform has seen a “crisis, paralysis, and retreat” under the Aquino administration.
The groups said DAR, under Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes, has been mismanaged and has shown lackluster performance.
“With the way things have unfolded, agrarian reform's exit and death seem inevitable under the Aquino administration at the expense of farmers, farm workers, rural women, and the rural landless in general,” they said.
They added they have lost “faith and confidence” in de los Reyes, whom they called the weakest link at the DAR. “We want him out of DAR,” the groups said.
De los Reyes, in a telephone interview with VERA Files, said it was unfair for the groups to conclude that DAR has been performing poorly.
He said past DAR secretaries were able to distribute more land because of the nature of the land awarded to farmers. Those, he said were mostly government-owned land—which meant the government paid nothing and there were no problems with land titles—or land that had been turned over to the government voluntarily.
What the DAR has now been working with are properties under compulsory acquisition, which was met with resistance from land owners. He said the DAR had to settle the titling and the technical descriptions of these properties because the government has to pay for the land.
He added paperwork for some of the land distributed in the past was done under collective titling. “For example, 200 hectares distributed to 100 farmers are covered under just one title,” he said. He said the DAR no longer does collective titling of land.
It did not help, either, de los Reyes said, that the bureaucracy was not ready to handle the more difficult task of distributing compulsorily acquired land. “The system was not ready for it,” he said.
“We looked for the problem and the solution,” de los Reyes said. Among those solutions, looking through each claims folder and updating the DAR's database of cases.
Despite the criticism, de los Reyes said DAR's field personnel have been delivering results and that is is unfair to say that the department has not been doing its job.
Clock ticks for land reform
Agrarian reform advocates like Romeo Royandoyan of Centro Saka, one of the signatories of the statement calling for de los Reyes's ouster, said they had initially given de los Reyes their all out support.
Royandoyan said it now seems that the government cannot implement CARPER, or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms, even by 2016.
Bishop Teodoro Bacani Jr, representing the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines-National Secretariat for Social Action- Justice and Peace (CBCP-NASSA), said his group is feeling “discontent” at the slow pace of agrarian reform under the Aquino administration. He added CBCP-NASSA supports the call to make agrarian reform a priority in the national development agenda and to remove de los Reyes from office.
De los Reyes said, though, that even though DAR is racing against the 2014 deadline, land reform will not necessarily end when CARPER lapses. He said DAR has sent out Notices of Coverage to land owners whose property fall under CARP. “Cases pending by June 30, 2014 are still covered,” he said.
He added land distribution is even more inclusive now because even farmers who are not connected to organization can be awarded their own plots of land.
(VERA Files is put out by senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for true.)