New Internationalist

Cory’s cop-out

November 1987

This feature was published in the November issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

new internationalist
issue 177 - November 1987

The rhetoric sounds good. The leader seems well-meaning. But Cory Aquino's agrarian reform programme is no more than a toothless surrender to landed interests, discover Walden Bello and Joe Collins. And the outcome is almost certain to be bloody.

The Philippines will see either agrarian reform or agrarian revolution,' declared Steven Solarz, Cory Aquino's most ardent backer in the US Congress, in April 1987.

Three months later, on July 22, President Aquino issued Executive Order 229 proclaiming the 'Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program' (CARP) - and the country came a step closer not to reform, but to revolution. Before the new Philippine Congress convened in the last week of July, Aquino had enjoyed 16 months of nearly absolute power to rule by decree. But when she finally used it at the eleventh hour to address the land problem, it was to skirt dangerously around rather than decisively resolve a festering social issue.

Peasant groups were angry, but they were not surprised to see that CARP had turned out to be, in the words of the Philippine Peasant Movement, 'a document of surrender to landlord and big business interests.' The proposed reform had gone through 13 drafts, during which its few meaningful provisions had been carefully excised, one by one.

There is one very appropriate word for CARP: 'toothless.' Like previous land reform legislation, it begins with grandiose rhetoric proclaiming that 'all public and private agricultural lands' are subject to reform, then proceeds to sell out the interests of the rural majority in the fine print.

Perhaps the most blatant concession to landed interests is the removal of the clause in an early draft that landowners would not be able to retain more than seven hectares of land. Instead Aquino passed the ball to the newly elected Philippine congress which convened in late July 1987 - and in so doing precluded any meaningful land redistribution. For more than 90 per cent of the members of the Philippine House of Representatives are big landowners with an average of 200 hectares each. Also calculated to mollify the landowners is the provision that compensation is to be determined principally by the 'fair market value which the owner wishes to receive' - an invitation for the landowner to set the price sky high! Emboldened by this, the landed interests in Congress are now uniting behind a bill that would require immediate and full payment in cash. This move is clearly designed to raise the costs of the program to astronomical levels and so paralyze it.

But while the program lets landowners off lightly it comes down hard on the reform's supposed beneficiaries. They would be required to pay for their land in 30 annual instalments, at six per cent interest. In the event of default the Land Bank of the Philippines would immediately repossess the land. Even the World Bank has strongly criticized this provision, predicting that it will simply saddle poverty-ridden beneficiaries with more debt and achieve much the same result as the Operation Land Transfer Scheme of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos - a 90-per-cent default rate. But Aquino has rejected the World Bank's alternative proposal of an up-front, one-time cash payment of 600 Pesos ($30) by the beneficiary.

Another indication of the program's hostility to the rural poor is a clause disqualifying peasants who 'prematurely enter' the land. The targets of this would be the peasants who, swept up in the fervour of the February 1986 Uprising, seized thousands of hectares of lands that had been illegally acquired by Marcos' cronies. Meanwhile, the international media have projected Aquino's backtracking on her campaign promises as another tragic instance of a sincere president who is forced to give in to massive pressure from vested interests. But perhaps equally important in explaining Mrs Aquino's actions is her family's resistance to breaking up their massive 5,600 hectare estate - one of the largest sugar-cane plantations in the country - and, indeed, her own ideological predisposition as a member of one of the country's premier landed families.

Aquino's remarks on the land question in early March 1986, a bare two weeks after she assumed the presidency, betrayed a lack of commitment to changing the existing patterns of land tenure: 'It is not so much a matter of distributing land but of enabling people to share profits. By sharing out land, you only create more problems because sugar cultivation, for instance, is definitely uneconomic if carried out in small plots.' This statement, which revealed Aquino's adherence to conservative neoclassical economics, was definitely untrue: Philippine sugar plantations produce only about half as much cane per hectare, on average, as small owner-operated farms in Taiwan.

Aquino's strategy during her first year in office was to put land reform on the back-burner, saying that setting up the constitutional-legal framework of the new democracy was the country's top priority. To her dismay, however, the military's massacre of 19 peasants demonstrating for reform in front of the presidential palace on January 22, 1987, placed the issue on the front-burner. Confronted on the left by deepening distrust from peasant groups, Aquino was challenged on the right by landowners who pledged to resist any land reform with force. Landowners from Negros, the country's prime sugar-producing area, even threatened to 'secede' from the country. Aquino was increasingly pressured to choose sides and she chose her own class on July 22.

CARP has thus joined the collection of ineffectual measures that have littered the path of agrarian reform in the Philippines since the 1930s. Indeed, the Philippines is perhaps governed by more land-reform laws than any other country in South-East Asia, but it continues to exhibit some of the worst, if not the worst, rural inequalities in the region. For example less than two per cent of farms engaged in sugar production are more than 100 hectares in size, yet they occupy nearly 25 per cent of the land devoted to sugar. Meanwhile only 15 per cent of those working in agriculture own the land they till and the landlessness figure has grown from 3.5 million in 1975 to about five million, nearly a quarter of the country's labour force, today.

Such inequality has caused extreme poverty in the. countryside. Despite a respectable six-per-cent annual growth in agricultural production during the Marcos period, the number of rural families living below the poverty line rose from 48 per cent in 1971 to 63 per cent in 1985. Indeed, the World Bank, a long-time exponent of the 'trickle down theory', has had to concede in its latest confidential report on land reform that the 'experience of the Bank... is that investments and projects intended to increase agricultural productivity have brought few benefits to those not owning land - landless labourers and tenants'.

The great inequalities in land distribution have, indeed, become a drag on productivity itself - a fact that becomes clear when the Philippines is compared to Taiwan and South Korea, two countries which underwent land reform in the 1950s. The system of tenant farming in the Philippines produces, on the average, less than half as much rice and only one third as much corn per hectare as the owner-operated small farms in Taiwan and South Korea.

The inefficiency of gross inequality is one factor that has led World Bank technocrats and US development officials alike to distance themselves from the traditionally pro-US landowning class and press for some land reform. But a more urgent motivation is the desire to head off an agrarian revolution that would place political and economic power in the countryside in the hands of those who till the soil. The importance of land reform as a weapon in the US-sponsored counter-insurgency campaign that is now in motion in the rural Philippines was succinctly stated by Harvard University's John Thomas in testimony before the US Congress: 'If the Government is to end the militant left-wing threat, and unify the nation around a political centre, it must take their principal issue and drawing card, agrarian reform, away from them. Ending that insurgency is essential to political survival.'

In the past 50 years, land hunger has served as the mainspring of five major rebellions. The Philippine landowning elite is now confronting the most serious threat to its continued rule in the insurgency led by the New People's Army (NPA). From 68 men and 35 rifles in 1969, the NPA has become a force of 30,000 full-time and part-time guerrillas in 63 of the country's 73 provinces. Poor peasants and landless workers constitute the main base of support for the NPA, a development which is due in no small measure to its promise of genuine land reform which will liberate the peasant masses from feudal and semi-feudal exploitation.'

Increasing numbers of the rural poor are rallying to the NPA out of a sense that peaceful avenues of change have been exhausted. This process of radicalization is perhaps best seen in Negros, where the NPA has experienced one of the fastest rates of growth registered by a guerrilla front over the past few years.

It is hardly surprising. Negros - also known as Sugarlandia - most crudely exhibits the social inequalities in the countryside. It is dominated by six 'sugar baron' families who have not hesitated to have trade union organizers murdered or peasants arrested for going on strike. When the bottom fell out of the sugar market in the early 1980s the planters dismissed 100,000 workers and scrapped the traditional consumo - a loan of rice for the months before the sugar harvest when there is no work in the fields. By 1986 almost 70 per cent of the island's pre- school children were suffering from third- to first-degree malnutrition. But when the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) asked the landowners to let workers grow food on land that was no longer being used for sugar production one planter responded by saying he would rather sell his hacienda to buy bullets to kill his workers than give them a piece of land.

Ironically, the condition of human rights in Negros is now worse under the administration of Cory Aquino than under Marcos. Borrowing tactics employed by the military in Mindanao, planters determined to fend off any land reform have set up vigilante groups or death squads to suppress peaceful organizing by the NE SW. These are the same forces that President Aquino has endorsed as an extension of 'people power'. Their peculiar brand of 'people power' was displayed on June 22, 1987, when a vigilante group caught up with NFSW organizer Richard Ordona. As the Federation's secretary general Serge Chemiguin described it, with controlled anger.

'They demanded that he confess his ties with the NPA. When he refused, they started to hack him up. They cut off his arms and mutilated his reproductive organs. They slit his stomach open while he was still alive. The neighbours were terrified. Some came out to try to stop them, but couldn't do anything. He was screaming and screaming for them to just kill him. Finally they blew his brains out.'

In the face of such repression, it is no wonder that large numbers of young sugar workers have gone to the hills to expand the ranks of the NPA. And it is not surprising that the NPA can now mount spectacular raids, even against Philippine military units holed up in Bacolod, the provincial capital.

Like many other Filipinos, large numbers of Negros' sugar workers had regarded Cory Aquino as the last best hope for peaceful agrarian reform. Their hopes were betrayed on July 22, 1987. Desperate people betrayed by an attractive leader who promised to be different have few other options. As a grim Cherniguin told a reporter from Manila, 'If they will not listen to the appeal of the people for land, maybe they will listen to the bark of the gun. It seems that the gun is being loaded now.'

Walden Bello, a Philippine citizen, is a senior analyst specializing in Philippine and Pacific affairs at the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First). He is author or co-author of numerous books and articles, Including Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines (San Francisco: Food First, 1982). Joe Collins, co-founder of Food First, has written several books on land and food Issues, most recently World Hunger Twelve Myths (New York: Grove Press, 1986). He has spent several months of this year in the Philippines researching a new book.

last page choose another issue go to the contents page [image, unknown] next page


This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on Cory's cop-out

Leave your comment