When the original CARP that was passed under President Corazon Aquino was in danger of unraveling, the peasant movement came together and pushed the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms, or CARPER, through Congress in 2009. That historic effort was recalled by the over 900 participants at the Agrarian Reform Congress held at the University of the Philippines last Friday, June 6. Among the high points remembered were the 1,700-kilometer march for agrarian justice by 55 farmers from Sumilao, Bukidnon, to Malacañang, a now legendary feat that took place over two months in 2007. Also remembered were key figures in the fight for CARPER who have passed away, like Congressman Oscar Francisco, agrarian reform advocate Steve Quiambao, and the Sumilao peasant leader Rene Penas, who was felled by an assassin’s bullet a few weeks after the passage of CARPER.

The victory of CARPER was remarkable given the fact that it took place during a distinctly non-revolutionary period, when the reigning intellectual and political climate had become less sympathetic to social justice concerns and more biased toward so-called market approaches to agrarian problems.

Powerful law…

CARPER was not a perfect agrarian reform law if what is meant by perfect is a law that would redistribute land with no or little compensation to landlords. Yet it was a powerful law that even some left-wing skeptics acknowledged as having tough provisions. To cite just a few:

CARPER outlawed the “voluntary land transfer” scheme, which had been used by landlords to retain control of land via the “Stock Distribution Option,” as a method of land redistribution; created a P150 billion budget for land acquisition and for support services over five years; established the indefeasibility or non-revocation of Certificates of Land Ownership Awards (CLOAs) and Emancipation Patents (EPs); provided for the immunity of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) from temporary restraining orders or injunctions in the implementation of the agrarian reform program; and made irrigated and irrigable lands non-negotiable for any land conversion.

CARPER also institutionalized a land acquisition and distribution schedule that put the priority on distributing bigger landholdings; enshrined the right of rural women to own and control land, invoking the substantive equality between men and women as qualified beneficiaries; provided for access to socialized credit for all agrarian reform beneficiaries; and specified penal provisions, including the filing of criminal cases against landowners for delaying agrarian reform implementation, against DAR for delay in land acquisition and distribution, and against landlords for undue delay in attesting to the qualification of tenants and regular farm workers as beneficiaries.

Ineffectual bureaucracy

The tragedy of CARPER was that it was a powerful mechanism in the hands of an ineffectual bureaucracy led by an irresolute and timid agency head. The measure of DAR’s failure is that, as admitted by Secretary of Agrarian Reform Virgilio de los Reyes, by the time of the CARPER-mandated deadline for land acquisition and distribution of June 30, 2014, over 550,000 hectares of “carpable” land—mainly private land–will remain undistributed.

De los Reyes has claimed that the failure to meet the deadline stems from “technical problems,” like the “lack of a central date base,” inaccurate land surveys, or unclear land titles. The reality is that the problem is landlord resistance and the DAR’s lack of political will or courage to face it down. The DAR’s failure becomes even more stark when compared to the land reforms in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, which were completed with legal instruments that were, on paper, less powerful than CARPER but were carried out by motivated, resolute agencies.

CARPER’s implementation could undoubtedly have benefited from a stronger push by the president, and many have faulted the chief executive in this regard. But even if one were to grant this, we also know that the president’s style is decentralized, that is, to give maximum leeway to his agency heads to execute their legal mandates. Given a powerful law like CARPER, a bolder and more innovative agency head could have made a difference—a big difference.

Precarious period ahead

The land reform struggle is now entering a very precarious period, and circumstances demand a determined, resolute, and courageous secretary of agrarian reform, one who is not a technocrat but a political leader who will not be afraid to do battle with the landlords.

What are these circumstances?

First of all, as de los Reyes admitted during the budget hearings last year, the bulk of the undistributed land—some 450,000—is private land, in fact, the best lands in the country. These lands are in the heart of landlord country, in the Western Visayas and Mindanao, and the ability of the DAR to distribute them, as de los Reyes admitted, will be the acid test of agrarian reform.

Second, landlords have mounted a judicial counteroffensive to delay the land distribution process. In many parts of the country, more and more cases of revocation of Certificates of Land Transfer (CLOAs) are occurring, the most publicized of which are in Quezon. Indeed, there was a 4.6% increase in the number of cases filed at the Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board between 2012 and 2013. This legal counterattack is likely to intensify as land reform finally focuses on the most productive private lands throughout the country. As I noted in a previous column on agrarian reform, “the struggle over Hacienda Luisita case is not the climax of agrarian reform. The tenacity with which the Cojuangcos held on to the plantation might simply presage the intensity of the coming battle in the Visayas and Mindanao, where big landed families will use every legal loophole to retain effective control of their lands.”

Third, while they will exploit every legal loophole, many recalcitrant landlords will, as a last resort, have recourse to violence. The recent assassinations of peasant leaders Melon Barciao in Porac, Pampanga, and Elisa Tulid in the Bondoc Peninsula serve as a jarring reminder of this reality of the class struggle in the countryside.

Whatever strategy the agrarian reform movement adopts to complete the agrarian reform process, it will be important to have a skilled, determined, and courageous champion of agrarian reform, not a timid bureaucrat, at the helm of DAR. Here, President Aquino must be reminded that his agrarian legacy is, to a great extent, in the hands of his land reform lieutenant. Will that legacy be a rural Philippines on the way to prosperity and greater equity, or will it be a countryside marked by even greater poverty and injustice? With just two years to go before the end of his term, President Aquino holds the answer in his own hands.

Two clashing visions of the agrarian future

Yet having an effective agency head is only part of the solution. A strong peasant movement, such as the one that pushed CARPER through is the other part. For the nation is at a conjuncture today where the opponents of land reform are not only mounting legal and physical resistance. They are also now promoting ideological resistance, the most notorious example of which is the so-called “Fabella paper,” authored by former dean of the University of the Philippines School of Economics Raul Fabella, which distorted empirical data and utilized narrow theoretical assumptions to try to make a case that land reform is useless in terms of lifting farmers from poverty. Fabella’s lecture tour, along with a handsome honorarium, is being financed by the Ayalas.

The reason for the ideological offensive against land reform is not hard to discern. Big business groups like the Ayalas are moving into the countryside, buying up traditional landlords or making common cause with them to transform the countryside into a domain of large-scale industrial agriculture and real estate development, where small farmers have been marginalized and converted into a surplus population that is maintained to keep the wages of rural workers low.

This is the future that corporate capital holds for farmers and peasants. The only way that this dystopia can be avoided is bringing to a swift conclusion the process of agrarian reform, which will serve as the foundation of a countryside cultivated largely by prosperous small farmers that serve as base to sustained economic growth and poverty reduction, as they did in Korea, Taiwan, China, and Japan. And the key to this process is a strong, unified peasant movement. Resurrecting that movement not only to deepen the process of agrarian reform but to create as well the agricultural breadbasket for a prosperous Philippines is the strategic challenge before us.

*Representative of Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives.

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