Focus on the Philippines

Why Land Reform Is No Longer Possible Without Revolution

By Walden Bello and Marissa de Guzman

(This article appeared under Walden Bello’s regular commentary, Perspective, in Business World on June 19 and 20, 2000.)

As we mark another year in the inglorious history of agrarian reform, it might be instructive to explore the elements that spelled the difference between the continuing failure of land redistribution in our country and its striking success in places like Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. Perhaps the decisive factor was the contrasting roles of critical external actors, in particular the United States.

Why the US Backed Reform

In Korea, agrarian reform was a case of military exigency. In their drive down the peninsula in 1950, the North Koreans distributed the lands of the fleeing rural elite among the South Korean peasants. When it was their turn to march up the peninsula as the North Koreans retreated, the Americans were faced with the choice of maintaining the de facto reform or undoing it and reinstating the South Korean landlords as property-holders. Faced with the prospect a provoking a full-scale peasant revolution on their rear, the Americans let the North Korean reforms stand and later pressed the reactionary government of Rhee Syngman to legalize them in order to create a conservative anti-communist political base in the countryside.

In the case of Taiwan, local landlords were expropriated--indeed many of them were massacred--by the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-Shek that had been evicted from the mainland by the Communists in 1949. Simply put, the Kuomintang saw land reform in terms of realpolitik: they did not want Taiwan’s local landed class around as a competing power center and saw agrarian reform as a means to eliminate them as well as build a pro-Kuomintang constituency among the peasants. Eager to stabilize the island as a bastion against Mao’s revolution that threatened across the Taiwan Straits, the US vigorously backed the Kuomintang reform program with large doses of technical advice and aid that established, among other things, an effective system of support services.

In Japan, Gen. Douglas MacArthur saw land reform as an essential part of the comprehensive program of demilitarization of Japanese society that was essential if a Western-style liberal democracy was to flourish in Occupied Japan.

In all three cases, the US did not have any compunctions about sacrificing rural elites since, in the case of Japan, the gentry had been the social base of Japanese militarism, and in case of Taiwan and Korea, the landowning class had served as the local base of Japanese colonial rule from the turn of the century to 1945.

Contours of Radical Land Reform

Backed by American policy and aid--not to mention firepower--the results of the land reform programs in these countries were impressive. In Japan, rigorous limitation of landownership to three hectares in densely irrigated areas resulted in the redistribution of two-fifths of the country’s land to 4.5 million tenants, or over half of the agricultural population.

The ambitious land-to-the-tiller program in Taiwan, which also limited ownership to three hectares, transferred 250,000 hectares of Taiwan’s cultivated lands to tenants. Owner-cultivators rose from 61 to 88 per cent of farm families, and tenant farmers plunged from 39 to 2 per cent.

In Korea, a ceiling of three hectares for landownership was also adopted, resulting in the redistribution of 470,000 hectares. Owner cultivators as a percentage of farm families rose from 14 per cent to 70 per cent and tenant farmers dropped from from 83 to 30 per cent. The South Korean reform was, however, less thorough than in Taiwan and Japan. Much of the land scheduled for land redistribution was not tranferred to tenants because landlords were able to disguise themselves as tillers or register land titles under their sons or other relatives. Systems for the delivery of credit, fertilizers, and extension services were not in place, leading to many recipients losing their land. Despite these limitations, the Korean land reform, like the Taiwanese and Japanese reforms, broke the back of landlord power and made small owner-cultivators the dominant class in the countryside.

Reform’s Consequences

Aside from promoting rural equality and stabilizing the countryside socially, land reform in all three societies had profound economic consequences. Most important was the elimination of a backward and grossly inequitable system of land tenure that had restricted the development of a domestic market, siphoned off to unproductive consumption resources that would otherwise have gone into investment in industry, and served as a social base for authoritarianism.

Most important was the way reform created a vibrant domestic market that stimulated vigorous industrial growth. This is most evident in the case of Taiwan, where the income of owner-cultivators rose 62 per cent in the 15 years following the reform. This rural purchasing power was what triggered the growth of a variety of industries, including food processing, light manufacturing, agri-chemicals, machine industries, and metalworking enterprises. Farmers’ purchases of goods from outside the agricutural sector rose 56 per cent from1950 to 1955. Underlining this link between rural demand and industrial vigor was the birth of the light machine sector: there were only seven power tillers in the whole of Taiwan in 1954; six years later there were over 3,000, of which about half were manufactured locally.

Washington’s Proteges

The role of external actors in the Philippines was different. And, not surprisingly, land reform went in a different direction: nowhere. One would have expected that upon its coming to the Philippines, the country that had been "born bourgeois," to use Louis Hartz’ words—that had known no feudalism in land and had smashed slavery in its southern section—would have broken up large estate agriculture. The sale of excess Church lands ordered in the first years of the new century by the colonial government should have provided the wedge for the transformation of Philippine agriculture into a system based on small owner-cultivators. Instead, the friar lands were sold to the gentry—a move that was not merely an adjunct to military pacification but part of an evolving strategy to forge the regional rural elites into a national ruling class that would serve as the base of American colonial rule. The Americans, for instance, allowed their former foe Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo to acquire a 2,540 acre ex-friar estate in Cavite.

Indeed, US colonial viceroys like General Douglas MacArthur not only forged initimate political links with the landed class but also close personal ties. This served the elite well after the Second World War, when MacArthur saw to it that charges of collaboration with the Japanese were dropped against most of the rural elite families. No event captures the Americans’ double standards in dealing with Asian landed elites more starkly than MacArthur’s absolving his landlord friend Manuel Roxas of the sin of collaborating with the Japanese to enable him to run for president of the new republic, at the same time that he was preparing to radically expropriate Roxas’ class counterparts in conquered Japan.

The last chance that the US had of significantly influencing the course of agrarian development in the Philippines was probably during the Huk insurgency in the early fifties, when peasant alienation fueled a full-blown Communist insurrection in a country regarded as a key bastion of the US forward defense system against expansive Asian Communism. But primordial loyalty to its local elite proteges emasculated the US’s feeble support for reform, a point underlined by Washington’s recalling Robert Hardie, a US adviser whose proposal for land reform was bitterly denounced by local landed families in 1953.

Instead of land reform, US advisers sought to defuse agrarian unrest by promoting land resettlement. Working with the populist Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay, Col. Edward Landsdale, the CIA’s point man in the Philippines, formulated the EDCOR project, which sought to resettle Huk surrenderees in Mindanao, then portrayed as "virgin territory." This strategy did help defuse the insurgency in Central Luzon, but it did nothing to alleviate the land problem there or anywhere else. Indeed, it was a significant step in promoting the uncontrolled Christian migration to Muslim and lumad territory that has led to the unending crisis in Mindanao.

Washington and Marcos’ Land Reform

When Marcos declared land reform a cornerstone of the "New Society" in 1972, US support for land reform was, interestingly, lukewarm. Apparently, this attitude stemmed from USAID’s experience of land reform in Vietnam, where it was seen as having been disruptive and destabilizing. More important than USAID as an influence on Marcos was the US-dominated World Bank. But the Bank, then led by Robert McNamara, deliberately shied away from promoting land reform, with its rural development strategy paper asserting that the Bank would "put primary emphasis not on the redistribution of income and wealth--as justified as that may be in many of our member countries--but rather on improving the productivity of the poor."

When the Marcos land reform program ground to a halt in 1975, owing to Marcos’ realization that the small and medium landlords owning 7-24 hectares were actually an important base of his rule, there was little protest from Washington, except for loud denunciations by the CIA land reform expert Roy Prosterman. By the end of the Marcos era, only 126,000 hectares out of an originally projected 1,767,000 hectares of tenanted rice and corn land had been transferred to owner-cultivators.

Post-Marcos Land Reform

Corazon Aquino, like Marcos, also promised to make land reform a cornerstone of her government. Washington, which helped bring Aquino to power, was again lukewarm when it came to support for land reform, perhaps feeling that the matter was no longer urgent with the marginalization of the National Democratic Front and the New People’s Army as significant political actors. Lacking both external and internal stimuli and ridden with 1001 loopholes, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) floundered. The real test of a land reform program is the compulsory acquisition of private lands: towards the end of Aquino’s term, CARP could boast of having acquired and distributed only 10,467 hectares of private land via compulsory acquisition.

Unlike the case with his predecessors, agrarian reform was not articulated as a centerpiece program by President Fidel Ramos, who explicitly placed the so-called social agenda behind "preparing the Philippines for global competition" via an ambitious program of trade and investment liberalization. Not surprisingly, by the end of one decade of CARP in December 1998, only 60 per cent of the total land targeted for transfer had actually been distributed.

The marginalization of agrarian reform has continued under the Estrada administration, notwithstanding the president’s pro-poor rhetoric. The figures on compulsory acquisition of private lands are way off target, according to Department of Agrarian Reform figures provided to economist Solita Monsod. By the end of 1999, only 27 per cent of targeted land in estates that were 50 hectares or larger in size had been successfully acquired and distributed. For targeted land in estates in the 24-50 hectare range and 5-24 hectare range, the figures were only five and four per cent, respectively.

Indeed, during the last years of Ramos and under Estrada, what might be described as a process of aggressive counterreform has been gathering steam. The landlord-dominated Congress allocated the Department of Agrarian Reform only P600 million for land acquisition and distribution in 1999, or half the budget for 1998. Cancellations of Emancipation Patents (EP’s) and Certificates of Land Ownership Awards (CLOA’s) owing to successful legal action by landlords have increased at an alarming rate, with 17,534 EP’s and CLOA’s covering 40,677 hectares nullified during the last four years of Ramos and 15,0644 EPs and CLOAs covering 36,315 hectares cancelled during Estrada’s first two years.

Reform’s Dismal Record Elsewhere

But the Philippines is not alone in experiencing the failure of a reformist land redistribution program without aggressive foreign backing. In the case of Thailand, of 2.7 million hectares subject to reform under the Land Reform Law of 1975, only 47,619 hectares had been distributed to tenants as of 1993. Nothing captures the sorry state of land reform in Thailand more than the fact that after over 17 years of land reform in the mid-1990’s, only 43 families had received full landownership rights to a total area that came to only 126 hectares!

The Thai and Philippine experiences with reformist land redistribution programs that lacked vigorous US sponsorship were paralleled in Latin America. In Bolivia, Guatemala, Venezuela, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and El Salvador, land reforms were initiated but none could be labelled successful in terms of making smallholders the dominant force in agriculture. The US government was not, of course, a disinterested actor in all this. As Solon Barraclough notes, "The United States government’s position in respect to land reform in the region was very interesting, if inconsistent. It intervened to reverse the Guatemalan reform when United Fruit Company lands were taken. It supported reform 15 years later in Peru, however, in spite of the expropriation of some US investors. It did not intervene in Bolivia except to help the new government with aid. It mildly supported reform in Venezuela. In Cuba it did everything possible to overthrow Castro. In Chile, it strongly supported the Alessandri and Frei reforms but intervened to help overthrow the Allende government that was executing the same land reform law. It pushed for reform in El Salvador but opposed it in Nicaragua…Obviously land reform itself was of little concern. What mattered was the political orientation of the regime concerned."

Even where it intervened, however, as in Chile and El Salvador, the US pressure on local elites was mild compared to the heavy-handed supervision it exercised in the reforms in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Probably the reason is that, although Latin American countries were wracked by insurgencies, they were not on the political and military frontlines of the Cold War, as the Northeast Asian countries were. Nevertheless, as the case of El Salvador illustrated, without Washington’s determined ground-level support, land reform could be sucessfully stalemated by recalcitrant elites.

Agrarian Revolution

Ironically enough, aside from US-sponsored land reform, the only other kind of land distribution that has had a fair chance of success in really transforming the rural order is that which takes place as part of a larger revolutionary process. The most successful land reform effort before the twentieth century was the late eighteenth century agrarian revolution in France that literally decapitated the landed aristocracy and gave birth to a vigorous smallholder-based capitalist agriculture. Over 130 years later, it took only a few months after the outbreak of the February Revolution in St. Petersburg in 1917 for the Russian peasantry to almost totally dispossess most of the country’s landed gentry and assert traditional village communal control of lands.

Cuba’s agrarian reform was the most profound and farreaching in Latin America, with the expropriation of over three fourths of the country’s land in the few months after Castro’s 1959 ascent to power. It was also one of the most successful, with overall agricultural output increasing by three per cent annually from the mid-sixties to the mid-eighties and bringing in its wake improvements in the nutrition and health of the rural population.

In China, land reform from 1949 to 1952 redistributed ownership rights among the peasantry and collectivization in 1955-56 abolished private land ownership. Despite the changes in the control and use of land with the adoption of the market-oriented contract system in the 1980’s, the dynamism of the agricultural sector in the last two decades would not have been possible without the foundation of relative equality in access to land that had been laid by land reform and collectivization in the fifties.

To conclude, the most successful agrarian reforms appear to have been either those that were vigorously supported by an external power like the United States for anti-revolutionary reasons or those that were part of a broader revolutionary conflagration. There are few, if any, instances of really successful efforts at reformist programs of land redistribution with no vigorous foreign backing. With the end of the Cold War, US interest in successful land reform in its client states has practically disappeared. Owing to this trend, reformist land distribution in the Philippines is heading nowhere but to the demise of the peasantry and the deepening crisis of Philippine agriculture. It now seems quite evident that only an agrarian revolution that is part of a bigger radical project to restructure Philippine society can now save the peasantry and Philippine agriculture from this dismal future.

*The author may be contacted at[email protected]


1. From Gerardo Flores of Negros Occidental

I am a retired teacher who invested in 10 hectares of rice land here in Bago, Negros Occidental. Because of Carp, 5 hectares of my land was expropriated to tenants 3 years ago. Today that same 5 hectares land is being leased by its present owners to a rich chinese businessman. The tenant owners of the land now work as laborers in the rice fields around the area, INCLUDING my small 5 hectare farm. Isn't this an injustice to me, a retired school teacher who sweated more than 40 years of my life, invested on a piece of land, and have one half of my savings gone cause of the governments land reform scheme? There are hundreds like me who have suffered because of that. It is unfortunate that armchair analysts like you never do your researching on the "ground", so to speak. The actual situation is far different from what is painted of landowners here. Yes, there used to be hacienderos in the past, but they have successfully broken down their farms to their children and grand children. It is us, the simple folk, who invested all our savings that is being affected not them. For so long as we ONLY assume that a tenant who works a land is entitled to that land that they tilled, land reform will continue to be a failure and waste of money. For so long as the beneficiaries are not EDUCATED to MANAGE their land properly, the same situation that has been happening will happen: eventually they will succumb to using all their money for other things (appliances, night clubbing, etc) and lose their investment (capitalization lent them) and eventually their lands to a NEW set of land owners, their contemporaries who are smarter, better educated in managing their farms. I know all this because they are HAPPENING here, and now. Come to Bago City, Negros Occ., and find out for yourself. And probably you'd wake up to the reality that even if a REVOLUTION takes place, a new set of LAND OWNERS would just rise, and the cycle continues.

Gerardo Flores
Retired School Teacher
Bago City,
Negros Occidental

2. From Rafael Villanueva

Dear Mr. Bello,

I have relatives from the Visayas, where Agriculture was suppose to be a viable alternative in the late 60' up to the late 70's, and not for stereotype haciendero whom City people love to take potshots with such condescencion, but for those who were willing to stick their necks to keep the land productive since that may be the only capital they can hold on to and I am not talking about elect families or individuals.

The fact that agriculture could have been an important industry where capital, and labor could have had a good mix as in corporate farming, cooperatives, etc. has been undermined precisely by policies which attempts to make land distribution as the reason for its utilization without giving thought to the dynamics of commerce, the level of education and resources available to the country.

I really felt that Land Reform as practiced in the Philippines is confiscatory, and if left to its logical conclusion can put resources at the hands of those whose only qualification was to have domicile near the land being distributed and who may not know how to manage the resources in the first place nor have access to working capital to make the land productive, and worse of all it may reward power brokers who have the connections to circumvent documentation and be eventually the new landowners themselves.

We have lambasted the previous landowners and I am afraid that those who write emotionally about land reform are those who practically grew up in the City and failed to see the wide base of average landowners as widows or children of enterprising and hardworking farmers, the average landowner as retired marine officers, contract workers who dreamed that with their hard work, they can acquire land and engage in some business .... the land reform programs, even the CARP program suddenly placed the DAR personnel in a position as power brokers, deciding the value of property which they are
not interested themselves to make use of...... with so much uncertainty already in agricultural trading plus uncertainty on whether you have your rights to your land protected, who would want to invest in the agricultural future of our country ??

Raffy Villanueva


3. From Nonel Gemora


Dear Mr. Bello:

Your conclusion implies that only a violent revolution...of heads rolling, reminiscent of the Bolshevik and Khymer Rouge times...or a revolution subsidized by "American" imperialists will solve agrarian poverty.

Do you remember what your sunday school teacher taught you on Sunday Bible School classes? that "the end can never justify the means?" You also failed to mention that Cuba and China's land reform program led to massive food shortages and economic mislocations. In Cuba, all you have to do is ask why boatloads of refugees continue to brave the Caribbean seas to reach America or ask why until now, Cuba's elite are
making do with antiquated automobile jalopies. There are many issues that need to be addressed:

For instance, why is America prescribing land reform (through the World Bank) when it can't even distribute its vast lands to the urban and rural poor in America. Another question is, should democratic ends be justified by communistic means?

You also failed to mention that land reform in the Philippines isn't successful because of other factors like corruption, poor land lord compensation, and the lack of support systems.

Corruption: Cory and her cousin Danding managed to save all their lands. Ditto Ramon Mitra who prides himself as being the catalyst and engineer of RA 6657. But the middleclass and the landlords that have from 20-100 hectares aren't spared. Also, they were promised that fair compensation would allow them to industrialize or to move to form a new industrial class. It was promised that the Commssion of Good Gevernment would turn in sequestered assets from the Marcoses. This didn't happen. Even the Marcos loot hasn't yet been recovered.

In addition, the budget for support systems like farm to market roads, a ready overseas market for cash crops, reasonable financing schemes to allow cooperatives to purchase cheap tractors, fertilizers and pesticides are just not there. A U.S.supported GATT system will kill farmer's cooperatives before they can even till their newly acquired land. That's external power support for you.

Agricultural productivity is also decreasing. Mindanao's plantations which used to give the Philippines the status of net agricultural exporter is a thing of the past. The sugar industry is dead and Estrada's cronies and friends have been importing smuggled sugar. The Philippines is now, a net importer of agri-products.

From where I sit, the Philippines' land reform system has wasted a lot of taxpayer's money and has succeeded only in distributing poverty or transferring poverty. It never created wealth for the good of all.

Think about it.

Very truly yours,
Nonel Gemora

Issue #15
21 June