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After 34 years of Philippines’ agrarian reform law, farmers continue to long for own land

“It’s not only about land distribution, but the condition that the farmers are in now. Are they tilling their own lands?”

Asia’s longest-running land reform program, which turned 34 on Friday, June 10, remains to be “a total failure,” claimed land rights defenders in the Philippines.

“It’s a total failure because it didn’t fulfill its mandate to equally distribute land to the farmers,” said Maureen Hermitanio, deputy secretary general of the Peasant Alliance of the Philippines.

She said many farmers are still fighting to have their own land.

Activists maintained that the government used various ways to displace farmers from their lands to accommodate the interests of the government and private businesses.

The agrarian reform law, which was signed by the late president Corazon Aquino in 1988, was supposed to be completed after ten years with the distribution of about eight million hectares of land.

A total of 898,420 landless tenants and farmers became recipients of land titles and support services during the ten-year period. It was, however, considered a failure because it only accomplished 22.5 percent of the target land that should have been distributed in in six years.

In 1998, the administration of former president Fidel Ramos was able to distribute 4.7 million hectares of land, or 60 percent of the target, more than double the output of the Aquino administration.

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In December 2008, the budget for the program expired with about 1.2 million hectares of agricultural land waiting to be distributed to farmers.

To continue the distribution of lands to farmers, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms was passed into law on August 7, 2009, by former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and was set to expire on June 30, 2014.

The program, however, continued even after June 2014 because that law states that it can be allowed “to proceed to its finality and be executed even beyond such date.”

In 2021, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte claimed that it was able to distribute a total of 516,000 hectares to 405,800 farmers nationwide.

The Department of Agrarian Reform claimed that as of last year, there were already 2.486 million agrarian reform beneficiaries since 1972, of which 166,127 were from 2016, while 1.3 million, or 53 percent, are now living in 2,234 agrarian reform communities.

There are, however, more than 50,000 agrarian reform cases pending before the Adjudication Board of the Department of Agrarian Reform.

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Members of peasant group Task Force Mapalad hold a demonstration to mark the 32nd anniversary of the Philippines agrarian reform law on June 10, 2020. (Photo supplied)

‘Half of the story’

Sonny Africa, executive director of the independent research group IBON Foundation, said what the government claimed to be its “accomplishment” is just “half of the story.”

“It’s not even an important half,” he said, adding that the government reports its accomplishments, “but they don’t monitor if the beneficiaries really control the land.”

“It’s not only about land distribution, but the condition that the farmers are in now. Are they tilling their own lands?” he said.

“Farmers are not better off over the years,” said Africa. “Look at how bad are the lives of the farmers who were even agrarian beneficiaries,” he said.

Data from the Philippine Statistics Agency reveal that agriculture sector has the highest poverty incidence among the basic sectors of society.

Africa described the government’s agrarian reform program as “expensive and cumbersome” that creates loopholes and does not address “structural problems of rural inequality.”

Hermitanio said one of the main issues of the agrarian reform program is that the land given to farmers “is not free.”

Under the program, each beneficiary is only entitled to a 1.2-hectare piece of land, which Hermitanio said “is too small.”

“Where will the farmers get their money to pay the amortization if they can’t be productive in the land?” she said.

Land rights activist said the country’s agrarian reform program is the “most bloody land reform program in Asia, or maybe in the world.”

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Activists stage a demonstration outside the Agrarian reform office in Manila on June 10, 2020, to call on the government to distribute land to poor farmers. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

The Filipino farmers’ struggle for land has been mired with blood since time immemorial.

In 1987, the military and police shot at protesting farmers outside the presidential palace in Manila, killing 13 people and more than 50 others injured in what was later known as the “Mendiola massacre.”

In 2004, state security forces dispersed a picket outside the Hacienda Luisita, a vast land owned by the Aquino family, killing seven people. At least 121 others were injured while 133 were arrested and detained.

This week, 93 farmers and land rights activists were arrested by the police in the town of Concepcion, Tarlac province.

Africa said it is “a clear example” of the landlords’ resistance to the program. “Had the landlords been cooperative … the [program] could have already succeeded.”

He said the 34-year-old program “is not really the answer” to the problem of landlessness, instead “genuine agrarian reform” is necessary to ensure that farmers are given support to make their land productive.

Despite all the challenges, farmers and activists vow to continue to fight for land.

“As long as they are living, the farmers will fight for their right to till and plant in their own lands, with their own blood, sweat, and tears,” said Hermitanio.

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