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Philippine Agrarian Reform : The Sisyphus Complex

During the American period, there was this program known as the Homestead Act. This was patterned after the same program wherein Americans went west and founded their own farms and homesteads. Now, American agriculture is a Titan in their economy. Further along there was the Land Reform initiated by President Diosdado Macapagal and of course, when Martial Law was declared in September 21, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared the entire country a “Land Reform Zone”. During the reinstallation of Congress in 1988, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was enacted into law and then CARPer during the GMA administration.

One question begs to be answered. How come the great majority of rural Filipinos remain poor? Why have these laws and programs failed dismally inspite of all the good intentions that was behind them? It is evident that no matter how noble the intention of giving land to the landless, there was no support mechanism in place for the Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs). This has also indirectly contributed to decreasing productivity in land reform areas. But the real tragedy is that the ARBs became poorer and more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of fate and economic dynamics.

Maybe it is time that we look hard into this supposed economic “cure all”, whether it is a case of twisted economic idealism or twisted economic romanticism. As quoted : “It was a political solution to an economic problem”, now we find ourselves in this situation and it is not bound to get better if the system is not revised. It has been a generation since CARP was enacted into law. Let us try to save another generation from lives of hardship and misery.

I was prompted to put forth the lines above because of a 2007 account I read in the blog of deceased but well respected journalist Ding Gagelonia.  The account went this way:

The True Picture of CARP in Negros Occidental

We had just had a most unusual lunch experience. I sat across a group of people known as ARB’s – Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries. These are families who were once farm laborers in large haciendas but, thanks to the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), are now proud owners of the land they once tilled on behalf of their landlords. Over fried chicken, rice and a hot fudge sundae, I listened to the people sharing the meal with me. They told us of their struggles, of the hardships they have all endured, both before and after they became beneficiaries of CARP.

I have a lump in my throat the whole time I am writing this piece as I struggle with my own feelings. I am not a prolific writer. I write only when I feel the urge. Right now I am writing because I feel compelled to write.

I had seen the headlines only weeks ago and read about the bloodshed in their lands. We are in the famed island of Negros, where, in places like Hacienda Velez-Malaga, so many lives have been wasted in the name of Agrarian Reform. I saw the special report in one of ABS-CBN’s late night documentary-type shows. I had prepared myself for an emotional moment. But I didn’t prepare myself for a guilt trip.

Yes, lunch was one big guilt trip. I kept asking myself, How can I stand this? Here I am, 3G cellphone in hand and staying at a luxury hotel, how can I live with myself, with my 30 pounds of excess weight from, well, overeating… how can I face this other creature of God in front of me and not feel guilty? At sixteen, she is barely four feet tall. No, she is not a natural dwarf, and she doesn’t look like those Ethiopian malnourished children from war-torn Africa that we used to see on the internet. But malnourished she is, nonetheless, hence the stunted growth. She stopped growing when at age 7 she started working in the sugarcane fields. She’s been out of school since grade four, and while she dreams of becoming a teacher someday, she knows that every year that passes, that dream becomes more and more unlikely to happen, because she has been out of school for six years now.

Working under the hot sun from sun-up to sundown, her skin is as dark as the purplish sugarcane in the fields that she tends. Because her body has been strained by hard labor, she is not skin and bones. Instead she is muscular like a farm-hand young boy. Indeed, if not for the name, she could be mistaken for a boy.

She had a good meal today, probably the only one like it in weeks, if not months. Yet she could not muster a smile for my camera. The other people in her group confirmed what I had seen on TV. That indeed there are people in their neighborhood who gather certain types of stones from a river and boil them to extract their “flavor” so that they could have some soup. They said it’s not always that bad. On good days they get to catch some frogs. So I noticed they purposely did not finish the two pieces of chicken in front of them. They ate one and they had the other one wrapped to be brought home. God knows how many more mouths those will feed tonight.

Edelyn hardly speaks. She will only respond when asked directly, and her answers are typically only a few words. And tears well in her eyes as she struggles to answer my questions. So the older women do the talking. And tell her story for her. I asked her if indeed she knew how to dress and broil a frog, as claimed by one of the older women. She nods, and for a fleeting moment I thought I sensed a faint smile – borne maybe out of pride in her shall we say, unusual culinary skills. In their village, about five kilometers from the town of Murcia, they have no electricity. Officially, all the barangays in their town have electricity, but their village is too far away from the nearest cables. And they have no water. They walk two kilometers to the nearest water source, a natural spring, for every drop of water that they use – for drinking, for washing, for cooking, for bathing, for everything.

I also met Sison Ventoso, a 14-year old boy named after Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines. That name says a lot about who his parents look up to as a hero. He can easily get mistaken for an 8-year old. He is that small. In spite of his equally stunted growth, he dreams loftier dreams – of becoming an engineer. Perhaps that’s because he got as far as grade 6, two grades higher than Edelyn.

The typical ARB received anywhere from one-half to two hectares of land acquired by the government from the previous landowner. The government pays back the former landlords little by little over a ten-year period. The land is awarded to the tenants on the belief that as the new landowners, the former landless farmers become empowered and will no longer need to revolt against the government to remove the shackles of poverty from their heels. Land Reform was the perceived cure for poverty, which was the root of all insurgency in the past: the peasants felt they were not getting a fair share of the country’s wealth and natural resources. Poverty provided the fertile ground for the sowing of communist ideals. This is best exemplified by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and has been reprised many times in other parts of the world.

Indeed land reform, now known as the comprehensive agrarian reform program, was seen as the cure for poverty, the root of all economic evils in our country. The simple facts are: the vast majority of our country is rural, and the livelihood of our people is mainly agriculture-based. So the thinking goes, for as long as most Filipinos remain poor peasants, or tenant farmers, we can never rise from our third-world poverty-beset situation. That is the socio-eco-political basis for land reform. In the words of Mayor Sonny Coscolluela of Murcia, it was a political solution to an economic problem.

The CARP law expires next year, after a second ten-year extension. Before that, land reform was a landmark program of former president Diosdado Macapagal, father of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. And after all those years of land reform, where are we now? Or more significantly, where are the people – by that I mean the Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARB’s)?

Well I met some of them today. And it saddens me to acknowledge that they are in fact worse off now, especially when compared to their counterparts who have remained working as farm laborers in the big haciendas. While the ARB families are starving, their counterpart families in the big plantations have a good life. Their landlords provide for all, repeat, ALL their needs. They have food on the table, and in the ref (yes, they have refs!), they have fairly nice clothes, they have medical care, they have social security, their children go to schools right inside the hacienda. The older kids even go to college. And I only today did I discover the big difference: farm workers in the haciendas were salaried employees. As such they had regular wages, and all the benefits that employees normally get, including SSS membership.

Sugar plantations are actually agro-industrial complexes, managed like regular corporations, with the farm workers providing the bulk of the labor force required for production. It’s a long process that involves prepping the land prior to the planting season, all through the growing stage, down to the harvest, collecting the canes and transporting them to the sugar mill; from there it goes through a second stage of production until the final product is produced; and from there it goes to the marketing, sales and distribution process before all the hard work pays off and the farm gets cash for its products. And sugar is a once-a-year crop. That means all throughout the year, the landlord advances all the costs and expenses, and only at the end of the long process does he get his money back.

When the land gets covered by CARP, the farm workers effectively lose their jobs. The government takes the land away from the landowner and gives it to the farmers. So the former landlords stop paying any wages or any other benefits to them. They become entrepreneurs even if they do not know the meaning of the term. Given this background, it is no surprise that most of them fail at it.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. In spite of their plight, the ARB’s still believe in CARP (and surprisingly, so do the landlords), if only because they like having land that they can pawn. The biggest mistake we have made is believing that giving the land to the farmers solves all our problems. The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), in fact bases the success of its program on the quantity of land that it has redistributed. With 20-20 hindsight vision, we now know that if that alone is what gets done, then we are so very badly mistaken in our notion that land redistribution is all that needs to be done.

The failure of CARP lies in the lack, or even total absence, of the support services to enable ARB’s to properly till their land and become economically progressive farmer families. What typically happens is that after ARB’s receive their land (and nothing else), they will need to borrow extensively just to get things started – buy seeds, farm implements, fertilizer, etc. (on top of their basic needs: food, clothing, shelter). In as short a time as two years, the ARB family will end up having buried itself into so much debt that the land they were given eventually gets sold or pawned, surreptitiously of course, because it is illegal to do so. How that happens is another story altogether.

In the end, the family ends up so much worse off than before they were given their land. They still till the same land but now they have no more landlords to run to for help. In the past, whatever they needed, whatever emergency befell them, they were always taken care of by the landlord. Under their new situation, who do they turn to? One common answer: loan sharks. We already know where that path leads.

Going back to our lunch guests, in spite of their seeming lack of education, the ARB’s were quite aware of their plight. They knew all along how futile the whole exercise was. They explained for example, how it was impossible for them to pay off their loans knowing how low their farm’s output would be compared to their needs. In some cases they only generate an income of a mere P5,000 a year. Even if they pull out from school all their young children and commit them to work the fields (not uncommon), it would still not be enough to feed the family. That’s because most of their income is eaten up by usurious rates charged by loan sharks.

So they are forced to explore other income sources. They grow whatever they can grow in the little land that they have, but since this is too small, they send their children to the big cities to work as domestic helpers. One mother sent her 14-year old daughter to Manila. More than ten year later she has yet to hear from her again. And in spite of the terrible agony she suffers from not knowing whether her oldest daughter is alive or not, she has sent two more daughters to Manila, not because they needed to look for their elder sister, but to look for work. If you noticed that the parents think of their children as a “labor force,” you are right. Peasant farmers bear as many children as possible because indeed the children are “assets” – not much different from their carabaos. More children means more farm hands to till the land. Child labor is the norm, not the exception.

In cases where their land is already effectively controlled by their creditors, the ARB’s end up working the land like they were tenant farmers all over again. If they can find work in other farms, such as cutting the grass in preparation for the planting season, they get paid P80 a day. That’s on the high side. The not-so-well off landowners can only afford to pay P60 a day. I cannot imagine how a family can live on P60 a day. It doesn’t help my imagination to learn that the average family here has 8 children.

The failure that is CARP, or should I say, the tragedy that is CARP, creates more problems the more we continue its misguided implementation. Because the old landowners no longer own the land, they have stopped paying taxes on it. And given their already sorry state of financial affairs, nobody can expect the new landowners to pay real estate taxes either. So municipal coffers are now slowly seeing a continuing decline in tax collections. And with over-all productivity going down because of this, economic growth in the rural areas gets as stunted as the growth (or lack of it) of the malnourished children that are born to the families there. Dwindling economic activity in major agricultural areas is of course a vicious cycle that brings down the rest of the country. Not to mention the impact on overall literacy as more and more of the ARB’s children drop out of school to either work the fields, or find jobs as domestic helpers in the bigger cities. In some cases, they go into prostitution.

What’s the bottom line? Why am I so engrossed in this unpleasant subject matter? Why do I think this deserves the attention I am asking everyone to give it? Because this affects all of us. How? Let us not forget, CARP is funded with billions and billions of tax money – our money. And if my tax money is being used to create more Edelyn Pinedas, then I feel compelled to put a stop to it.