Over the past month, I have found myself regretting that I had not taken a more active part in the Sumilao campaign. The farmers reached Manila after their long walk from Bukidnon around the time I was in Sweden, and when I got back I found myself running from one commitment to another, in various places around the country. To my great regret, the only time I spent for Sumilao was the first day they camped out in front of DAR. And while, of course, I ask for and get regular updates from friends playing active roles in the campaign, I have not written about Sumilao in this blog. I felt that what I could say about the matter had been said a thousand times before, by people better-situated and better-informed to say it.
Like other agrarian reform advocates, I was disappointed that the order from Malacanang was not to install the farmers (initially, there was word that all 144 hectares would actually be distributed), but only to revoke the conversion order on findings of violation of its terms. It meant that the process of CLOA application would begin all over again, starting from the issuance of notice of coverage.
However, I also found disturbing some comments made by various sectors, in particular, the comment of Satur Ocampo, which landed on the front page of the Inquirer. In essence, he said that “the Sumilao farmers’ plight was serving to highlight the bogus character of the government’s agrarian reform program.” While militant and activist-sounding (and to a certain extent true, for no one is denying that the CARL as it stands is shot full of holes), the subtext that statement is no secret: Ka Satur and the national democratic movement simply do not believe in Agrarian Reform.
They who filed a House Bill for the creation of the Genuine Agrarian Reform Act in the House of Representatives had, only a couple of months before, filed a House Resolution AGAINST the extension of CARP. In fact, in several Committee hearings, they unwittingly found themselves on the side of the likes of Iggy Arroyo and other Congressmen bent on protecting their landed interests.
Indeed, the past twenty years of CARP implementation have stood witness to a wide gamut of problems that have impacted heavily and adversely on the right of the farmers to till their own lands. The lack of political will from the Department of Agrarian Reform has largely been responsible for the failure to meet redistribution targets. Landowners have likewise resorted to creative legal gymnastics in order to retain their landholdings, making use of non land transfer schemes, like the Stock Distribution Option in Hacienda Luisita, onerous leaseback agreements and other corporate venture schemes which the CARL had allowed.
Policy problems have been compounded even further by various extralegal maneuvers being employed by landowners, including the filing of criminal cases to harass and intimidate the farmers — sometimes even resorting to the use of physical violence and scare tactics. In Hacienda Velez Malaga owned by Roberto Cuenca, a total of eleven peasant leaders had been killed between 2001 and 2007. In Bondoc Peninsula, there are documented cases of landowners confederating with members of the New People’s Army to liquidate the peasants. National and local government structures are routinely being abused to guarantee impunity.
We must distinguish, however, between extending RA 6657 and retaining its present form, and extending the agrarian reform program.
Given this landscape, after all, it is all too easy to make the call against the extension of the agrarian reform program, when in fact the call should be to introduce urgent reforms to the present law. While the premises of Ka Satur are valid and based on documented evidence, the conclusion reached should be reexamined. In the absence of real and concrete alternatives, eradicating CARP altogether will eliminate the already scant protections granted under the law to farmers and farmworkers.
Without the CARL, agrarian reform advocates would be bereft of any legal basis with which to assert the rights of tillers to the lands that they till. The power to take lands from landlords with huge tracts of lands and redistribute them is a power that only the State can exercise. Legally, no other entity or institution is clothed with that power. Likewise, the provision of support services post-redistribution cannot be relegated to any other entity. Hence, it is well nigh impossible to envision an agrarian reform program that is not state-sponsored or does not make use of state mechanisms. Operating within that framework and cognizant of that limitation, calling for the termination of the CARL in 2008 would only entrench even deeper landed interests and make the status quo even harder to dismantle.
Moreover, the 1987 Constitution mandates that the “State shall undertake an agrarian reform program founded on the right of farmers and regular farmworkers who are landless to own directly or collectively the lands that they till.” There is therefore a clear imperative to maintain in place a mechanism to forward this guiding principle.
The long list of problems with regard to the implementation of the existing agrarian reform program should not be a reason to eliminate the program altogether, in the absence of any other sustainable and viable alternative. Rather, the expiration of CARP in 2008 should be seen as an opportunity to lobby changes that reflect experiences on the ground and attempt to provide solutions to address persisting issues of landlessness, rural poverty and disenfranchisement.
Truly, genuine agrarian reform can only take place in a setting wherein there is a State that (1) understands the strategic importance of agrarian reform in eliminating rural poverty, (2) has the political will to break the hold of the landed class amidst a climate of political favors and clientelism, and (3) has a functioning and efficient bureaucracy that will speedily implement the program without fear or favor.
That does not mean, however, that failure to meet these criteria should result in a shelving of the agrarian reform program. There is much more to be lost than to be gained by relinquishing CARP at this particular juncture. The incremental gains accrued should be preserved, the protections it affords to farmers should be maintained, and the deficiencies and infirmities in its provisions should be corrected.