There was a time when a comprehensive agrarian reform law seemed out of reach, the very definition of an impossible dream. In the late 1980s, much of the turbulent debate over the fate and future of the first Aquino administration’s centerpiece land reform initiative revolved around a practical question: Would it even become law?
This week we mark the 25th anniversary of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law—a milestone, whichever way we look at it. But it is a milestone overgrown with moss, and hardly visible anymore.
One can argue that the Philippines’ entire history is reflected in that now-diminished landmark, from the land grant system of the Spaniards and the abuses of the encomienderos, to the land registration system imposed by the Americans, to President Manuel Quezon’s limited promotion of a “social justice” agenda, to the abolition of share tenancy during the Macapagal era, to Ferdinand Marcos’ use of land reform as a rhetorical pillar of his New Society, to the passage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, or CARP, as it is more familiarly known, in 1988.
A diminished landmark, yes, but still standing. We cannot say that CARP is a failure on the whole. In its first 20 years or so, the program covered some 7 million hectares, including 2.3 million has of private agricultural lands and 1.7 million has of non-private agricultural lands. In the first two decades, CARP had an impact on the lives of some 4.4 million agrarian reform beneficiaries. But a considerable amount of work remains undone.
At the beginning of the year, the government estimated that the so-called land acquisition and distribution (LAD) balance was less than 900,000 has, with what it calls the net workable LAD balance at a little over 500,000 has. “Indeed, if the target date for completion [of the balance] is June 2016 as per [President Aquino’s] commitment during the Third SONA [State of the Nation Address], this is eminently doable,” Malacañang said in a statement.
One may question the numbers, but there is no denying that a major shift in land ownership has taken place in the last quarter-century. Whether this was enough, or done with the necessary dispatch, or complemented with adequate support, are distinct questions. CARP and the extension law CARPer have certainly been an advance on previous land reform legislation.
But as an exercise in social reform, CARP has also fallen short. The main shortcoming: its signal exceptions. Major landowners, and even owners of moderately sized landholdings, have played fast and loose with the provisions on conversion. Some have refused outright to submit their lands to CARP coverage. The second Aquino administration estimates that almost 200,000 hectares of “CARPable” land are “problematic”—and subtracted the number from the LAD balance.
The half-a-million “net workable LAD balance” proposed by Malacañang, then, already assumes that problematic lands will not be covered. That’s the story of Philippine agrarian reform, in a nutshell. Make enough noise, put up enough hurdles, and landowners can force the government to slink away.
The frequency of farmers going on hunger strikes or undertaking long marches tells us that, even today, landowners’ resistance to the agrarian reform law remains considerable, and farmers have had to resort to extreme forms of protest to get government attention.
It does not help that the landholding closely associated with two administrations, Hacienda Luisita, tried to claim an effective exemption through its stock distribution option. At bottom, the problem with CARP and CARPer has been their porousness; through their loopholes some have gotten away with much, even murder.