Marcoses should apologize to Filipino farmers
Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. sounds delusional when he trumpets the supposed progress achieved during his late father’s rule as dictator. He adds that he and his family have nothing to apologize for given the kilometers of roads built, the rice self-sufficiency program, power generation and high literacy rates achieved by Marcos Sr. Such “progress,” Marcos Jr. avers, “outweighs the criticisms being lodged against” his father. The son, however, is oblivious of the fact that infrastructure projects during martial law were characterized by scandalous corrupt practices, that rice self-sufficiency was experienced only in certain years and at a net loss, and that education was a low priority in government policy.
There is, however, one significant sector of the Philippine population to whom the Marcoses owe an apology, and that is, the millions of Filipino tenants and farmworkers who were promised “emancipation from their bondage” via a land reform program that was declared “the cornerstone of the New Society.” Marcos Sr. added that “land reform is the only gauge for the success or failure” of his authoritarian rule and that “if land reform fails, there is no New Society.”
Well, land reform under Marcos was a colossal failure and the figures easily bear this out. From the start, the program was hobbled by built-in infirmities. Presidential Decree (PD) 27, grandiosely titled the “Tenants’ Emancipation Act,” was confined only to rice and corn areas with a landowner retention limit of seven hectares. These two limitations effectively exempted from coverage 55 percent of tenants, 88 percent of landowners and 44 percent of rice and corn lands. Within the whole Philippine agricultural context, the program would have left untouched 95 percent of the rural labor force, 69 percent of all tenanted farmland and 92 percent of total farmland. Arsenio Balisacan argues that “the exclusion of plantations and farms planted to export crops which, in 1971, comprised nearly 40 percent of all agricultural croplands, meant that the program’s scope missed the larger source of land inequality.”
This intrinsic deficiency would be augmented by other deficits as I enumerated in a recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Asia. Marcos’ land reform was basically guided by a conservative vision and its implementing bureaucracy thrived on patronage and corruption. Landowners, not farmer-tenants, were the favored clients, with the implementing agencies, the Ministry of Agrarian Reform (MAR) and the Land Bank, privileging the process of landowner compensation and generating landlord-friendly land prices. This resulted in burdensome amortization payments by beneficiaries and a high default rate of 90 percent by the early 1980s.
MAR field officials often tolerated and even aided an organized and well-funded landowner campaign resulting in long delays in the land transfer process. Farmer-beneficiaries were disempowered due to the reinforcement of traditional rural practices and the predominance of government-organized and state-managed rural organizations. Those under a permanent leasehold agreement were worse off due to higher rents and increasing costs of production.
The few farmers who benefited quickly lost control over their awarded farmlands as they were forced to sell or mortgage land rights either to the original landowner or to better-off neighbors. Small farmer credit programs such as Masagana 99 failed to render their mandated services as they either became vehicles of political patronage or else catered mainly to rich farmers and landowners.
The program’s bureaucracy was characterized by improper coordination among the various government agencies, inadequate funding, lack of educational and promotional work misdirected priorities for expenditures, inadequate powers and authority of MAR, and misrepresentation of accomplishment figures. Generally, a glaring absence of political will pervaded the government and prevented it from implementing large-scale land redistribution through the inclusion of areas other than rice and corn farms.
After 14 years, martial law land reform could only show niggardly results. By Jan. 31, 1986, or three weeks before a popular revolt overthrew Marcos Sr., only 2.27 percent of land titles had been distributed to targeted beneficiaries—a mere 2.2 percent of the target. When measured against the total landless rural labor force, this “accomplishment” comprised a pitiful 0.17 percent.
The impact of Marcos’ failed “cornerstone program” was disastrous. The tenancy rate in rice and corn farms worsened from the 1971 figure of 33.1 percent in number of farms and 25.8 percent in area to the 1980 estimate of 36 percent of number of farms and 27.1 percent of farm area. For all croplands, tenancy grew from 29 percent in 1971 to 33.4 percent in 1980. From 1976 to 1984, the real incomes of rice farmers fell by 53 percent. Real farm wages declined by 26 percent from 1972 to 1984. By 1982, a rice crisis of production shortfalls was in full swing.
James Putzel calculates that, by 1988, land inequality in the Philippines had a high Gini coefficient of 64.7 with only 5.8 percent of owners controlling 50 percent of farm land while 65 percent had only 16.4 percent of total farm area. In the 1960s, the Gini index was 50.3.
If we were to hold Marcos Sr. to his boast that land reform was to be the gauge of success or failure of his rule, the answer is patently clear. Will Marcos Jr. still insist he and his family have nothing to apologize for?
Eduardo C. Tadem, PhD, is professor of Asian Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman; editor, Asian Studies (Journal of Critical Perspectives on Asia); and president of Freedom from Debt Coalition.
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