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The power of the sugar barons

What is it about sugar—sugar lands, that is?  They are indubitably—based on figures released by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR)—the most difficult lands to “reform,” i.e., to be acquired by the government from their respective landowners.

Only consider: per the data on the Land Acquisition and Distribution (LAD) balances by crops planted (as of January 2009), what remains to be distributed  are the following:  banana, 2.5 percent (of the total land devoted to it); pineapple, 3.5 percent; palay and corn, 6 percent; coconut, 11 percent; sugar, 39 percent.

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As I pointed out in a previous column (which I wrote more than two years ago), sugar land still to be reformed was more than three times the percentage for coconut, more than six times the percentage for rice, more than 10 times the percentage for pineapples, and more than 15 times the percentage for bananas.

Of the 1,034,661 hectares of land in the Philippines that still have to be acquired and distributed (as of July 2009), Negros Occidental which used to be called Sugarlandia is the No. 1 contributor among the country’s 80 provinces:  there are still 144,661 hectares to be reformed, 4 percent of the total balance in the country.

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Moreover, when reform has taken place, and here I refer to compulsory acquisition (CA), it has been in many cases accompanied by violence and delays. Some recent examples are: Sumilao (in Bukidnon), which took at least 17 years before the farmers got the land—and even then, there had to be compromises; and the Teves property in Negros Oriental, which took 12 years (and two killings, including that of a DAR official, both unsolved). In Negros Occidental, where at least 20 farmers have been killed and for which no one to date has been jailed, there is Hacienda Velez-Malaga, where the farmers have fought for 11 years; and Hacienda Bacan (belonging to the Arroyos) which started off as a VOS, but took nine years to accomplish, and ended up being involuntary on the part of the brothers Arroyo.

Suffice it to say that in the 20-year period from 1988 to 2008, less than 20 percent of the lands earmarked for compulsory acquisition actually got acquired—and, as mentioned above, sugar lands comprise a substantial proportion of the holdouts. That is a reflection of the political and economic power that the so-called “sugar barons” (the term presumably borrowed from the US’ robber barons) wield.

Of course the most famous (or maybe notorious is the more appropriate adjective) of sugar land owners going to the greatest of lengths to retain control of their property has to be Hacienda Luisita. Depending on the point of reference, the farmers have been waiting for that land for anywhere between 20 years and more than 40 years (not to mention killings).

Is the Aquino administration going to weigh in on the side of the farmers in the agrarian reform issue? Based on what he promised during his campaign, the answer is yes. He specifically stated then that he would distribute the 1,000,000 hectares of land under Carper (agrarian reform extension with reforms) during his watch. He also specifically promised that Hacienda Luisita would be distributed to the farmer beneficiaries by 2014.

Not only that, the 2011-2016 Philippine Development Plan (PDP) very clearly gives importance to agrarian reform, discussing it in Chapter 4 (Competitive and Sustainable Agriculture…) and Chapter 8 (Social Development), which indicates that the government considers it necessary both for efficiency (growth) and equity (development) purposes.

But based on the financial resources that are being allocated, the answer is no. Agrarian reform is underfunded: the Carper Law appropriates P150 billion for the purpose from 2009 to 2014, but given the budget allocations for 2011 and 2012, only a fraction of that amount is being used. Plus, the DAR has been given orders to trim down its personnel and not replace those who resign or retire—at a time when it needs more personnel, if it is to achieve its target. The DAR needs more personnel in Negros Occidental, but the number of people there are the same as the number of employees in Ilocos Norte, for heaven’s sake, which is not even in the top 20 provinces with high LADs. Worse, there is insufficient funding for support services, whose importance is highlighted in the PDP.

Further, compared to the CCT program, whose funding has doubled and redoubled in the past two years, the agrarian reform program is like the neglected stepsister. There is nothing wrong with the CCT program, of course, but there is everything right with a properly implemented agrarian reform program.

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Agrarian reform deserves at least as much attention as the CCT (whose impact has not yet been determined, although we can draw from the experience of other countries) because studies of the impact of CARP programs show that: (a)  the odds that the farmer beneficiaries are non-poor are at least 1.76 to as much as 2.6 times that they are poor; (b) the probability of being non-poor increases by 24 percent with irrigation and by 15 percent with credit;  (c) the bulk of beneficiaries in the four asset reform programs of government (agrarian, urban poor housing, ancestral land, aquatic) positively indicate attaining better lives—with 80 percent for agrarian reform beneficiaries, the highest among the programs, despite the poor track record of the programs; (d) “the higher the proportion of land redistributed under the agrarian reform program relative to the potential land reform area, the lower the likelihood of (armed) conflict,” according to Human Development Report, 2005.

Get a move on, P-Noy.

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TAGS: agriculture, Aquino, featured columns, land reform, opinion, sugarlands
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