Land conversion over land reform?
President Duterte was reported to have walked out of a Cabinet meeting on Feb. 6 after a 30-minute tirade.
The cause of his exasperation?
The slow pace of land conversion under the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR).
DAR’s chief mandate is to push for land reform, a pillar of the social justice agenda of the government over successive administrations now, and the full implementation of which was also a key campaign promise of Mr. Duterte.
But why is the department now being goaded to fast-track the processing of applications to convert already shrinking agricultural land into other uses such as housing developments, tourism enclaves and commercial estates?
Still, what Mr. Duterte wants, Mr. Duterte gets.
Stung by the presidential outburst, Agrarian Reform Secretary John Castriciones had to form a task force posthaste to implement DAR’s Administrative Order No. 1 series of 2019, which puts in place the more laissez-faire regulatory process the President wants for land conversions.
Naturally, the move has earned the ire of peasant groups, the one sector that will bear the brunt of a contracting agricultural environment.
AO 1, they contend, puts into serious doubt the sincerity of the President to fulfill his campaign promise to complete the agrarian reform program, which has been hampered in recent years by lack of funds for the acquisition of land for distribution to landless farmers, and stiff resistance from large private landowners.
Former agrarian reform secretary Rafael Mariano branded the order as “antifarmer,” as land conversion applicants will no longer be required to secure documents from the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board and the Department of Agriculture as stipulated in the Comprehensive Rules on Land Use Conversion issued in 2002.
Further, conversion applications will now be concluded in just 30 days from submission of the required paperwork, instead of the 120 days minimum period provided in the comprehensive rules.
The much-relaxed rules “will greatly imperil the state of farmers and our national food security,” warned Mariano, who added that during his short stint at the DAR, he even pushed for an executive order mandating a two-year moratorium on the acceptance and processing of land conversion applications, to allow the government to prioritize food security and prevent the further shrinkage of agricultural lands.
But this time, Mr. Duterte and Castriciones appear to be “itching to accelerate the conversion of agricultural lands,” said Mariano, even as the DAR is mandated to protect farmers and their rights, and the viability of the agrarian reform program itself.
The DAR reported last week that it had a backlog of 73 cases involving land conversion.
Teresita Tarlac, president of the Panay-Negros chapter of the national peasant federation Task Force Mapalad, lamented that land reform accomplishment under the Duterte administration is already “the lowest in history,” but the President’s recent flare-up only sends the signal that the priority is now land conversion rather than land acquisition and distribution.
Mr. Duterte’s anger could be directed more toward the continuing failure of the land reform program, said Tarlac. In Negros Occidental, for instance, the President’s vaunted political will can accelerate the distribution of 30 landholdings spanning 900 hectares of land to the tillers.
“In many landholdings, including in Negros Occidental, all the DAR [and] the Registry of Deeds need to do is generate and issue the certificates of landownership award to the farmers to pull the administration’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program accomplishment up. All it needs is to lift a finger, not move heaven and earth, to end the plight of landless farmers. But it isn’t doing an already easy task. Isn’t this equally exasperating and worthy of President Duterte’s anger and frustration?”
With the President’s express command to accelerate conversion of agricultural lands to residential, industrial and commercial use, the public better be prepared “to eat concrete,” said the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.
It needn’t come to that, if only Mr. Duterte would remember his promise to work for “a rebirth of agrarian reform,” as he put it then, and put the brakes on, or at least more thought to, his current fixation for unbridled land conversions.
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