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Where is social justice?

On its website (www.dar.gov.ph), the Department of Agrarian Reform boasts of having distributed 2,321,064 hectares of private agricultural land and 1,727,054 hectares of nonprivate agricultural land, or a total of 4,048,118 hectares. “This is equivalent to 2,396,857 Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries installed,” the DAR says.

But the whole point of asset reform is social justice. It should address poverty as a public issue. (And further, as a public issue, the situation tells us that the poor are poor not because they are lazy but because they have become prey to a crisis in institutional arrangements within society’s political and economic institutions, constantly finding themselves unable to advance their interests.) Its objective should be to develop our people’s productive capacities, to allow them to elevate the quality asset reform of their lives. This is the true essence of asset reform. To equate institutional efficiency with mere numbers is to lose sight of the agency’s mandate.

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To start with, the DAR was established in order “to achieve a dignified existence for the small farmers free from pernicious institutional restraints and practices” and “to create a truly viable social and economic structure in agriculture conducive to greater productivity and higher farm incomes,” among other things. With this pronouncement in the Declaration of State Policies, it is clear that the DAR’s mandate is to bring to reality the farmer’s quest for a dignified existence. Translating this mission to institutional operations means siding with potential beneficiaries while observing due process. In other words, in all cases involving ownership disputes, the burden of proof should always weigh heavily on the shoulders of the few landed families. But in many instances, the opposite is true; there have been many avenues in which farmers get dispossessed of “reformed” agricultural lands.

A visit this month to Hacienda Luisita, considered the icon of the land reform struggle in the country, gave me the chance to see up close the state’s lack of seriousness in implementing land reform. While the Supreme Court has ruled against the “stock distribution option” initiated by the corporation of President Aquino’s wealthy family and ordered the immediate distribution of close to 4,000 hectares of the sugarcane plantation, the beneficiaries are yet to be installed and to enjoy higher returns on their labor. To save face, the DAR has resorted to distributing certificates of land ownership award without conducting actual ground surveys, giving the highest importance only to the fact that the farmers had been issued their land titles. But the farmers remain landless because the boundaries have yet to be determined.

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The situation is compounded by the absence of clear support services toward building the capacities of the intended beneficiaries. In the wake of the calamities that struck Central Luzon in the past years, lacking a substantial subsidy from the state, most of the beneficiaries made the blunder of leasing their land to certain  ariendadores  (agricultural lessees) who support the Cojuangco-owned Central Azucarera de Tarlac’s need for raw sugarcane for processing.

Over in the town of Sariaya in Quezon, the struggle for land reform has taken a different direction. Famous for its Vigan-like antique houses, Sariaya is marked by the social relations prevalent during the Spanish colonial period. Gladiola Cabunag, descended from the Rodriguez line of the Gala-Rodriguez families, whose ancestors served as intermediaries between the colonial power and the masses, is believed to be the richest person in the province. She owns the contested 44-hectare property in Barangays Tumbaga Uno and Tumbaga Dos.

In the late 1990s, the property was distributed to farmer-beneficiaries under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. But Cabunag applied for exemption from CARP coverage based on the Department of Justice’s Opinion No. 44, which held that lands classified as nonagricultural prior to June 10, 1988, are exempted. The beneficiaries were not made parties to the exemption cases, and before they knew it, their lands had been exempted from CARP coverage and their titles cancelled. Just the other week, the DAR Adjudication Board issued a notice of eviction signed by the Provincial Sheriff and instructing the beneficiaries to peacefully surrender the lands, demolish existing structures, and accept disturbance compensation averaging P60,000 per family.

More disturbing is that the dispossession taking place due to land reclassification is becoming the mechanism for a tragic return to the old feudal relations, mainly because reclassification is being used only as a means for the rich to recover the land. The use of the land remains agricultural, and the former beneficiaries have since assumed tenancy relations with their landlords, resulting in the bastardization of the principle of effecting an equitable distribution of resources toward social justice. On many other occasions, the DAR has displayed fatal inconsistencies in the disposition of cases falling within its jurisdiction, providing varying classifications to different parcels of land in the same area.

With less than six months left before the Philippines’ agrarian reform program expires, it may be safe to assume that it is a failure. It is clear that the current administration is now merely providing the tools for wrapping up the ineffective program that has cost hundreds of billions of pesos in taxpayer money in more than two decades of implementation. In November 2013, Malacañang issued Administrative Order No. 34 creating an interagency committee on institutional arrangements for land management and rural development. Alas, this order only supplies the guidelines for land titling and management. It does not provide any salient reference to the pursuit of social justice beyond June 2014.

Joseph Jadway D. Marasigan ([email protected]) chairs the Quezon Association for Rural Development and Democratization Services Inc.

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TAGS: agrarian reform, Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries, Agricultural Land, department of agrarian reform, hacienda luisita, land reform, social justice
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