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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

PLODDING LAND REFORM

Will Estrada speed it up and relieve rural poverty?

By JAMES PUTZEL, senior lecturer in development studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


AGRARIAN REFORM HAS NOT EXACTLY been at the top of the agenda in the Philippines election campaign. This is not because the public lost interest in the issue. Rather, it reflects the general absence of debates about political programs in elections that were largely about image and influence. The front-runner, Joseph Estrada, is a classic populist, which means that he appeals to the crowd with a simplistic message drawing support from both left and right. While some of his supporters will expect him to deliver "pro-poor" policies to the countryside, including accelerated agrarian reform, others will attempt to have him retreat from even the limited reform program implemented over the last ten years.

Far-reaching redistributive agrarian reform can and has made a major and positive impact on development in poor countries, but only when it has been implemented swiftly and comprehensively. The big debate over reform in the Philippines took place over ten years ago, after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos. Those advocating swift implementation were defeated, not least by president Corazon Aquino's own family, the Cojuangcos, concerned about the long-term real estate value of their large holdings in Tarlac. Instead a watered-down Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was passed in June 1988. Designed to move slowly, the program accomplished little during Aquino's administration.

When President Ramos assumed power in 1992, he appointed Ernesto Garilao to the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). Garilao set out to do the best job he could given the constraints of the law and his budget. Garilao, like other agrarian reform secretaries before him, has painted a glowing picture of his administration's accomplishments. However, his biggest achievements were in titling public lands, while only a small proportion of private lands have been redistributed.

What have been the benefits of this partial agrarian reform? No doubt they have been considerable for those who gained secure title over land. But perhaps the most important benefit has been unintended - the accumulation of social capital in the countryside. Agrarian reform has provided a context for extensive organization in many rural areas. In those lucky enough to have some land redistribution, agrarian reform communities have been formed and the DAR has channeled support in the form of post-harvest facilities. But even where reform has not been implemented, farmers have extended their reach accumulating organizational resources which will be important to future reform movements.

What of the costs? The plodding implementation of reform has had a negative effect on private sector investment in agriculture. The country has failed to significantly increase agricultural productivity and with each drought rice imports have grown. Many private agribusiness firms now realize that there is little advantage to owning land. What they do best is processing and marketing. The private sector would likely mount little opposition to a government committed to land redistribution. What corporations want to know is who owns the land and then they can come to lease arrangements or engage in contract farming with small landowners.

Garilao's biggest failure was the lost opportunity of providing sound documentation of land ownership. Despite generations of partial reforms, this has never been done. Not only would such an inventory help future reformers, it would allow for the implementation of a land tax, which ought to be high on the agenda of a new administration. Some of the objectives of agrarian reform could be met by taxing land to discourage its unproductive use. This could lead to a rapid increase in voluntary sales of land, particularly the huge amounts held in relatively small parcels by absentee urban middle class families. Releasing such lands to rural producers could go a long way to relieving rural poverty.

With an eye to rural votes, last February Congress passed a law granting a ten-year extension to the CARP, originally due to expire this year. There will no doubt be forceful lobbies under the new administration to reverse that extension and to bring the program to a close. It is surprising that those interested in long-term development and the alleviation of rural poverty have not challenged the candidates in presidential, congressional and provincial elections to commit to defend the CARP and new measures like land taxation. It seems they have attempted to pursue their objectives simply by "gaining influence" in the next administration, rather than pushing a policy debate.

Ramos's chosen candidate, José de Venecia, promised nothing new in agrarian reform. Given his reputation as a trapo, a traditional politician, an administration under his authority would likely have accomplished even less than Ramos's. Estrada has in his camp both advocates of rural reform like Horacio "Boy" Morales of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement and Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, the principal financier behind the Marcos administration, known then as the country's "coconut king." The trouble with populists is that there is no predicting what policy stand they might take.


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