(Last of a series)
When personnel of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) drove across rugged roads to far-flung villages in Tarlac province months ago to explain the Supreme Court decision awarding Hacienda Luisita to its farm workers, they were met with skepticism.
Who could blame the workers? They had been tilling the sprawling sugar estate for decades under a stock distribution plan (SDP) without any hope they could ever own a piece of it. And then suddenly, the high court ruled this would be parceled out to more than 6,000 farm workers.
“There were many people crying. Many did not believe this would happen,” Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes said in an interview at the Inquirer office last week. “There were many skeptics among them.”
Many farmers across the country might have the same skepticism about the impact of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) begun by President Corazon C. Aquino in 1988 and which some hope would come full circle under the CARP extension with reforms (Carper) during her son’s watch.
Did CARP achieve its goal of ameliorating poverty after 25 years? Could the DAR under the second Aquino administration distribute the balance of close to 1 million hectares of agricultural land by June 2014?
After a series of activities and interviews with prospective beneficiaries, the workers eventually saw that indeed they could own the land.
“When we came out in November with a list, and told them, ‘This is it,’ and began the surveys, and the surveyors were there, they were pretty convinced this was going to happen,” De los Reyes said.
He said the DAR had a game plan for more or less 6,296 farmers who each will get an estimated 0.6 hectare out of the 4,300 hectares the high tribunal ordered distributed in a final decision in April 2012.
But he warned that the process, including the valuation of the land to determine just compensation for the Cojuangco clan, could take longer, and possibly go back to the courts.
What to do with land
What’s crucial is that once the land is awarded to them, they would have to know what to do with it, what crop to produce that would generate the most income for them, De los Reyes said.
The DAR personnel would begin workshops next month to help the workers decide what to do with the land, and train them to manage it profitably, he said. This way, the government would know what support services to provide.
“That’s essentially the game plan,” said De los Reyes, who was vice dean of De La Salle University College of Law when Aquino tapped him to head the DAR. “The choice of what to plant is theirs.”
The DAR’s P21-billion budget for 2013 covers land acquisition and distribution and compensation for the landowners, and includes more than P2.3 billion for support services, up from P800 million this year, De los Reyes said.
“This is the first time it’s being done under the CARP that we have a budget for support services outside of rural infrastructure,” he said.
That’s on top of the Department of Agriculture’s P1-billion credit for agrarian reform beneficiaries, he said.
Coco levy funds eyed
The DAR is also eyeing coconut levy funds, monies collected from 1973 to 1982 during the Marcos regime from the coconut farmers, who are also potential CARP beneficiaries, to finance support services, De los Reyes said.
What looms as a possibly contentious process in the Hacienda Luisita case is land valuation, which will be computed according to capitalized net income, market value and comparable sales in November 1989, when the SDP was approved.
If the final valuation is contested, the issue will go to the DAR adjudication board, whose decision can be appealed to the special agrarian courts, the regional trial courts and all the way to the Supreme Court again, De los Reyes said.
“Rules say that preliminary determination of just compensation is essentially a judiciary function, not an administrative function. It will go back to the court,” he said.
But while the case is being litigated, cash will be deposited and bonds will be issued to the landowner. “That will not stop the acquisition from going on,” he said. “Once we have segregation, it’s going to be fast. We expect that the list of segregation and valuation are all going to come out February.”
Like winning lottery
The DAR is targeting the distribution of Hacienda Luisita land between May and June next year.
De los Reyes, however, conceded that awarding the land was no assurance the beneficiaries or their heirs would till it and make it productive.
All this is happening against the backdrop of a stoppage in the operation of the sugar estate from 2004 to 2012 following a strike by the workers.
It has been 23 years since the stock option was hammered out in 1989.
“A lot of people who were hale and hearty, if they were 40 at the time, they are already 60 by this time. A lot of their children perhaps have no more concept of what it is to plant. The decision they have to make will have to do with the land,” said De los Reyes, who himself inherited 2 hectares of sugarcane land in Batangas province.
Like a poor guy winning the lottery, owning land could be overwhelming, he said.
“Are they going to plant on it? The reality of life is that there’s leasing going on there. Are they going to lease it? Are their kids going to work on the land? It’s a very valuable piece of real estate, however you look at it. I’m hoping a lot of them, a significant majority of them, will use this farmland to produce what they want to produce on that land,” he said.
“But I’m also not blind to the idea that there are speculators talking to them. Based on the rules they can convert after five years, and sell after 10 years. That’s why the government is serious about providing the support services,” he continued.
Indeed, the government, through its various agencies, would go all-out in its support for the Luisita farmers, he said.
Outside of Luisita, the DAR is also racing against time to acquire and distribute 961,974 ha of land before June 30, 2014, when Carper expires.
De los Reyes said the DAR could complete the acquisition, but not the distribution because 596,000 hectares, or 60 percent of the balance, had to be done by compulsory acquisition.
According to a July 2012 DAR report, more than three-fourths of distributed lands from 1972 to 2011 were either government-owned, or estates distributed through voluntary modes, or lands that were easier, less tedious to cover.
What’s left are mostly private agricultural lands, with close to 80 percent being compensated by Land Bank of the Philippines and 60 percent requiring coverage by compulsory acquisition, according to the report.
“What is left for us in 2009 to 2014 are the hardest lands to distribute,” said De los Reyes, who served as DAR undersecretary for legal affairs during the early years of the Arroyo administration.
Distribution in stages
And then, of course, land acquisition and distribution is done in phases, depending on the hectarage.
Because of the phasing, the DAR could not distribute 187,759 hectares of lands 10 hectares and below, and 163,660 hectares of the 10-ha portion of Phase 3A land (lands above 10 hectares up to 24 hectares) until July 1, 2013, to June 30, 2014, according to the same report.
This totals 351,619 hectares, or more than a third of undistributed lands, and these lands have to be distributed within one year, and only in the last year of Carper.
If measures are taken to speed up distribution, the DAR is projected to cover 640,000 hectares from this year up to June 2014, while it’s likely some 321,974 hectares would be in the “pipeline for acquisition” but its distribution would not be completed by that time, according to the DAR report.
De los Reyes agreed that DAR could only do so much “according to schedule.” He admitted the DAR could not distribute the entire balance by June 2014.
He clarified, though, that what would expire in June 2014 would be the Presidential Commission on Good Government’s automatic appropriation for CARP, and after that, the government could still fund the program from the national budget.
“Section 30 of RA 9700 (Carper Law) says if there is a case pending you can continue with the case,” De los Reyes said. “That’s why we’re sending notices of coverage.”
After 2014, De los Reyes, however, is proposing the creation of an agency that “does nothing but distribute private and public lands.”
Clear focus needed
In De los Reyes’ view, the physical transfer of land under CARP spells a lot of difference in the life of a farmer because he could earn from it, whether by tilling, leasing or selling it.
But he asked: “If the farmer decides to sell the land … has social justice been achieved? He gets money for that land in restitution of the suffering he had for the past 20 to 30 years.
“The moment there is land transfer, there’s going to be an improvement in the life of the farmer, whether, in the immediate, he sells it, or in the long term, because he’s able to have a productive asset.”
Contrary to claims of some landowners, economies of scale could occur even among holders of small lands if only they come together and pool their inputs and outputs, the secretary said.
De los Reyes also believed that CARP had worked, and if some farmers remained poor, it was because of the government’s failure to bring farmers together and invest in postharvest facilities.
“It will work when land is distributed and we have a clear focus of support services,” he said, maintaining that the program has resulted in social mobility. “The moment you give a productive asset—land to the farmer—at the very least he has an asset in his name.”
If there was a mistake in CARP, it was because it wasn’t implemented fast enough like in Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, now highly developed countries, De los Reyes said.
“It was not implemented fast enough, which Japan, Taiwan and Korea did in 10 years. We’re now in our 24th year, and we’re still distributing lands. This should not have happened if the focus were the large private agricultural lands, which we did not do,” he said.