After going head to head with the Aquino administration over the reproductive health measure, the country’s Catholic bishops are taking issue with the government on another one of their obsessions.
Warning of an impending “agrarian reform crisis,” 78 bishops from Batanes to Jolo have signed an urgent appeal to President Aquino to take decisive action and revamp the leadership of the Department of Agrarian Refom (DAR).
The bishops said they were “greatly alarmed” at the prospect that the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (Carper) law was expiring in two years’ time but the accomplishments of DAR “have been dismal, to say the least.”
“Mr. President, please take quick decisive action that Carper be fully implemented and revamp the current leadership of DAR which underperformed these past two-and-a-half years,” the bishops said.
“You are racing against time. We make this appeal with great urgency,” they added.
Cory Aquino’s pet program
The bishops sought to remind the President that the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was a centerpiece social justice program of his mother, the late President Corazon Aquino, and was “meant to address a long and deep issue of rural inequality that is one of the root causes of poverty and insurgency.”
“Is it a design of the Divine Providence that what your mother, of happy memory, started would be finished within your term when the Carper Law ends by July of 2014?” they asked.
CARP was extended for another five years in 2009, and renamed CARP Extension with Reforms (Carper) with a budget of P150 billion. With Carper set to expire on June 30, 2014, the government is now scrambling to fully implement it.
The bishops’ letter, dated Jan. 24, was sent to Malacañang on Monday. Its signatories include Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, retired Cebu Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal, and Archbishop Jose Palma, the current Cebu archbishop who is the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
Throughout their long and bitter campaign against the Aquino administration’s ultimately successful attempt to pass the reproductive health law, the bishops have continued to maintain that the Church remains in “critical collaboration” with the government.
In their letter, the bishops said they were elated when the President heeded their call and promised farmers in June last year that there would be a “speedy implementation” of the Carper Law.
“Our hope was further bolstered when you forcefully stated in your (State of the Nation Address) in July 2012 that you and your administration are committed to fulfill the Carper Law,” they said.
“We are greatly alarmed, however, that barely one-and-a-half years from the expiration of Carper, the accomplishments of DAR have been dismal, to say the least, and many promises made to the farmers in the June dialogue are not fulfilled,” they said.
“We, therefore, make common cause with the farmers and many agrarian reform advocates in the call for speedy implementation of this law that touches deeply a grave social justice issue in the country affecting so many poor farmers,” they said.
In a paper that they attached to their letter, the bishops said farmer beneficiaries were “getting desperate” that the present DAR leadership “cannot do the job.”
They noted that the P30 billion annual budget for CARP was not allocated again for 2013 and the socialized credit program mandated by Carper was not funded.
They said the DAR also “grossly underperformed” in land distribution with 2012 land acquisition and distribution (LAD) targets being reduced from 260,000 hectares to 180,000 hectares.
“The farmers doubt that the target will be met. LAD accomplishment as of Dec. 13, 2012, was only 53,580 hectares of which only 29 percent are private lands,” the bishops said.
They said the latest claims of the DAR—that the LAD accomplishment in 2012 actually reached about 116,831 hectares (implying an accomplishment of some 63,251 hectares in the two last weeks in December)—was “questionable.”
“The DAR apparently includes in ‘LAD accomplishment’ the lands covered by the (certificates of land ownership award) registered with the Land Registration Authority, even if the land has not yet been distributed to farmers, which was the definition of ‘LAD accomplishment’ in the past,” the bishops said.
“It seems that the DAR misses the point that until the farmers actually own, possess and till their land, there is no real agrarian reform,” they said.
The bishops said that the new management systems and procedures instituted by Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes at the department resulted in more legalistic and bureaucratic layers and “hence, discontent in the ranks.”
They added that rules allowing landowners to interrupt the processing of land distribution at a much earlier stage than before were not revoked.
The prelates also noted that no one has been held accountable for the agrarian-reform-related killings of 13 leaders of farmers’ groups which “the President said he would personally look into.”
They said the Multi-Stakeholder Task Force on Agrarian Reform that was tasked to fast-track the process and report any obstructions had not been able to hold accountable the current DAR leadership for its underperformance.
“The situation is aggravated by the protests of the DAR employees on the governance shortcomings of the DAR leadership headed by Secretary De los Reyes,” the bishops said.
“It is impossible to lead DAR and to make it do its job when its own employees have lost trust in its head,” they said.