‘Emancipation’: P58-B land reform debts wiped out
With the stroke of a pen, much like what his father used to do when he ruled by decree, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Friday wiped out the debts of more than half a million farmers so they could immediately get titles to the lands they have been tilling for decades.
Loreto Bautista, a 76-year-old sugar cane farmer, was one of the 610,054 agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) working on 1.173 million hectares across the country whose unpaid amortizations for the lands awarded to them were condoned under Republic Act No. 11953 that was signed into law by the President.
Bautista and about 300 farmers received their land titles in ceremonies at Malacañang on the same day that Mr. Marcos enacted the law, also called the New Agrarian Emancipation Act,
Bautista has been tilling a 1-hectare sugar cane field in Calaca town in Batangas province since the administration of the President’s late father and namesake in the 1970s.
In his speech during the signing ceremony, Mr. Marcos said it was his father’s dream to give farmers “a life of dignity.”
“Let us work together to realize this dream—our dream, as it was my father’s dream—to give every Filipino farmer and his or her family, a life beyond mere survival; a life free from want, from hunger, or fear of the future; a life of dignity, abundance and prosperity,” the President said.
Bautista, who walks with the aid of crutches, was beaming with anticipation of being called to receive his title as he spoke with reporters at Malacañang.
“This is really a big help—that I now own the land I till,” he said.
Asked how much he owed, Bautista said: “Oh, I can no longer count how much.”
Cases for dismissal
The Department of Finance said P57.56 billion in unpaid debt was written off under the law.
The law directs the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to move for the dismissal of all pending court cases related to unpaid principal and interests over agricultural lands covered by agrarian reform laws.
On Friday, the DAR distributed several hundreds of an initial 32,441 land titles from the Cordillera Administrative Region in Luzon to all the other regions in the country.
Agrarian reform laws require ARBs to pay for the land awarded to them in annual installments, plus a 6-percent interest for a maximum period of 30 years.
But these debt payments made it difficult for them to raise enough money to sustain both amortization and production.
Agrarian Reform Secretary Conrado Estrella III reminded ARBs that they could not sell or transfer the titles to the lands awarded to them under the agrarian reform law for 10 years after receiving their titles.
Supporters of agrarian reform were uneasy about this 10-year moratorium.
“Our worry is that these lands may just become easier to sell,” Anthony Marzan, executive director of the social development organization Kaisahan, said in an interview with the Inquirer.
In a joint statement on Friday, Kaisahan and six other groups said that the new law was “eerily silent” about preventing the conveyance of agricultural lands to the “usual landowners who would then reconsolidate the farms under their control.”
They said that with the debt condonation, the “hindrances” to the sale and transfer of rights over agricultural lands distributed under the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) “have been effectively removed.”
The land reform decree, Presidential Decree No. 27, issued by the late dictator a month after he declared martial rule in September 1972 covered rice and corn lands. The CARP law covered all agricultural lands.
The groups urged the government, particularly the DAR, to enforce rules and regulations such as the 10-year moratorium.
The other signatories to the statement were Task Force Mapalad, People’s Campaign for Agrarian Reform Network, Center for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, National Land Coalition in the Philippines, Damayan ng mga Manggagawa, Magsasaka, at Mangingisda sa Bansa, and Asian NGO Coalition for Agrarian Reform and Rural Development.
Another “loophole” in the law that needs to be fixed was the exclusion of at least 500,000 farmers and farmworkers entitled to 500,000 hectares who were still waiting for their certificate of land ownership awards, they said.
They pointed out that the ARBs covered by the law were only those granted land titles prior to the Dec. 31, 2022, cutoff date.
They called on the President to halt the collection of obligations for ARBs not covered by the new law.
Marzan said there should also be “automatic support services” that match the specific needs of farmers and their localities to encourage them not to sell their lands.
Providing initial capital and socialized credit to ARBs is mandated by CARP, but this was not fully implemented, he said.
The agrarian reform groups, however, still lauded the new law, saying that the Marcos administration was showing that “agriculture and agrarian reform are indeed his priority.”
The Federation of Free Workers also hailed the passage of the landmark law.
“This new law marks an important step in the pursuit of economic emancipation for our agricultural sector and signifies the government’s commitment to uplift the lives of hundreds of thousands of farmers,” it said.
The President acknowledged that “genuine agrarian emancipation requires more than just the distribution of land.”
“Free land distribution must go hand-in-hand with broadening the provision of credit facilities and support services in the form of farm inputs, equipment and facilities to our farmers, as well as the construction of more farm-to-market roads,” he said.
Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas, one of the authors of the law who attended the Malacañang ceremonies, said the President should now prioritize a “new, genuinely redistributive agrarian reform program” and truly provide support services.
She said the land acquisition and distribution component of CARP expired in 2014 and no new lands have been covered since.
The Makabayan bloc in the House has been pushing a Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill, which provides for free land distribution, since 2007 but it has not been a priority of the House leadership.
Speaker Martin Romualdez called the new law a “groundbreaking legislation” that was “in line with the principles of social justice and economic empowerment.”
“When our farmers are freed from the burden of debt, they would be able to invest more in their land and improve their productivity,” Romualdez said.
Albay Rep. Joey Salceda, who is one of the law’s principal authors, said a “hidden gem” in RA 11953 was a provision exempting ARBs and their heirs from paying estate taxes.
“This landmark law emancipates agrarian reform beneficiaries from debt, and from estate taxes, which are basically death taxes,” he said in a statement.
“It creates a better future. That is what this reform does, by including an estate tax exemption that will allow old farmers to transfer their land to a new generation,” Salceda said.
The President’s sister, Sen. Imee Marcos, thanked him for “making agrarian reform a priority in his administration.”
“Freeing our farmers from debt through the passage of [this law] … is the first concrete step towards fulfilling the vision that our late father enunciated more than 50 years ago, when he signed PD No. 27 decreeing the emancipation of tenants from the bondage of the soil,” she said.
—WITH A REPORT FROM MARLON RAMOS