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CARPER and the Continuing Struggle for Land

CARPER and the Continuing Struggle for Land

Jan 14, 2012

CARPER and the Continuing Struggle for Land

by Mary Ann Manahan

The murder of farmer-activist Renato Peñas created shock waves of outrage in the whole advocacy community. Demands for justice and commitment to continue his legacy were discussed all over—from print and broadcast media to the Philippine blogosphere. Ka Rene, as he was fondly called, was a charismatic leader at the forefront of the 1,700 kilometer-march of Sumilao farmers to Malacanang. He earned the respect and admiration of his peers because of his unparalleled passion and steadfastness in upholding the rights of landless farmers and farmworkers in the country.

Ka Rene’s death is a poignant reminder of persistent class wars between the landed and landless and of the continuing injustice against farmers struggling for their right to own the land they cultivate. Their perpetrators usually resort to desperate tactics by sowing fear through gun-pumped violence. Strikingly, the land tillers’ conviction only intensifies with every leader taken away from them. Four days after Ka Rene’s murder, mounting pressure from farmers’ groups prompted the Philippine Congress to pass the bill for the extension and reform of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

Claiming the Promised Land

Ka Rene’s killing came at a time when the CARPER (Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program extension with reforms) bill was just about to be discussed at the bicameral conference of the 14th Congress.  A constitutional mandate and one of the country’s landmarks in the struggle for agrarian reform and social justice, CARP has remained an unfinished business.

According to records of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), as of 2008, CARP has managed to distribute more than six million hectares of lands to three million agrarian reform beneficiaries, including one million leaseholders. The remaining landholdings, more than one million hectares, are private agricultural lands (PAL): the most contentious and most difficult to distribute.

These landholdings are owned by families of several lawmakers, on whose hands relied CARP’s fate. The debate has always sounded like a class war between the landed and the landless, with the floor deliberations of CARPER appearing akin to the 8th Congress’s sessions on the original CARP. At the end of the day, politics and numbers played a big role. There were many occasions when the Negros bloc in the lower house delayed the deliberations and in the end stood their ground by not voting for CARPER. The Negros bloc was out to protect their lands from being distributed to landless farmers. These lands comprise a big chunk of the remaining LAD balance.

Only a few years back, agrarian reform appeared to be dead but the walk of the Sumilao farmers brought the issue back in the national policy debate. They captured the imagination of the nation and bolstered the emerging multi-sectoral mass movement composed of farmers, NGOs, lawyers, Catholic Church, students, labor, rural women, and other stakeholders. This movement, in various ways and forms, pressured Congress and ultimately, the President to enact CARPER.  The Catholic Church particularly played a pivotal role in tilting the balance of forces in favor of the peasants through moral suasion and calls for social justice.

Those involved in the campaign for CARPER believe that the vote given by the landlord-dominated House of Representatives for CARPER on June 3, 2009 was no easy feat. Farmers and advocates in Mindanao even call it a “miracle”. “Two years in… waiting; truncheons, rains, and water cannons not hindering; farmers and supporters have triumphed in the House.”

The Senate’s two-day earlier passage of its own version added to the pressure mounted on Congress. Speaker Prospero Nograles’ leadership was at stake. On several occasions Speaker Nograles committed to meeting the June 30, 2009 deadline. The last three days of the Congress session was a test of Nograles’ political will to mobilize support for CARPER and hurdle the delaying tactics proposed by the landlords in Congress.

Half-full or Half-Empty?

Still, when the bicameral committee finally passed CARPER on June 9, 2009, there were mixed emotions and reservations.

Looking at the totality of the three-year campaign for its extension and reform, CARPER is without doubt a hard-won victory for the mass movement. It was fought tooth and nail amid the delicate balance of forces in Congress, the entrenched resistance from the landlords, the removal of the compulsory acquisition, which is the heart and soul of the program, through Joint Resolution 19 last December.
CARP was given a new lease for another five years and a funding of PhP 150 billion. Key meaningful reforms include the following:

•    prioritization of large landholdings exceeding 50 hectares and 24-50 hectares for land acquisition and distribution;
•    reinstatement of the “heart and soul of CARP”: compulsory acquisition, the main mode of acquisition, and removal of the Voluntary Land Transfer (VLT), which  has been a mode for land owners to evade the program;
•    upholding the indefeasibility of the Certificate of Landownership Awards (CLOAs) and Emancipation Patents, meaning once the land has been registered to the farmer, nobody can  claim that the land is not his or hers
•    upholding the legal standing and personality of agrarian reform beneficiaries, meaning the courts cannot dismiss any land cases because the farmers’ do not have ‘legal standing’
•    removal of non-redistributive schemes like the Stock Distribution Option (SDOs)
•    provision for an integrated support services with 40 percent budget allocation, and 70 percent of which are allocated for seed fund and startup capital for agricultural production of new agrarian reform beneficiaries, and credit facilities for existing ARBs and leaseholders
•    recognition of rural women as agrarian reform beneficiaries, and provision on equal support services and consideration of their well-being;
•    prohibition on the conversion of irrigable and irrigated lands and automatic CARP coverage of lands targeted for conversion if the conversion plan has not been implemented after five years;
•    upholding DAR’s exclusive jurisdiction over agrarian reform-related cases.

Killer Amendments

However, CARPER remains a compromised version of what the farmers and supporters of agrarian reform have hoped for. Even Rep. Pablo “Pabling” Garcia of Cebu, during his nominal voting in the House of Representative, quipped that “this is not the kind of bill that I would have loved to have”. Still, Rep. Garcia, along with anti-CARP legislators succeeded to insert a ‘killer amendment’ which could potentially undermine key reforms in the bill, its implementation, and reverse CARP’s gains. This anti-reform measure is found in Section 5 of the bill, which states that “only farmers (tenants or lessees) and agricultural farm workers actually tilling the land, as certified under oath by the Barangay Agrarian Reform Council and attested by the landowner, are the qualified beneficiaries”.

This provision is dangerous on two counts. First is the potential exclusion of seasonal farm workers as qualified beneficiaries. They comprise the majority of workers in the remaining balance in land acquisition and distribution (LAD), especially in sugarcane and coconut areas). In Negros, for example, there is a trend of contractualization or pakyaw system, in which landowners hire middlemen to directly supervise agricultural production and hiring of farmworkers. In this case, there is no direct relationship between the landowners and farmworkers, which can be used to contest the claims of the latter for agrarian reform.

Second is the “attestation” of landowners, which endangers the selection and identification of beneficiaries. This can be used as an instrument of landowners to evade or stall the program because it enables them to identify their own set of beneficiaries loyal to them or opt not to cooperate at all. This becomes more problematic since DAR lacks a comprehensive database of agrarian reform beneficiaries.

The pro-reform members of the bicameral committee knew the gravity and implication of the “attestation” clause and were quick enough to include a safeguard measure in CARPER. Rep. Edcel Lagman of Bicol, who has been a staunch advocate of agrarian reform in the lower house, introduced a provision that would penalize and hold criminally liable “any person who shall cause undue delay of the implementation of the program”. Initial fears were allayed but many are still alarmed that such prohibition would not be enough, especially in agrarian reform hotspots such as Bondoc Peninsula and Negros.

Atty. Jae dela Cruz of the Center for Agrarian Reform, Empowerment and Transformation an NGO working on rural issues and one of the legal experts on agrarian reform, sums up the mixed feeling on CARPER— ”It is better than no CARP or no compulsory acquisition but I can’t say I feel festive especially when I think about the realities on the ground”.

The Next Battlegrounds

The struggle in Congress may be over but for many farmers’ groups and agrarian reform advocates the real battle has just started. The focus will shift to ensuring that CARPER will be implemented and completed on the ground, or at least its LAD component in the next five years. No doubt, it will be an uphill and potentially, a bloody, one. If CARP had been difficult to implement for the last twenty years, its extension shows all signs of being a protracted war.

Negros will serve as the litmus test of CARPER’s implementation not only because of the large number of undistributed landholdings but also the political difficulty in employing agrarian reform in the island. Based on January 2009 figures from DAR, out of the 116,371 hectares of undistributed sugar lands in Western Visayas, 98 percent or 113,908 hectares are in Negros Occidental. In Central Visayas, 33,872 hectares or 60 percent of undistributed sugar lands are in Negros Oriental. Most of these haciendas belong to families who have managed to evade CARP and have staunchly opposed its passage in Congress. These families—the Cojuangcos, the Arroyos, the Ferrers— remain the ‘sacred cows’ who keep the province as the bastion of landlordism and plan to keep it that way. The peasant movement in Negros will need to muster all the strength, social and political capital, to stake their claims and rights, and confront these ‘sacred cows’ head on. In a recent conversation with Negros farmers and advocates, there is no doubt that they are ready to brave the tempest.

Tough Challenges Ahead

Land will continue to be at the center of rural conflict. There remain issues that need to be addressed by the agrarian reform movement.

One, it is necessary to counteract the “attestation” provision through various strategies and tactics. Advocates are looking at clarifying the Implementing Rules and Regulation as a next step in ensuring that landlords will not delay enforcement of CARPER’s provisions

Two, DAR, as the main institution tasked to implement the program should be reformed and strengthened. The government agency has been the weakest link in this whole episode. A strong and progressive-minded DAR secretary who can take up the cudgels for the oppressed farmers is crucial in boosting the morale of the bureaucracy and seeing the program through.

Three, efforts must be invested in further strengthening the peasant movement and intensifying  organizing work on the ground for the farmers to wield enough power to assert and realize their rights.

Four, moves to amend the Charter through Constituent Assembly must be derailed. More than Arroyo’s ambition to stay in power forever, at stake are the nationalist provisions in the Constitution such as prohibition of foreign owners to own land and exploit the country’s natural resources.

Five, an enabling environment must be created for agrarian reform to be truly effective. These include complementary macroeconomic policies on infrastructure development, progressive land taxation, health and education provision for rural communities, agriculture, food security, environment, trade, and industry. Land and its ownership and control have multidimensional aspects—political, social, economic and cultural, and its success hinges on the level of complementation, calibration, and coherence of all these policies.

Agrarian reform advocates should also take full advantage of the 2010 elections. A negative campaign or “shame” vote out should be taken to another level (e.g. the Negros bloc who blocked CARPER every step of the way should not be allowed to set foot in Congress again) and to ensure that the next set of leaders in the country will carry the voice of the rural poor

The next few years will not only be a process of cementing the legitimacy of peasant rights; it will be a process which may need to go beyond CARP. As seasoned activists and peasant community organizers of Katarungan, a network of farmers’ organizations, put it, “we need not wait for the process to finish to stake our claims and rights, agrarian reform has worked on the ground because of the assertive actions by farmers and advocates”.

In other words, the struggle continues. “Tuloy pa rin ang laban, para kay Ka Rene, para sa lahat ng mga nangangarap ng pagbabago.”

(Published in: Focus on the Philippines June 2009, http://focusweb.org/oldphilippines/content/view/307/52/)

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