Agriculture News Analysis Reforms

Agrarian reform – “the M model”

Department of Agrarian Reform

Guaranteed to incense liberals everywhere, Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, has used the “F” word and the “M” word. In fact, he’s gone further, describing the country’s 10th president, the late Ferdinand Marcos, as “a great man”. And he didn’t stop there; he went on to praise Marcos, who ran the country from 1965 to 1986, for his work in reforming the country’s agriculture sector, adding that he might well use those same reforms as a blueprint for his own.

For the Philippine Liberal Party, which continues to propagate the notion that Marcos was the Devil Incarnate – and will do everything in its power to ensure that his son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr (in its view, the Son of the Devil) never makes it to the presidential palace of Malacañang – Duterte’s words are nothing short of political blasphemy. Thirty years on, the spectre of Marcos to the yellow-ribbon brigade is as worrying as a mongoose is to a snake.

Although much of the history of the Marcos years has been re-written to show him in as bad a light as possible in every context, his efforts to right Philippine agriculture are difficult to erase. So let’s get beyond the personalities and look at the actual substance of those “revolutionary” – as they were deemed at the time – agricultural reforms.

One year before he declared martial law, Marcos signed the Code of Agrarian Reform, a landmark piece of legislation which resulted in the establishment in September 1971 of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR). Replacing the Land Authority, its purpose was the redistribution of agrarian land. Marcos appointed a close political ally, Conrado F. Estrella Sr, a former Pangasinan governor, to lead it – which he did all the way through to Marcos’s fall from power in 1986.

This was a relatively small department by today’s standards, working with limited funds. But it was a beginning – in fact, as a government agency it was the actual beginning of agrarian reform in the Philippines. For financial year 2016, DAF has an approved budget of PHP11,284,322, of which PHP4.18 million is to be allocated to land-tenure services.

Central to the Marcos land-reform programme was the blandly titled Presidential Decree No. 27, more significantly subtitled: “The Emancipation of Tenants from the Bondage of the Soil,” law. This attempted to give tenant farmers a greater stake in the countryside by making them eligible for land ownership. It was designed not only to provide a fairer distribution of the land but to provide an incentive for greater agricultural productivity. Unfortunately, the initiative only covered land that was being used for growing rice and corn. So, as it stood alone, it was limited in its overall effect.

There are no details available at this time as to what Duterte’s new agrarian reform plan will look like, but it’s likely to go way beyond these two cereal crops, primarily important though they are. We do know that rice will be a central plank of the Department of Agriculture’s plans to increase overall farm output and Duterte has cited Macos’s Massanga 99 – massanga (abundant) 99 (the unit target in cavans, an old Spanish measurement) – as a model for rice subsidies. Massanga 99 provided productivity incentives ranging from fertilizer subsidies to low-cost credit facilities.

Another Marcos-era DAR policy, Biyayang Dagat, a mechanism for technical assistance and credit, Duterte would also like to revisit – and upgrade, by introducing a monitoring system to assess how government loans are being spent. Given the corruption in the past in that department, that would be a very prudent move.

Getting back to Presidential Decree No. 27 – for trivia fans, this is the only law that has been delivered in the Philippines in handwritten form and was one of the first decrees to be issued under martial law – this legislation demarked land that should be transferred to tenants very simply. The relevant clause reads: “The tenant farmer, whether in land classified as landed estate or not, shall be deemed owner of a portion constituting a family-size farm of (5) five hectares if not irrigated and (3) three hectares if irrigated”.

In short, it was a land-redistribution programme with very few frills. As for land within the rest of a farm holding: “In all cases, the landowner may retain an area of not more than seven (7) hectares if such landowner is cultivating such areas or will now cultivate it”. Naturally, this was very unpopular with owners of very large acreages; once the masters of all they surveyed, they became just one of many farming groups working what was once their entire estate.

As for pricing reallocatable land, again the Marcos formula was simple: “For the purpose of determining the cost of the land to be transferred to the tenant-farmer … the value of the land shall be equivalent to two and one-half (2½) times the average harvest of three normal crop years immediately preceding the promulgation of the decree”. Payment terms were that the cost of the land, plus 6% interest, should be paid in 15 equal tranches over 15 years.

Other nuts and bolts included the stipulation that the tenant-farmers were only eligible to become title holders to the land once they had become full members of a recognised farmers’ cooperative, and that small holdings could only be transferred via hereditary succession or to the government.

That was it. And along with an aid package which included credit support, infrastructure works, farm extensions, legal assistance and the development of rural institutions, it went some way to improving the lives of poor Filipino farmers and giving them a bigger stake in the overall economy.

And that’s precisely what Duterte’s agrarian reform programme will set out to achieve as, too, will overall agricultural policy. This is part and parcel of the administration’s socio-economic agenda and will provide the power to fuel greater farm production, making the Philippines more self-sufficient domestically and more competitive regionally.

Ferdinand Marcos might have been many things according to the history writers of today, but to the poor Filipino farmers of 40 and more years ago, he was the man who raised their aspirations, ploughing a fairer deal for them on the land they worked in order to survive.

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