Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8 April 2017


The best news I have read in years is that the government has agreed to distribute land to farmers for free as part of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

You understand, Reader, that this means it is the government that will be stuck with the bill, because the Constitution requires just compensation for the landowners. But that’s all right with me. Our farmers have gotten the short end of the stick for so long (about 100 years), they deserve this break.

Ironically, in the early days of Cory Aquino’s attempts at agrarian reform, the World Bank suggested exactly the same thing that the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, have “demanded.” Their main reason was simple: The cost of collecting payments from the millions of farmers was greater than whatever benefits would be received from the collections. In effect, it was too much trouble.

As head of the Neda (National Economic and Development Authority) at the time, I wouldn’t hear of it. My argument was just as simple: Having to pay for the land would instill some responsibility in the farmers, and teach them the value of being credit-worthy. They would treasure their land more.

In my naivete, I was assuming that the CARP would be implemented properly, with support services, access to credit, etc., so that the farmers could stand on their own without landowner “assistance.” On the whole, that has not happened. Congress had its own agenda: It wanted agrarian reform to fail (Congress was controlled by landowners), so it underfunded the program and installed some poison-pill provisions in the law (like distributing shares of stock rather than land).  The executive branch, on the other hand, was extremely slow in awarding titles; it stopped at collective CLOAs (certificates of land ownership award), which padded accomplishment but which the farmers couldn’t use as collateral. And it allowed long-term leaseback agreements that circumvented the CARP, with landowners retaining control of the land for up to 25 years, sometimes renewed. And then, more often than not (with outstanding exceptions, like Hacienda Luisita, but after 24 years), the judiciary would side with the landowners. As I said, the farmers got screwed, coming and going.

And yet, despite the problems, an overwhelming majority (83 percent) of the farmers want agrarian reform to continue. This is supported by empirical evidence.

So now, this government move is going to give them a boost. And hopefully, the promised support services will be forthcoming, and the efforts by landowners to get around the law will be stopped.

And it’s not just a matter of social justice. It also makes economic sense. In other words, both equity and efficiency are served.  Read Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works.” It shows that a necessary first step to the success of Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea was land reform, and holds up the Philippines as an example of land reform gone wrong.

So, kudos to President Duterte. He is making the right moves to help the poor. (Farmers and the agriculture sector have the highest incidence of poverty. Mining areas come second.)

The second good news, again starring the President, is his decision to review the Davao Penal Colony’s lease contract with the Floirendos’ Tagum Agricultural Development Co. The message is compelling: The country’s interest matters more than friendship. Heartwarming.

Good news, like bad news, comes in threes. With regard to the West Philippine Sea, he finally appears to have changed his stance—from his previous let’s-appease-China-because-we-can’t-do-anything-anyway position to a stronger my-country-come-what-may attitude. Hurrah.

So why am I not including the President’s firing of Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno (to indicate his fight against corruption, even if you are a friend) in this list?  Again, simple. One, it appears that he never gave Sueno a chance to explain himself, depending only on a “white paper” written by Sueno’s accusers. Two, the message given is not the correct one: You can be corrupt until you get caught. Then you are fired. You don’t have to answer for your sins.