There can be no doubt that the administration of President Benigno Aquino III has made significant strides in terms of reform.  The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act was a major breakthrough, not only for women’s rights but also for development, owing to the central importance of our country’s having a sustainable rate of population growth.  The anti-corruption campaign is creating that confidence in government that is an indispensable ingredient of an economic climate that would encourage investment, both local and foreign. The conditional cash transfer (CCT) program, which now reaches over three million families, is the country’s most successful anti-poverty program, one that the Asian Development Bank has toasted as a model for other countries.

Unfortunately, these successes have not been matched by advances in agrarian reform.   Some one million hectares still have to be distributed.  DAR figures show that the average number of hectares distributed under the current administration yearly came to 103,732 hectares, the lowest of the last five administrations.   At this pace, it will be hard for the administration to complete land redistribution by the date mandated by law, June 2014, since to achieve that goal, from January 2011 onwards, the DAR would have to distribute 320,242 hectares per year.  It is difficult to see how president can live up to the promise he made at a meeting with farmers over six months ago that all lands covered by Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program with Reforms Act of 2009 (CARPER) will be distributed to all qualified agrarian reform beneficiaries by the target date.

Who the president places at the helm of the agrarian reform effort is undoubtedly critical, and with the program in the doldrums, it might be time for the president to evaluate the performance of his top land reform aides.  But the problem is, in our view, more profound.  Undoubtedly, there are people in the administration that believe in agrarian reform, some of them passionately.  However, there are also those who either do not consider it central to the program of reform or see it as a “sakit ng ulo,” one that one must pay attention to, but largely with palliative rhetoric rather than energetic commitment.  Unfortunately, the latter tendency is dominant, and this is the reason the land reform program has lost the dynamism it regained when the CARPER law was passed in 2009.

It seems that the dominant view in the administration is that agricultural development is principally a productivity issue and not a social justice concern, that what is important is making the investments in physical infrastructure, marketing, and credit that will unleash the potential of agricultural entrepreneurs.   The problem with this perspective is that production cannot be separated from justice.  The main element that would unleash the productive potential of our millions of farmers is security of tenure over their land.   Moreover, poverty-stricken tenant farmers and rural workers who have long been in the chains of feudal relations need assistance from government to be transformed into vibrant small farmers responding to market incentives.  You do not create farmer entrepreneurs overnight.  This is why Section 13 of CARPER provided that at least forty percent (40%) of all appropriations for agrarian reform during the five (5) year extension period would be immediately set aside and made available for support services.  If there is one thing we can learn from the experiences of successful agrarian reform in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, it is that land redistribution, secure property rights, and production assistance or subsidies for support services make up the formula for a dynamic agricultural sector.  The absence of one of these factors is what torpedoed many other land reform efforts in the Philippines and elsewhere.

But the problem goes beyond a narrow focus on productivity on the part of some administration technocrats.   Much development thinking in the country today is centered on improving the atmosphere for business activities in the city, promoting the dynamism of the real estate industry, supporting the growth of financial services, and attracting more investment in Business Process Outsourcing (BPO’s) activities.  It is on servicing the needs of a growing globalized middle class.   In this mindset, agriculture is an afterthought, and food security is one that can be met with increased imports.  In this paradigm, the over 50 per cent of the people that live in the countryside are not regarded as a dynamic source of development, the main engine of which is seen to lie in urban economic activities fuelled by foreign investment and OFW remittances.  From this perspective, the bulk of the population that remains in agriculture is “excess baggage” constituting a drag on economic takeoff.

But the neglect of agriculture is not simply a development paradigm problem.  The truth of the matter is that the most dynamic sectors of our economic elite have lost interest in agriculture as a source of wealth.  As sociologist Kenneth Cardenas argues, “Filipino capitalists are going back to land as a source of wealth, but instead of using it as a base for a rural, cash-crop-oriented economy, it is being used for urban development.”  The highest rate of returns on investment come from shopping malls, office buildings, and middle and upper class housing.  Yet even as the most energetic sectors of the upper class have moved into urban real estate development, seeking to capture demand for housing fueled by the billions of dollars in OFW remittances, their less enterprising brethren cling on to rural land, less and less for production and more and more for speculation or security.   Increasingly, it is mainly small producers and rural workers that have an interest in making a living from farming, and even large numbers of them are abandoning the countryside for what they see as the lack of opportunities owing to continuing inequalities and the absence of incentives.  Their logic is compelling: better to take your chances in Saudi Arabia than scratch a living from land from which you can get evicted any time.

It is a big mistake to write off the countryside instead of seeing it as a central source of economic dynamism–one that can be a key engine of our economy if its base were a population of prosperous small farming families.  The aim of agrarian reform, one must remind our production-oriented policymakers, is not only to achieve social justice but to creative the incentives that will make agriculture a vibrant trigger of economic development and avoid the emergence of a lopsided urban-driven economy.  Indeed, one can go further and say that without a just settlement in the countryside, not only will urban-driven development be economically unsustainable; it will continually be threatened by political instability spawned by protracted injustice in the countryside.  The generation of farmers that won the struggle for CARP and CARPER may be succeeded by a younger generation angered by the failure of its implementation.

It is an illusion to think that the countryside will remain quiet for long.