Congress blocks Philippine land reform initiative

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 December, 2008, 12:00am

Congress has passed a resolution allowing powerful political families - among them that of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo - to retain vast tracts of land that were intended to be given to poor and landless farmers.

After contentious debates that lasted until nearly midnight on Wednesday, both chambers of Congress approved a joint resolution effectively scuttling a programme compelling land owners to sell to the government, which in turn would redistribute the property to poor farmers.

Agrarian reform advocate Congressman Edcel Lagman denounced Joint Resolution 19 as a 'killing and a burial' of the country's 20-year-old land reform programme, which was enacted to distribute more than 8 million hectares of public and private land.

The biggest landowners in the Philippines are a few powerful families, whose members are regularly voted to Congress. Among those are the clans of Mrs Arroyo and former president Corazon Aquino.

Inequity in land ownership, where powerful landlords rule over poor tenants, has been a major cause of violent unrest in the Philippines for nearly a century.

It sparked a peasant-based communist insurgency that started in the 1920s and continues today.

Various Philippine administrations have implemented land reform programmes, but despite half a century of such efforts, some 1.3 million hectares of privately owned land remain undistributed.

The 20-year old Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, set to expire this year, was extended for six months by the Congress resolution.

However, Manila's auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabilio said 'they've actually gutted land reform' and called the extension 'a pretence' because Congress also abolished compulsory land acquisition, which is 'the very heart of land reform'.

Mr Lagman said 'the spirit of any true comprehensive land reform programme is to distribute all agricultural lands to landless tillers of the soil - and the key to this is compulsory coverage'.

Land reform is supposed to be a centrepiece of Mrs Arroyo's fight against poverty, but Mr Lagman said what Congress did was to 'just prolong the suffering of the poor'.

Press Secretary Jesus Dureza said the Arroyo government is 'confident that Congress will eventually pass a reformed Agrarian Reform Law'.

In a majority vote of those present, 111 congressmen and 14 senators voted for the resolution.

Mrs Arroyo's sons, congressmen Juan Miguel and Diosdado Macapagal, voted in favour, as did her brother-in-law, Congressman Ignacio Arroyo. Senator Benigno Aquino III, son of Mrs Aquino, abstained.

Bishop Pabilio said land reform advocates had been taken aback by the number of congressmen who voted down land reform.

'It really means our Congress is landlord-dominated and has no feelings for the interests of the farmers and little people,' he said, adding: 'this might cause a social volcano'.

The group of congressmen who voted to kill land reform comprises the same bloc that is pushing to amend the constitution in a way that will allow them to stay in power indefinitely and allow foreigners to own land.

Slow progress

A 1988 law aimed to distribute more than 8m hectares to poor farmers

Amount of privately owned land that remains undistributed, in hectares, is: 1.3m