Friday, February 27, 2009

Violations of rights under failing Filipino land reforms

A written statement submitted by the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a non-governmental organization with general consultative status.

When the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL) was enacted, there were expectations that landless farmers would be able to obtain land, which they could use to cultivate crops to provide for their subsistence, and build their homes.

However, over two decades after the land reform law was enacted, thousands of hectares of land have yet to be distributed to landless farmers.

A local organization helping the farmers, Task Force Mapalad (TFM), has reported that at least 24,115 hectares of land, all of which are owned by wealthy and influential persons, have not been distributed to farmers. This figure, however, only concerns the lands under the TFM’s area of concern, and does not include the land that for distribution that other local organizations are dealing with. The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), the agency tasked to implement the land distribution, reportedly has a backlog of at least 1.2 million of hectares of land that needs to be given to farmers.

The government’s failure to ensure that land that was intended for distribution is promptly given to the qualified beneficiaries, has since resulted in conflict, often resulting in violent clashes, between farmers and armed men that the landlords have employed. In most cases, the landlords use violence against the farmers, once the latter begin asserting their rights of ownership of the land they have been provided under the CARL.

In the 21 years of the existence of the CARL, hundreds of land reform and farmer activists have been killed, either in individual targeted extra-judicial killings due to their work in helping farmers to claim land, or in incidents in which violent confrontations took place with armed men that the landlords have employed. Such armed confrontations occur when courts rule that the farmers can occupy the land that they are already allowed to farm.

The failure of the authorities to protect such persons and ensure their rights under the CARL are guaranteed and implemented have led to problems for such farmers concerning their abilities to be able to have, inter alia, food to eat, medication for illness, a house to live in and to send their children to school to receive education, while legal procedures in court concerning their cases drag on for years.

Farmers have engaged in marches that are hundreds of kilometers long to travel to the central government offices in Manila, in an effort to get attention. Others have gone on hunger strike, held daily demonstrations, and have been arrested and been charged in courts for holding such demonstrations.

In December 2008, when the budget and the implementation of the CARL was about to expire, hundreds of farmer beneficiaries, land reform activists and others concerned for the farmers’ welfare, held demonstrations to petition the Congress to have the implementation of the land reform law extended. Although the Congress did extend it for another six months, from January to June 2009, it did not include the provisions concerning Land Acquisition and Distribution (LAD).

Under the LAD, the government has the authority to compel the landowners to sell their properties to the government. The Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) conducts evaluations to determine the cost of the property that is for distribution and subsequently pays for it on behalf of the farmer.

Since the money used in buying the land comes from budget allocations for this purpose, the farmer beneficiaries are expected to repay the government through a mode of repayment that is affordable to them. The absence of LAD provisions renders the implementation of land reform meaningless in the period in question.

Firstly, there is no more budget to pay to landlords or multinational corporations whose lands are being subjected to land distribution. Even if they are qualified beneficiaries, farmers therefore don’t have the means to acquire the land concerning which they claim ownership. Although the budget for technical support to farmers had been retained, it is not sufficient to ensure that the farmers can acquire the land.

The government, in particular the legislative body, who is supposed to ensure the welfare of these farmers, has therefore decided to use their authority deliberately against these farmers’ interests. It is a common knowledge that several members of Congress own land that is also to subjected to distribution.

Secondly, wealthy and influential landowners have been exploiting the delay in adjudication of cases in court to frustrate the farmers. These also include properties owned by the family of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s husband in Negros province, Jose Miguel Arroyo; the property owned by the family of President Arroyo’s secretary, Francisco T. Duque III in Pangasinan, amongst others. Arroyo’s property has not been distributed to farmer beneficiaries, while the landless tenants in Duque’s property are struggling to claim ownership of the land.

The landlords exploit the judicial process by subverting procedures in regular courts to file charges against the farmers. For example, they have file criminal complaints concerning qualified theft or trespassing. Under such charges, the farmers and their families are effectively being charged for harvesting crops that they cultivate, and charged for trespassing on the land on which they built their homes and have lived all their lives. Such actions are usually taken when the farmers attempt to claim ownership of the land.

In one case, in Bondoc Peninsula in March 2006, villagers occupying the land of a wealthy and influential land-owner family, were charged with numerous questionable criminal offences in court. Although the regular courts are not supposed to have jurisdiction or to adjudicate cases related to disputes in the implementation of land reform, local courts ignore this.

The prosecution service and judicial process has been exploited to attack farmers attempting to claim ownership over the land they cultivate. (AHRC)

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