When former President Rodrigo Duterte appointed peasant activist Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano to lead the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) in 2016, it offered a ray of hope to landless Filipino farmers and the rural poor.
Finally, there was a commitment to prioritize the distribution of farmlands under the government’s land reform program, and the longstanding grievances of the poor, which had appeared neglected by previous administrations, would be put on the table.
Duterte’s campaign vow to pursue land reform differently from his predecessors set off to a good start with Mariano’s designation.
The peasant leader immediately ordered a review of the program and promised there would no longer be farm evictions.
He also issued the lauded Administrative Order No. 5 series of 2017, which allowed farmers to occupy farmlands under protest using their usufructuary rights.
But the hope was short-lived. The powerful Commission on Appointments rejected his appointment in September 2017, over his supposed affiliation with the New People’s Army, an allegation Mariano has denied.
Since then, land reform has been put on the backburner as the Duterte administration pursued its deadly war on drugs and crackdown on communist rebels.
The government has so much work to do even as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), through the CARP with Extension and Reform (CARPER), ended its acquisition of private agricultural lands in 2014.
The social justice program, which aimed to solve rural poverty and attain a “more equitable distribution and ownership of land,” has yet to continue its unfinished business.
Nine years after the program’s deadline, many estates continued to be exempted or removed from the long list of CARP-covered lands because of challenges from landowners. Others remain pending on various levels, preventing farmers from occupying and tilling the farmlands they were supposed to own.
Meanwhile, in some cases, former landowners regained control of distributed lands as farmers had failed to cultivate them due to the lack of support services from the government. Known as the ‘arriendo’ system, cash-strapped and desperate farmers would lease their lands annually to the former proprietor for a small fee and then seek work in other estates.
While it has not formally closed the book on the CARP, the government under the administration of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has shifted its focus on strengthening support services for farmers, veering away from the long-overdue distribution of private agricultural lands, the heart and soul of land reform.
Early this year, Marcos ordered to speed up the distribution of collective certificate of land ownership awards (CLOA) to farmer beneficiaries, or the subdivision of around 34,500 collective CLOAs covering 345,089 hectares of land to 134,000 individuals.
He also ordered DAR to resolve vintage agrarian reform cases, or those that have been pending before the agency for three to 20 years.
DAR Secretary Conrado Estrella III said there are about 2,400 cases still under the Agrarian Law Implementation division, half of which may be resolved soon.
The president, however, is silent on the still-pending number of lands up for distribution under CARP.
According to DAR records obtained by the farmers’ group Task Force Mapalad (TFM), only 9,223 hectares of coverable land were distributed last year under its land acquisition and distribution (LAD) program nationwide.
In 2020 and 2021, the department managed to distribute 10,308 hectares and 14,318 hectares, respectively, Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data show.
Because of this, farmers marked DAR under the Duterte administration as the poorest-performing in the agency’s history.
Meanwhile, based on its records, the DAR has yet to distribute 173,340 hectares as of June 30, 2022.
This does not include the 147,378 hectares temporarily deleted from the distribution list in March last year under the agency’s Memorandum Circular No. 112, which orders the cleansing of the LAD balance. These figures total 320,178 hectares of undistributed land.
Given the DAR’s track record in the past three decades, it is unlikely to fulfill its task when the Marcos administration’s term ends in 2028 even if it doubles its annual accomplishments in 2022.
About 75 percent of the undistributed lands are private agricultural lands under compulsory acquisition (CA) and owned by wealthy families and corporations that have been staunchly opposed to CARP.
In Negros Occidental, where land reform resistance has been strongest, 26,902 hectares of private landholdings under the scheme remain to be distributed, the highest among all Philippine provinces.
The Negros Island elites’ staunch opposition to land reform has drawn Duterte’s ire. In 2019, the former president criticized the so-called sugar barons of Negros, telling them to stop buying parcels of land from agrarian reform beneficiaries and he would not honor such sales.
“I will not honor that contract. Do not give me that shit,” Duterte said. “If you want to help your fellowmen, lend them money or buy their sugarcane.”
The DAR has also scaled down its operations in the past decade as it suffered from huge budget cuts. Its funding was cut by more than half since 2013: From P21 billion, it dropped to just P9.9 billion in 2023, with most of its budget going to its personnel services or payments for employee salaries and benefits rather than operational expenses, greatly affecting the agency’s capacity to fulfill its mandate to implement CARP.
This has resulted in sectors calling for the abolishment of DAR precisely because it has reached the twilight of its mandate. In 2020, the then Senator Francis Pangilinan suggested transferring DAR’s functions to the Department of Agriculture to improve and strengthen the government’s extension service to farmers and fishermen, similar to that of Thailand and Malaysia. The proposal did not flourish.
While there were efforts to speed up the distribution of CARP-covered lands, the DAR, given its performance, failed to hit the Duterte administration’s target to distribute the remaining private agricultural lands by the time he stepped down from office on June 30, 2022.
In August 2020, DAR Secretary John Castriciones ordered the simplification of the land acquisition and distribution process from the original 291 days to just 112 days in a bid to accelerate the distribution of lands to agrarian reform beneficiaries. This order, however, is an exception, not the rule on the ground.
Farmer-beneficiaries interviewed by TFM have been waiting for years for the distribution of their lands. In Hacienda Rose Agri in Sag-Ang village, La Castellana town, Negros Occidental, farmers have been waiting for more than three decades, and the snail-paced bureaucracy and DAR’s lack of political will have kept them from getting the land they were supposed to have owned a long time ago.
The 442.9-hectare landholding, which lies a stone’s throw away from the scenic Mt. Kanla-on, underwent the voluntary offer to sell (VOS) scheme in 1989, just a year after the passage of CARP.
The VOS scheme was supposed to fast-track land distribution as there was no contention from the landowner; but Hacienda Rose Agri’s case dragged on for over 34 years for so many reasons, including the landowner’s attempt to circumvent CARP coverage by subdividing the land to 356 titles.
DAR eventually rejected the move, which reverted the deeds back to the original four and limited CARP coverage to just 146.6 hectares.
Currently, the DAR has yet to complete the final survey of Hacienda Rose Agri’s land based on the final list of qualified beneficiaries.
Aging and in their twilight years, farmers interviewed by TFM lament the frustratingly slow land distribution process, fearing that they would not see the day the land would be awarded to them.
“It is really frustrating. We have long been waiting for the process to be completed. How many more years do we have to wait?” said 81-year-old retired farmer Maximo Villaflor.
Farmers in Hacienda Sicilliene in Banquerohan village, Cadiz City in Negros Occidental face a similar dilemma.
Despite having the land title under the Republic of the Philippines since December 2018 and the DAR’s stop cultivation notice in October 2019, the 56-hectare estate’s distribution has been pending for nearly five years because of a protest that supposedly subdivides the landholding to 12 titles.
Under the agrarian reform law, farmer beneficiaries earn usufructuary rights once the title has been transferred to the Republic of the Philippines. This means that they can occupy and cultivate the land while waiting for the CLOA to be formally generated and awarded.
However, farmer-beneficiary Roberto Jayme, 59, said they continued to suffer from harassment as they tried to farm a portion of the land. When they occupied some 3 hectares of the landholding on October 17, 2019, farmers were charged with illegal entry while their crops worth P100,000 were destroyed.
Currently, the farmers are waiting for the order of finality from the DAR central office upholding provincial agrarian reform program officer Teresita Mabunay’s decision to cancel the subdivision of titles so they can finally get their CLOAs.
“It has been a long time. I hope they finally look into our case so that they can generate CLOAs in our favor,” Jayme said in an interview.
TFM national coordinator Armando Jarilla said the challenge now for Marcos is not just to fast-track the distribution of remaining lands, but to ensure that the program will not further be hijacked by landowning classes or groups.
“This means that there should be no sacred cows or political accommodation to spare the lands owned by few politically influential landowners,” Jarilla said.