Page last updated at 08:25 Asia/Manila, Thursday, 16 April 2015 PH
The redistribution of land ownership to the farmers in the first phase of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was a well-intentioned move of our former leaders to address the extreme inequities in wealth and income that have been the result of centuries of feudalistic and monopolistic practices in our country. One does not have to be a “leftist” to acknowledge that the primordial principle of the “universal destination of goods of this earth” has been honoured in Philippine society more in the breach. Millions of landless farmers and rural workers have suffered from extreme poverty while a few families have wallowed in wealth by controlling the ownership of huge tracts of land that their forebears received from our former colonizers or feudal lords. There is no question that some form of agrarian reform or another was absolutely necessary to promote social justice.
The fragmentation of large tracts of land, especially in the rice, corn, and coconut sectors in the densely populated regions of Luzon was a completely necessary condition for attaining social equity. It is not true, as some landlords are claiming, that small holdings are always counterproductive and cannot yield sufficient incomes for the farmers. The success stories of Taiwan, South Korea, and Thailand demonstrate that small farms can be productive if the beneficiaries of agrarian reform are endowed with the necessary infrastructural support (both hardware and software) by a responsible and efficient State. As one of the most knowledgeable and experienced agribusiness entrepreneurs, Ernesto Ordonez, recently wrote in an article: “‘Agrarian reform in the Philippines has failed because it has never been tried.’ This is where government did not give the necessary support services mandated by law to Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs). But where these support services were given, agrarian reform succeeded in both increasing agriculture productivity and farmer incomes.” He presented evidence showing that in the exceptional cases where the State was able to provide support services to the small farmers, both agricultural productivity and farmer incomes increased. Unfortunately, the general rule was that the Government failed miserably in constructing farm-to-market roads, irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities and other infrastructures needed by the farmers.
Those who are clamoring for continuing the process of fragmentation argue that we should just compel the State to do what they were unable to do in the past. This is easier said than done. It is clear that even in the reformed Administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III, the State has been woefully remiss in implementing infrastructure projects, even those that already had sufficient funding, not to mention those that were lined up for the Public-Private Partnership (PPP) program. In an understatement, Mr. Ordonez concluded “realizing the government’s poor track record in this area (providing support services), the private sector must now get involved.”
In fact, as former Secretary of Agrarian Reform Carlos (Sonny) Dominguez pointed out to me, the sectors in which the private firms were creative enough to develop models of farming in which the farmer beneficiaries were able to lease their lands to large agribusiness corporations in Mindanao, the Philippines became a global leader in the cultivation for export of bananas and pineapples, benefiting thousands of small farmers who were redeemed from poverty. With some tweaking, the lease-back, joint venture or cooperative models that worked well in Mindanao should also succeed in improving the lot of small farmers in such crops rice, corn, coconut, sugar, coffee, cacao, rubber and palm oil, not only in Mindanao but in the most impoverished regions of Quezon, Aurora, Bicol, Cagayan, and Eastern Visayas. In the case of sugar which requires land consolidation for mechanized farming, the example of Taiwan should come to mind. During the time of Chang Kai Sek, the Taiwan Sugar Corporation was exempted from land fragmentation, despite the very strict implementation of land redistribution. We should allow sugar lands to be consolidated with greater ease if we want our sugar industry to be competitive with our ASEAN neighbors under the ASEAN Economic Community.
Those in Congress who are crafting the law that will cover the next phase of agrarian reform should consider seriously the nucleus estate model that Malaysia has perfected in the growing of palm oil. It is the most efficient way of getting large agribusiness investors to work closely with small landholders in a symbiotic relationship. Although the Malaysians applied the model to palm oil and rubber, it can also work with other high-value crops such as coffee, cacao, and other tree crops, including coconuts. We have to learn from our own failures and the successes of our neighbors in agricultural development. Only then can we attain inclusive growth in the most important regions where poverty incidence is the highest. For comments, my email address is email@example.com.