AFTER TEN years of having its rules bent this way and that, to the detriment of those supposed to benefit from it, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) may have finally found an ally in the incoming administration of President-elect Joseph Estrada. After all, Estrada says his government's highest priority will be agriculture, food security, and agrarian reform.
He had promised as much while on the campaign trail. If elected, Estrada had said, he would increase the budget for agriculture by 10 percent; promote the "Food First" Program in the provinces to prioritize production of specific food items for domestic consumption and exportation; abolish irrigation fees, provide free irrigation services to farmlands planted to major crops besides rice; and extend loans to small farmers.
More recently, Estrada has also declared he will order the suspension of land conversion when he assumes office on July 1 as the practice has considerably affected food productivity. But he may have to do more than that to undo the damage that rampant land conversion and reclassification have already wrought on CARP.
The program was actually supposed to last only a decade, or up to this year. But in the twilight of his administration, President Fidel Ramos signed Republic Act No. 8532 that extended CARP's implementation to 2008, allocating P50 billion for this purpose.
CARP was meant to result in a more equitable distribution of agricultural land by enabling tenant farmers to finally own portions of the land their families had worked on for generations. But Estrada is about to inherit a program that has not only failed to do this for the most part, but also seems to have the government itself among its saboteurs.
According to the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), the implementing agency of CARP, illegal land conversion is one of the major obstacles to the program's land acquisition and distribution efforts, along with the strong opposition of landowners, the slow resolution of agrarian cases and low land valuation. Outgoing DAR Secretary Ernesto Garilao himself has admitted that his agency has had to contend with "various anti-CARP forces that constantly obstruct its implementation."
DAR Secretary-designate Horacio Morales sees the ambiguities in CARP as lending to the rigmarole that attends conversion applications and subsequent reversals of the agency's decisions.
But a closer look at CARP activities also reveals that many of the land conversion controversies and other confusing aspects of the program can be traced to actions made by no other than the government itself and its officials.
Among the most glaring of these, in fact, happened only in the past few years and show the government at its obstructive best: the spate of reversals made by then executive secretary Ruben Torres of DAR's decisions to put certain agricultural lands under CARP coverage.
One of those reversals so incensed the farmers involved that they staged a hunger strike for 28 days in front of the DAR office last year. Why the farmers chose to hold their protest there and not in front of Malacañang is unclear, since DAR was on their side in this case. It was the executive secretary who had frustrated DAR's attempt to help them.
DAR had denied the Norberto Quisumbing Sr. Management and Development Corporation's application to convert 144 hectares of its Sumilao, Bukidnon property, formerly leased by Del Monte, for agro-industrial use. DAR had even argued that the contested area was prime irrigated agricultural land, covered by a notice of compulsory acquisition since 1990. DAR also issued a Certificate of Land Ownership (CLOA) to the 137 farmers of the Mapalad Cooperative in September 1995. But when the farmers entered the property on July 16, 1997, they were evicted by the Quisumbings.
The DAR decision on Sumilao, however, was not the only one thwarted by Torres. On four other instances, he issued orders exempting the lands in question from CARP and favoring land conversion to nonagricultural use. Torres's conversion orders count as victims farmer beneficiaries in Bgy. Macabud in Rodriguez, Rizal; Bgy. Sumalo in Hermosa, Bataan; Bgys. Lanlangan and Sto. Niño in Plaridel, Bulacan; and Bgys. Lumil and Tartaria in Silang, Cavite.
In Macabud, Torres reversed DAR's denial of exemption filed by the Capitol Golf and Country Club on 53 hectares of disputed land that he said was nonagricultural in nature. In Sumalo, Torres favored James Litton's application for conversion of 213 hectares for agro-forestry and agro-based industry.
Torres voided DAR's order to the Winner Real Estate Development Corp. to desist from divesting the Bulacan farmers of their landholdings over 120 hectares by retroactively invoking its reclassification. In Silang, Torres issued an order allowing the heirs of Emilio Aguinaldo to reclassify 197 hectares into a medium-industrial zone as per Municipal Ordinance No. 9 (s. 1992) and the National Housing Authority's approval of the land's registration as a subdivision project.
Morales pledges that his DAR will "focus and find ways to resolve these cases in the first few months, cases of a similar nature to Sumilao." But the incoming DAR secretary should be on the lookout not only for meddlesome Malacañang officials, but also for local government units (LGUs).
Not to be outdone by their national counterparts, the LGUs have also been trying their best to challenge CARP by invoking their authority in regard to land reclassification and conversion. This insistence is reinforced by a provision in the Local Government Code that gives LGUs a certain degree of authority in reclassifying lands through the town planning process.
This provision provides that: "A city or municipality may, through ordinance passed by the sanggunian after conducting public hearings for the purpose, authorize the reclassification of agricultural lands and provide for the manner of their utilization or disposition in the following cases: 1) when the land ceases to be economically feasible and sound for agricultural purposes as determined by the Department of Agriculture (DA) or 2) where the land shall have substantially greater economic value for residential, commercial or industrial purposes, as determined by the sanggunian concerned."
The same provision is being used by corporations in search of new sites for their operations and landowners who refuse to let go of even an inch of their properties. Indeed, it has become the usual spiel of the likes of former representative Hortensia Starke, who had used it protect the 184-hectare Hacienda Bino in Kabankalan, Negros Occidental, from CARP coverage. Fortunately for the workers there, Starke's arguments proved futile and the land was distributed among them on the last week of May-but not before giving DAR officials migraines.
As late as May 20, Starke, president of Hortensia Laguda, Inc. and staunch agrarian reform adversary, was still busy firing off a letter to DAR Assistant Regional Director and concurrent Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer Homer Tobias. In her letter, she insisted that the land had already been reclassified for industrial, commercial, residential and tourism land uses. This was by virtue of Ordinance No. 96-01 (s. 1996) or the Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance passed by the Sangguniang Bayan of Kabankalan.
To be sure, the Asturias Chemical Industries, Inc., proponent of a cement plant with a three million-metric ton annual capacity and quarry site in Calatagan, Batangas, was also seized by the same inspiration as Starke's.
The firm had sought from the Sangguniang Bayan the reclassification into industrial use of agricultural lands in the affected barangays of Baha and Talibayog. During its regular session on September 26, 1997, the Sanggunian passed a resolution initially endorsing the project. The municipal body eventually passed Ordinance No. 34 (s. 1998) last March 26 sanctioning the reclassification of 40 hectares of farmland in Bgy. Baha.
In the reclassification frenzy, however, what is being conveniently overlooked is the fact that the same Local Government Code provision sets limitations on the power of local governments to reclassify land.
One particular paragraph states that in the event of the passage of an ordinance for reclassification in fourth to sixth class municipalities, it will be limited to five percent of the total land area, provided that: "… agricultural lands distributed to agrarian reform beneficiaries pursuant to Republic Act No. 6657, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, shall not be affected by the said reclassification and the conversion of such lands into other purposes shall be governed by Section 65 of said Act."
In response to questions related to land conversion and reclassification raised by the Chamber of Real Estate and Builders Association (CREBA), DAR, through undersecretary for legal affairs Artemio Adasa Jr., gave a legal opinion last January 19. According to Adasa, reclassification and conversion are not synonymous.
While ordinances reclassifying land are not subject to DAR approval, he said, the "finality of the ordinance reclassifying the land will not convert the agricultural areas covered thereby to nonagricultural uses." Adasa added that land use conversion falls within the jurisdiction of DAR, hence "the use of an agricultural land for nonagricultural purposes is subject to the (agency's) evaluation and approval."
These are the same arguments lawyers of the Mapalad farmers have raised in their petition seeking a reversal of the recent Supreme Court ruling on their case. The Court's second division had upheld Torres's reversal of the DAR decision denying the company's application for conversion. But the ruling was made on the basis of a technicality; according to the Court, the farmers who went on hunger strike for 28 days were not "parties of interest" as the masterlist of farmer beneficiaries referred to them as recommendees.
Surprisingly, there is no dearth in executive issuances to protect CARP from those who would place obstacles in its path. For instance, Executive Order No. 129-A, issued by former President Corazon Aquino vested in the DAR the sole power to approve or disapprove applications for the conversion of agricultural lands to other uses.
Malacañang Memorandum Circular No. 54 issued in 1993 further set the bounds within which LGUs are to exercise their authority to reclassify land. The circular delineates the borders where that authority does not hold sway. These areas are:
These circular provisions may soon make life less easy for the Asturias Chemical Industries in Calatagan. Only recently, the DAR Provincial Office in Batangas completed a study of the reclassification ordinance passed by the Calatagan sanggunian that would have made it possible for Asturias to push through with its plans.
In its May 12 report, the DAR office argued that the ordinance violates even the provisions of the Local Government Code. The report also affirmed the land's agricultural productivity, citing as proof the existence there of corn and vegetable plantations that have been hardly affected by the dry spell of the El Niño phenomenon. It noted that this was because the area is being irrigated by about 52 deep wells equipped with motor pumps.
Yet, whatever legal safeguards there are for CARP seem to be too few to be able to stop the rise in land conversion and reclassification cases all over the country. Conversion applications have grown to 1,912 covering a total of 24,008 hectares as of the end of 1997. Eighty-eight percent of this total-1,749 applications covering 21,105 hectares-have been approved for conversion to nonagricultural uses. The bulk of approved applications are for residential (1,187) and industrial (239) uses.
Amid all the old and new land use dilemmas confronting CARP, Morales enumerates the priorities of his watch, taking his cue from the challenges Garilao has identified. On land distribution, he says the Estrada administration in the next few years will have to double the rate accomplished during CARP's first decade. Morales has also prioritized intensifying beneficiaries' development and exploring joint ventures with the private sector.
"All these should redound to benefits for the farmers and at the same time maximizing gains from the market," says Morales. "A partnership process could be the solution we've been seeking."