Addressing the rampage of land use conversion

April 27, 2017

by IBON Foundation

The land-to-the-tiller clamour mounts. This, amid the recent spate of farmers’ killings and other forms of military attacks against peasant communities nationwide. These human rights violations have escalated even after both panels of the government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) have acknowledged in the on-going peace talks the country’s agrarian problem and the imperative of free land distribution.

Indeed, breaking land monopolies remains to be a grim challenge. The fierce opposition from powers-that-be to putting a stop to land use conversion regardless of its negative impact on production and food security is a case in point.

Failed land reform. A moratorium on land use conversion can provide not only respite to farmers who have either been already displaced or whose livelihoods stand to be interrupted. It can also be a first step in securing arable land that should be used to produce crops for the nation’s food and industry needs.

Land monopoly persists. Many of the largest haciendas remain intact because land reform programs and laws such as the Presidential Decree No. 27, Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), National Tourism Act of 2009 and Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act, have allowed landowners to skirt land distribution, expand their land ownership and even convert lands to non-agricultural use.

Government has not ascertained the real extent of success of the land reform program that concluded in 2014. Land acquisition distribution (LAD) has been reported to be 88% accomplished with 4.9 million hectares supposedly distributed to 2.4 million farmer beneficiaries. Yet former agrarian reform secretary Virgilio delos Reyes himself admitted that the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR)’s data “has no base”, thus it lacks basis to verify how much of the land are now actually in the hands of farmer beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, thousands of hectares of lands are reported to have been reconcentrated to their original owners – old-rich families controlling large haciendas who have diversified into real estate development, energy, mining and telecommunications, among other businesses. Philippine oligarchs led by the country’s billionaires such as Henry Sy, the Zobel-Ayalas, the Roxases, the Lopezes, the Yulos, Cojuangco of Negros Islands, the Cojuangco-Aquinos of Central Luzon, the Floirendos, and the Consunjis, among others, have taken advantage of various land laws to gain or regain control over vast tracts of land.

Rampant LUC. DAR records show that 98,939 hectares of land were approved for conversion from 1988 to 2016, while 120,381 hectares were approved for exemption from land reform coverage for the same period. Yet according to the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), an average of 165,000 hectares of irrigated prime agricultural lands are converted to other uses annually.

Varying data and evidence from the ground show that there have been illegal conversions and correspondingly, violations of social and economic rights of farming and fishing communities affected by such conversions. DAR consultant Atty. Jobert Pahilga disclosed that one such case of illegally converted land is the sprawling 8,650 hectares Hacienda Looc in Nasugbu, Batangas which extends to Bgy. Patungan (now Bgy Sta. Mercedes) in Maragondon, Cavite.

Prior to conversion, some 10,000 Hacienda Looc farmers made productive coconut, mango and various fruit-bearing trees alongside farms planted to rice and corn. Maragondon folk, numbering more than 600 families mostly in fishing, also planted rice and banana in nearby kaingin farms.

In 1994, the Philippine government through its Asset Privatization Trust (APT) sold the entire 8,650 hectares of Hacienda Looc to billionaire Henry Sy’s Manila Southcoast Development Corporation (MSDC), which covered the 5,303 hectares already distributed to farmers and fishermen under CARP. To make way for the conversion, armed state and private security forces displaced the tillers and put their livelihoods in uncertainty. But farmers stood their ground and sought the Sentro para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo (SENTRA) to aid them in their legal battle.

In 2013, farmer beneficiaries that continued to assert their rights to the hacienda filed a case at the DAR against the SM Investment Corporation, SM Land Corporation, and Costa de Hamilo Inc. of Sy for the unauthorized conversion of some 5,800 hectares in the said hacienda. Pahilga said that DAR only ordered conversion for 94 hectares of land while the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) gave environmental clearance certificate for the development of only 411 hectares.

The 5,800 hectares that the farmers alleged to have been illegally converted by Henry Sy’s corporations cover the famous tourist destination in Hamilo Coast, which includes 13 natural coves inside the contested Hacienda Looc. Hamilo Coast is being marketed as a seaside residential and leisure property.

Many Special Economic Zones (SEZs) were also former haciendas. For example, large portions of the 7,100-hectare disputed Hacienda Yulo have been converted to the existing Laguna Technopark, Greenfield Estates and Nuvali of the Ayala-Zobel clan and the First Philippine Industrial Park of the Lopezes. Meanwhile, the Luisita Industrial Estate is part of the disputed 6,453-hectare Hacienda Luisita, which was converted by the Cojuangco-Aquino family. The Angara family in Aurora and Quezon established the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone (Apeco) through Republic Act (RA) 10083, which covers about 13,000 hectares of agricultural lands, forested areas in public domain, and thriving coastal areas.

The Ayalas through their real estate development arm Ayala Land, Inc. lead the business of real estate development. Aside from their vast haciendas, they have an accumulated land bank of 8,453 hectares across the country. On the other hand, SM Prime Holdings of Henry Sy has a land bank of about 5,900 hectares of prime lands. These big family corporations dominated the top 50 Philippine corporations in 2012, also indicating that real estate development is the lucrative business in an economy still characterized by land monopoly despite four decades of land reform implementation.

Blocked. Late last year, the DAR led by peasant leader and former Anakpawis party list representative Secretary Rafael Mariano proposed a two-year moratorium on land use conversions and applications for exemption from coverage and processing thereof.

The move met strong opposition from the socioeconomic planning, finance, trade and budget secretaries and the Vice President no less. According to them, a moratorium on land use conversion will hinder jobs creation and poverty alleviation.

Consequently, exemptions were inserted in the fourth draft of the executive order (EO). To be exempted now from the LUC moratorium are energy development projects under the Department of Energy; housing projects under the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council; economic zone development projects under the Philippine Economic Zone Authority; and tourism development projects under the Department of Tourism. However, these huge, business-driven projects are exactly the purposes for which many of the applications for LUC have been approved.

The rabid business-biased defense of the administration’s key officials affirms the continuing domination of profit-oriented neoliberal thinking in the country’s economy and politics.

The DAR has also reportedly revoked the reclassification of and marked for distribution some 700 has of the iconic Hacienda Luisita’s Tarlac Development Corporation (TADECO) and 384 has sold to the Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC). Upholding this and starting free land distribution in the controversial Cojuangco-Aquino landholding can signal the breaking of land monopolies on a nationwide scale. But Hacienda Luisita Incorporated (HLI) and its partners have appealed against the revocation, partly showing how large private landholdings could comprise a huge percent of the LAD.

Genuine land reform challenge. The ongoing peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the NDFP is set to tackle the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Rights (CASER), which includes the implementation of genuine agrarian reform as a necessary first step in addressing the root causes of pervasive poverty especially in the rural areas.

During the third round of the peace talks, both the Philippine government and the NDFP agreed that land monopoly shall be broken up and that safeguards against the reconcentration of lands and recurrence of exploitative relations between farmers and corporate agribusiness or landowners shall be instituted. Agricultural lands under the NDFP CASER refer to lands that are devoted to agricultural production and such other uses connected with agriculture such as cattle and livestock farms, aquaculture, including foreshore, pasture farms, and lands that are suitable for agriculture.

Meanwhile, farmers’ groups have vowed to sustain their concerted action pressing for genuine agrarian reform.

The Duterte government, which strives to uphold its pro-poor stance, is faced with the choice of either heeding Filipino peasants’ call or turning its back in favor of powerful landlord and comprador interests.