Aquino's 1st major land reform plan. Plan, simple in design, could be tough to implement

A sugar plantation owner herself, Corazon Aquino knows well the plight of one of the Philippines' largest industries. That's why the main sugar-producing island of Negros has been singled out by the new President for her first major land-reform program, a key tactic of hers in suppressing the nation's communist insurgency.

In launching the plan yesterday, President Aquino told the island's land owners: ``It was Negros that first showed us our nation's wounds, and perhaps Negros will be first to demonstrate how we will be healed.''

Widely publicized for the high number of malnourished children among its jobless sugarworkers, Negros has suffered from high dependency on a single commodity whose prices have dropped drastically over the past decade. One result is an unusually fast rise in the island's insurgency, threatening the lives and livelihood of the established sugar-baron families.

Many landowners, who no longer can afford paternalistic relationships with workers, support Aquino's novel land-reform program, which seeks to solve two problems at once.

Designed by a Negros provincial governor and sugar farmer, Daniel Lacson, the plan would help wipe out the heavy debts of almost all the landowners (a total of about $200 million) in exchange for granting land to the landless. Simple in concept, the program is likely to be complex and troublesome in its implementation. Aquino assigned a task force of private and public officials to push it through.

So far, the idea has been studied by the bureaucracy ``like frozen molasses going uphill,'' says Deputy Agriculture Minister Carlos Dominguez. The Central Bank in Manila opposes any restructuring of the landowners' debt. A vocal minority of landowners, supported by Defense Minster Juan Ponce Enrile, oppose giving up any of their family land. And the government has very little money to support the newly created small landowners, who will need government training, finance, and marketing help -- to sow crops other than sugar.

``Land reform isn't just parceling out land, but providing the means for making it productive,'' Aquino told a large crowd of Negrenese.

Although Aquino insists the plan must be voluntary, the government can coerce landowners into joining by always holding out the possibility that banks will foreclose on their highly indebted land.

Besides a rescheduling of old debts, the plan calls for the Aquino-appointed Commission on Good Government to recover an estimated $700 million from so-called cronies of deposed President Ferdinand Marcos who supposedly skimmed off profits from the sugar industry by monopolizing milling and marketing. Any money recovered would help reduce the landowners' debt and the amount of land they would individually have to give up. Also, a landowner's productivity during the Marcos era would be measured to determine whether a landowner used his loans well and thus may have less obligation to turn over land.

In addition, any reluctant landowner might not get a share of an increase in the sugar-import quota that the Philippines is expecting from the United States, according to Agrarian Reform Minister Heherson Alvarez.

The first 10 percent of land acquired would be given directly to idled sugar workers, with an average of 1,000 square meters per family. Any more land, according to the plan, would be used to set up government-private ``nucleus estates,'' with strong emphasis on leasing land to individual farmers to grow such plantation crops as coffee or palm. In total, the government might eventually take more than 250,000 acres in Negros Occidental, the main sugar-producing province.

A foretaste of the plan was Aquino's announcement yesterday that the Philippine National Bank would sell more than 25,000 acres to landless workers in Negros.

The bank has been accumulating the land -- even under Marcos -- as it foreclosed on bad debts, and for the first time plans to make it available at cheap prices with a 15-year loan at 8 percent. Farmers would not be able to sell the plots and would have to show productive use of the land within three years, or they would lose it. The government plans to assign 200 agricultural workers to organize some 1,500 to 2,000 landless Negrenese and help them get started. Some of the land will be used to resettle communist guerrillas who surrender.

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