Aquino program for land reform ignites lively debate in Philippines. Plan's voluntary nature seen as drawback

For the fourth time in four decades, the Philippines is undertaking its Great Debate: how to provide land to millions of landless farmers. Commonly called land ``reform,'' the idea has become the nation's liveliest public topic in recent weeks, evoking strong emotions and replacing talk of suspected military coup plots.

By July 27, when a new Congress convenes, President Corazon Aquino is expected to decide whether to use her present legislative powers to propose yet another land reform law for this largely rural nation of 57 million people.

Similiar efforts by previous presidents, including Ferdinand Marcos, have been deemed failures for not being adequately carried out and for not altering the wide disparity of wealth in the Philippines. Just the same, both landless and landed are not hesitating in reacting to Mrs. Aquino's apparent determination to deflate an issue that is driving a communist insurgency.

Unlike past efforts, Aquino's potential land reform drive could succeed. Proponents cite her popularity and ``moral authority'' with the people, as well as her string of victories, starting with last year's ouster of Mr. Marcos up to the overwhelming win for her candidates in the May elections for Congress. And with the rapid growth of the communist New People's Army in the early 1980s, some landowners themselves cite a need to alter the ``pattern of ownership of the material means of production,'' as the Marxist left calls it.

Since January, numerous successive drafts by Aquino advisers have accelerated the number of newspaper columns, hot-tempered dinner-party debates, academic seminars, and television talk shows about the subject.

In the early 1950s, according to some scholars, the mere promise of land reform by then-President Ram'on Magsaysay helped to end a peasant revolt, the Huk Rebellion. Communist leaders warn that Aquino might try a similiar tactic, offering ``a mere palliative to peasants.''

Western land reform experts have been arriving in Manila to offer their advice to the government. Aquino's news media advisers are working on how to present her final statement on the issue in an hour-long television broadcast scheduled for late this month. Still unsettled are the program's costs, reach, fairness, standards for property evaluations, and chances of ever being carried out.

Many landowners are rushing to legally divide up their lands to relatives in order to escape the proposed law's limit on the size of a single family's landholdings. That limit now stands at seven hectares (16.8 acres), a number accepted by Aquino advisers from the Marcos land reform program. It appears to have been chosen arbitrarily, say agrarian officials, solely because Marcos believed seven was his ``lucky number.''

The ``retention limit,'' as it is known, would only allow about 50 percent of landless workers on the nation's rice and corn fields to be able to obtain land, according to a nongovernmental analyst.

Twenty percent of Filipinos own 80 percent of the cultivated land, the Department of Agarian Reform estimates. If all of the nation's 18 to 22 million acres of arable land were distributed to the nation's 4 million families dependent on agriculture, it would provide about 5 acres per family. (The average family size is about six.)

Beyond the land distribution question lies the equally difficult task of educating newly landed cultivators in modern farm management. At present, the Philippines ranks among the lowest in grain productivity among its Asian neighbors.

Land reform was promised by President Aquino before she came to power last year, but the pending realization of that promise has now begun to shake the foundations of her support among the middle class, many of whom own medium-sized farms in the countryside.

Aquino took up the issue seriously only after a year in power. She had been busy restoring democratic institutions and fending off military unrest. But the issue hit Aquino and her advisers with full force in January after a pro-land reform protest near the President's office resulted in the shooting deaths of at least a dozen demonstrators.

Landowners' criticisms have weakened the proposed law's later drafts, leaving it with many loopholes. For example, certain crop lands will not be effected for years, allowing landowners to prepare legal maneuvers. And some government statistics on available land have been lowered.

``It's the Great Disappearing Land Reform Plan,'' says Roy Prosterman, a noted land reform expert from the University of Washington and the Rural Development Institute. ``If I were a Filipino landlord, I would be dancing in the streets.''

Land reform advocates cite one major problem: the desire by Aquino, a large landholder herself, to have the program be voluntary. ``All previous land reform programs in Asia have either been coercive or semi-coercive,'' says Dr. Prosterman.

Aquino's past victories, however, give her hope that, despite the magnitude and radical impact of land reform, she can shape a consensus around the necessity for it.

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