APPEARING crisp if a bit weary, President Corazon Aquino addressed specialists from 15 countries invited by the United Nations to share technical land-reform experiences. With diplomatic understatement, she asserted, ``There is still substantial opposition to the present [land-reform] program from those whose property rights over huge landholdings will have to defer to the greater right of equity and social justice for the peasantry.'' Landlords, 20 percent of whom hold 80 percent of the country's agricultural land (the most inequitable distribution in Southeast Asia), have held the reform a virtual hostage since the peaceful revolution that deposed Ferdinand Marcos in February 1986. While some have doubted Mrs. Aquino's sincerity - her family owns one of the richest farms in the country and has submitted it to only modest reform - she continues to insist that agrarian reform is the centerpiece of her antipoverty program.
Aquino is frequently accused of attempting too fervently to appease the country's right wing. While she successfully repulsed the strongest-yet coup challenge to her presidency in December, she made little use of her renewed credibility to advance the country's social program. But she claims to have reduced poverty from 59 percent of the population at her inauguration to 46 percent now. While these gains are disputed, economic growth has increased on Aquino's watch (to 6 percent over the last three years), exports are up, and a mini-surge in foreign investment continues. This furthers the hope that the Philippines may be on the same trajectory as nearby Thailand and Malaysia, which also want to achieve ``newly industrialized country'' (NIC) status.
But the most celebrated NICs, South Korea and Taiwan - to say nothing of the region's mentor in these matters, Japan - all had thorough land reforms before beginning their heady pace of economic progress.
The Philippine right has resorted to imaginative reform-blocking techniques. Consequently, little land has been given out under Aquino, though she has granted some titles to those who gained occupation of family farms under Marcos.
During the 1986-87 constitutional convention debates, landlords fixed upon the issue of ``just compensation'' for land transferred in the agrarian reform. They included that phrase in the country's charter, knowing that the Philippine judiciary has routinely interpreted it to mean ``market price.'' If the strict interpretation holds, land reform could bankrupt itself in reimbursing landlords.
Subsequently, the right concentrated upon electing a Congress dominated by landlords (90 percent of House members), which made sure that the land-reform law that finally passed - after months of acrimonious debate - contained high (for Asia) retention rates for landlords and land grants of prime hacienda land to present owners' children.
Another issue for reform opponents emerged last summer. The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) bought a farm for reform at a grossly inflated price and plunged the agency into months of muckraking publicity. This forced the resignation of DAR's director and other key functionaries. The administrator who followed was also quickly relieved of her portfolio and she now contends that communists have infiltrated DAR.
The right is now focusing on discrediting Aquino's newest appointee to the DAR directorship, Florencio Abad, accusing him of once favoring a more radical reform. Consequently, the Speaker of the House, Ramon V. Mitra, has seriously suggested that President Aquino herself assume the DAR portfolio.
Meanwhile, charges of deception from peasant organizations appear with regularity. One group advocates substituting a more liberal and less loophole-ridden law by petition, an alternative opened by the new Philippine constitution to bypass Congress. And the radical New People's Army, in its growing impatience, is taking land by force, occupying it, and turning it over to peasants without government blessing.
In her speech in the Malacanang, Aquino said that her agrarian reform-program stands in contrast to efforts under former administrations that were mere ``limited, piecemeal efforts.'' Her plans are to allow land distribution to nearly 4 million beneficiary families. This indeed would be an epochal program.
Aquino's term has only two years left, but she hasn't yet figured out how to get the agrarian reform off dead center. And if she were to move it, would industrial countries come to her support with aid? So far, the US has put $50 million into the agrarian reform program, tied its disbursement to specific performance objectives, and made sure its contribution could not be used for land purchase.
As for further funding, given US overriding preoccupation with the military-bases agreement and budget stringency, its answer will probably be a resounding ``No.'' It is worth recalling that it was with US prodding that both Japanese and South Korean agrarian reforms - largely unrecognized taproots of their current prosperity - came to pass.