Amid peasants' clamor, Filipino Congress debates land reform. Some worry legislation may exempt most private farms

More than two years into the administration of President Corazon Aquino, Filipino peasant farmers, landowners, and their representatives in Congress are still struggling over what kind of agrarian-reform program ought to be enacted here. The peasants' clamor has been loud and persistent. It is based on a promise made by Mrs. Aquino during her presidential campaign to correct the nation's social injustice through genuine land reform. Two weeks ago, thousands of peasant farmers marched through the streets of Manila chanting ``land not bullets,'' demanding the distribution of huge plantations to the landless.

Twenty-five percent of landowners in the Philippines own 75 percent of all private land. In a rural work force of 10 million, only 1.5 million are owner-operators. The Congress for a People's Agrarian Reform (CPAR), which represents 12 national organizations from the center to the far left and boasts 1.5 million members, has been promoting a ``people's'' agrarian reform calling for extensive expropriation of private agricultural lands.

A landowner herself, Aquino has said she would use her family's 6,000 hectare (14,800 acre) sugar hacienda to illustrate how agrarian reform should be implemented. But, today, her younger brother Jose Cojuangco, a congressman, is one of the leaders of a conservative landlords' group which has blocked a radical land-reform measure in the lower house.

Although Congress started out with two land-reform measures acceptable to the peasantry, these have been changed by the strong landowner lobby among the legislators. Two bills passed by the Senate and the House of Representatives are now waiting to be reconciled by a conference committee.

The House version puts distribution of private plantations last in the order of priorities and effectively allows landowners to keep up to 16 hectares (40 acres). (The bill would begin by distributing public lands, many of which are located in inaccessible mountainous regions. Land-reform advocates are concerned that appropriating the funding required to develop these lands would delay the reforms.) CPAR says the 16-hectare limit would exempt ``almost 100 percent of all private lands'' from the agrarian reform program. Other sources say some 86 percent would be exempt.

The Senate version, CPAR says, has ``more pro-farmer provisions than [the House bill].'' They say it has too many exemptions and is vague about the coverage and disposition of lands leased to multinational agribusiness firms. It carries a five-hectare retention limit.

In place of the two bills, the CPAR is promoting a people's agrarian reform code. Even at this late date, CPAR leaders say, the code could be introduced into the legislative process via a constitutional provision which allows citizens to amend, veto, or recall a law under certain circumstances. The code would start the land-reform program with private lands, and allow an across-the-board three-hectare ownership ceiling.

The Aquino government's road to a comprehensive agrarian reform program has been a rough one. In January 1987, militant peasants who wanted to present their land-reform agenda to the President clashed with police and soldiers guarding the road to the President's office. The troops opened fire; 18 were killed.

In July 1987, Aquino ignored the recommendations of the Cabinet committee assigned to draw up a comprehensive agrarian reform program and signed Executive Order 229, her own program which the peasantry called a ``betrayal'' of their hopes.

While the President ordered implementation of agrarian reform in all agricultural lands, private and public, regardless of crops planted or tenurial arrangements, she left it up to Congress to determine how much land a planter could retain and which land would go first.

Critics say that breaking up large plantations into small farms will lower productivity. The would-be beneficiaries, however, insist that productivity need not suffer if the law provides for the organization of cooperative farms and extends the necessary support services such as credit, technology, and farmer education. Agrarian reform advocates argue that a genuine land-reform program could raise farm incomes and broaden the middle class.

After more than two years of lobbying, some CPAR member organizations are ``no longer sure of the strategic value of the legislative struggle,'' a CPAR volunteer says. The coalition is in danger of splitting between the moderates, who pin their hopes on Congress, and those who see no more hope in peaceful processes.

The legal and underground left contends that armed struggle is inevitable if landowners refuse to give up properties. They point to the more than 50,000 hectares of idle private and public lands that have been forcibly occupied and tilled by militant landless farmers over the past two years.

Optimists, however, point to 40,000 hectares of private lands some landowners have voluntarily offered to cede to the government even before a reform law is enacted. They see some hope for a peaceful democratization of wealth and power.

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