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EDITORIAL - Make agrarian reform work

With the last of the leftist Cabinet members rejected by the Commission on Appointments, the Department of Agrarian Reform is waiting for a new head. A replacement must be found quickly for Rafael Mariano, and the new DAR secretary must enjoy the full support of President Duterte.

Being a socialist in his youth, the President for sure understands the importance of agrarian issues in a country that remains largely agricultural. Genuine agrarian reform, if given the support services needed for its success, can promote inclusive growth, which has remained elusive in a nation with yawning income disparities.

Many of those who are in a position to make agrarian reform work, however, belong to the landed elite and have stymied the effective implementation of the program. Lawmakers have made sure their family-held agricultural lands would be spared from being parceled out to tenants. Funds intended for fertilizer support were misused for political purposes and remain bogged down in a corruption scandal.

There is a valid argument for the efficiency of large agricultural estates with funds to invest in technology, marketing, research and development, and even in their own infrastructure such as road and rail networks.

But it is also possible to assist agrarian reform beneficiaries so they can form cooperatives or similar setups where they can pool their resources for large operations. The government must also provide support services such as farm-to-market roads, sufficient irrigation, mills and drying facilities at affordable rates, and assistance in marketing.

Other countries help their farmers find markets both domestic and foreign for their products. They also assist in R&D to improve crops and farming methods, and offer financing facilities for farm-based micro enterprises. It’s no coincidence that countries with such support services, such as Israel and Thailand, have robust agricultural exports. Israel, with desert accounting for much of its terrain, is growing and selling to the world even tropical products such as mangoes and bananas. Taiwan, despite its small land area, is a major exporter of seedlings and other agricultural products.

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The Philippines has an agrarian reform program in place. What it needs is political will to fully realize the program’s objective of lifting farmers from poverty.

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