FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 29, 2017 - 12:00am

Hacienda Luisita is a curse. Purchased using government guarantees, the plantation became the symbol of the oligarchy that distorted our economy.

Much blood was shed over that land. It hosted the birth of an insurgency over 40 years ago that continues to fester to this day. A massacre happened there over a decade ago. A Chief Justice was hounded from his post by a vengeful scion of the hacienda after he ruled to redistribute the land. Today, more blood could be shed between an unlikely set of protagonists.

This week, Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano issued an order nullifying the sale or lease of hacienda land awarded to farmers. That order will affect about 4,000 of the 5,212 farmers who had sold, leased or enrolled into joint venture agreements the parcels of land awarded them.

The nullification was because the agrarian reform law prohibits holders of certificates of land ownership award (Cloa) for a period of 10 years. The land was distributed only in 2013 after the Supreme Court ruled the farmers should get land instead of stock certificates. President Cory Aquino, even as land reform was supposed to be the “centerpiece” of her administration, allowed a clause in the land reform law that enabled plantation owners to issue farmers pieces of paper instead of redistribute land.

The ban on the sale or lease of the Cloa is a strange provision campaigned for by the militant groups. On the one hand, they wanted  asset distribution to the farmers. On the other hand, they limited the property rights of the farmers by preventing them from cashing in the land or using it as collateral to capitalize agriculture.

At any rate, the small parcels distributed to the farmers could never be viable economically. They simply defy the economies of scale. The militants used provision in the law to forestall the operation of market forces. They imagined a utopia of small farmers living happily ever living off their subsistence plots.

By selling or leasing their little parcels of land, the farmers were bowing to the tremendous force of economic reality. The parcels could never support them anyway. They chose to cash in the land they spent decades fighting to own. The DAR, now controlled by the militants, wants to prevent them from seeking economic gratification.

What an ironic situation. All this is because we have an agrarian reform program that posits a version of social justice that runs against the grain of economic wisdom.


Meanwhile, in Davao del Norte, members of the Davao Marsman Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries and Development Cooperative (Dmarbdevco) are waiting anxiously for a promised meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte and Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez who is ex-officio chair of LandBank.

These farmers, too, stand to become victims of the heavy-handed and dogmatic methods of Paeng Mariano’s men at the DAR. For the past so many years, these farmer beneficiaries enjoyed the fruits of their agribusiness venture agreement (AVA) with the Marsman Estate Plantation Inc. (MEPI).

In the existing arrangement, MEPI voluntarily surrendered their land to the agrarian reform program. Instead of charging the farmers for the land, MEPI leased the land from them and then employed the farmers in what has become a successful banana business. In addition to their above-market compensation, the farming communities benefited from generous health and educational benefits.

The DAR, under Mariano, ordered the cancellation of all AVAs. That order is now under appeal. If implemented, the order will produce economic chaos, including famine, for the affected communities.

Recently, two DAR undersecretaries held what was supposed to be “consultations” with the agrarian reform beneficiaries. Not only did the two senior officials dispense misinformation about the situation – such as saying the cancellation of the AVAs is final, even if it is actually being reconsidered – they made statements clearly inciting the farmers to violence.

Among the consequences of cancelling the AVAs, apart from the farmers losing all the economic benefits from participating in a successful agribusiness arrangement, is that they will now have to pay for the land. The farmers asked the undersecretaries what they would do if apart from losing their livelihood, they will have to pay amortization. One of the undersecretaries replied: “If the LandBank goes to you to ask for payment, attack them with bolos.”

The farmers were likewise distressed by the indifference of the DAR officials. When they asked the officials what would happen to the 1,800 farmer-beneficiaries and their 8,000 dependents if the plantation is shut down by the cancellation of the AVAs, the officials replied with disdain. It was not their job, they said, to worry about getting jobs for the potentially dislocated farmers. “That is the job of the DOLE,” they told the shocked farmers.

If Paeng Mariano and his boys succeed in cancelling the AVAs, they will bring down the agribusinesses that brought prosperity where there was none before. We will have to cancel all the generous orders for tropical fruits from such markets as China. The economic costs will be incalculable, borne mainly by the rural poor.

In the dogmatic mind of Mariano and his ilk, agribusinesses are the enemy. Their arbitrary actions therefore defy economics and follow only the dictates of a dead ideology. This is the same reason why their friends in the NPA so guiltlessly burn down farm equipment in aid of extortion. Businessmen in Mindanao are complaining that, over the past few months, rebel extortion activities increased dramatically.

From the banana plantations and now Luisita, Mariano is out to slash and burn our already weak agriculture.


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