Land: A critical Issue for the Philippines

Date December 11, 2007

Why a National Rural Congress II?
Land: A critical Issue for the Philippines

By Fr. Archie Casey SX

GIVEN the historical background of the current land issue in the Philippines and the set of specific concerns around land policy, it is important now to ask the question why celebrate a Second National Rural Congress? I propose that some principles from the Church’s Social Teaching (CST) can be helpful in providing the framework for our discussion.

By CST, I mean the body of social wisdom about the human person in community and the structures and practices that enable the person to come to full human development. That wisdom is found in our scriptures, in the reflections of theologians, in the statements of church organizations and in the witness of committed men and women. The CST is not so much a set of answers or detailed plans as a frame of questions and guiding principles and norms. It has been described as “a light for our paths, not a roadmap for our journeys.”

It is my thesis that this CST does indeed provide a “value-added element” to public discussions, debates and decisions such as those going on now in the Philippines (and elsewhere) over land policy. By that I mean that this public process is enhanced by injection of the principles, norms and directives found in the Social Teaching. The “value-added element” provides a framework within which to focus on what should be the policy based on the priorities of human society.

Selected Principles

Before highlighting some elements in this CST frame, I want to draw attention to a list of values set down in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP) that still has to be completed. The CARP has been hailed as a centrepiece programme of the Philippine Government from the time of President Corazon Aquino. As a major asset-reform programme, the CARP seeks to address the problem of inequitable distribution of land. As a poverty-alleviation measure, CARP seeks to transform agrarian reform beneficiaries into more productive members of society who can use the land to generate more income for their families.

After the lapse of almost twenty years from the passage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), however, the CARP remains an incomplete dream. While the implementation of the programme has produced significant gains in terms of distribution of agricultural lands, there remains a large area that should still be covered under the CARP. Furthermore, farmer beneficiaries who now own the land should be given the needed support services that will enable them to make the land productive. It is the policy of the State to pursue a Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP). The welfare of the landless farmers, farm workers and other qualified beneficiaries will receive the highest consideration to promote social justice and to move the nation towards sound rural development and industrialization, and the establishment of owner cultivatorship of economic-sized farms as the basis of Philippine agriculture.

The CARP underlines the following values:

  • Rural poor people’s participation
  • Accountability
  • Commitment
  • Self-reliance
  • Equity and fairness
  • Justice and human dignity
  • Impartiality

I believe that this list is a very good summary of the CST principles to be summarised below.

It is important to note, of course, that for Indigenous Peoples (IPs), the tradition is that land is something sacred. It is part of the gracious gift of God who provides for the people. Thus traditionally the land belonged to the community, under the guardianship of the tiller. Individual families could use part of the communal land, with the expectation that they would cultivate it and stay there from one generation to another. Other parts of the communal land were for the service of all or a reserve for future needs.

In Judeo-Christian biblical terms, the earth belongs to God the Creator and people are only stewards. Leviticus 25:23 reminds the people that “Your land must not be sold on a permanent basis, because you do not own it; it belongs to God, and you are like foreigners who are allowed to make use of it.”

Moreover, land and its fruits should be equally and equitably shared. Hence the practices such as the redistribution of land every Jubilee Year (Leviticus 25:28) and the leaving of some fruits for the poor after harvest (Deuteronomy 25:19-22). Jesus’ respect and appreciation for land is evident in his many agricultural-based parables and in his special concern for the poor, most of whom were landless.

In the documents of the Church, the topic of land is usually treated in the discussion of property. To briefly recall the basic teaching, the CST perspective is that property is subject to the common purpose of all created things, namely the benefit of all people. The Second Vatican Council in its main document, The Church in the Modern World, stated quite plainly: “God intended the earth and all that it contains for the use of every human being and people” (GS 69).

Paul VI followed that up in his The Development of People (1967) with the re-affirmation of a long-held principle that large landed estates that “impede the general prosperity because they are extensive, unused or poorly used, or because they bring hardships to people or are detrimental to the interests of the country,” can in the name of the common good be expropriated by national authorities (PP 24). John Paul II clarified that further by stating in his The Social Concerns of the Church (1987) that “Private property, in fact, is under a ‘social mortgage,’ which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods” (SRS 42).

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has also advocated Land Reform. The bishops reiterated the call for a Comprehensive and Effective Land Reform Programme in their exhortation “Thirsting for Justice.” on 14 July 1987, (Eight days later, President Aquino signed Proclamation 131 and Executive Order No. 229 which dealt with the implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program):

“This year we celebrate a National Eucharistic Year. The heart of the Eucharist is sharing - Christ sharing himself with us totally.

In this celebration God is asking us to do what we celebrate: to share to the utmost of ourselves with others, especially with those with whom Christ himself identifies: the thirsty, the hungry, the naked, and the homeless (Mt. 25:35-46). In the Philippines today, these are the landless, the exploited, the disadvantaged, and the powerless. These have the single most urgent claim on the conscience of the nation. To opt for them, to share with them is a requirement of the Kingdom of God.

Therefore, under this perspective of a loving faith that does justice, we, your bishops, have no alternative as far as the question of agrarian reform is concerned:

We are for as comprehensive a programme of agrarian reform as possible – one that will make it possible for all, the 70% who live below the poverty line especially, to have more in order to be more (Cf. Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, 6).

We believe furthermore that a genuine agrarian reform programme must be realistic. No programme can be successful if it transcends the capabilities of government to manage and finance.” (Ricardo J. Cardinal Vidal Archbishop of Cebu, CBCP President)
One very clear summary of the CST on land is found in the 1980 statement of a group of Bishops from the mid-western part of the United States. I believe it has great relevance to the current discussion in the Philippines. In response to problems raised by land ownership and use, the Bishops recommended ten principles of land stewardship—principles clearly biblical and in accord with statements of the Popes mentioned above:

  • The land is God’s.
  • People are God’s stewards on the land, co-creators with God in guiding the land’s productive power and in conserving the land’s natural gifts.
  • The land’s benefits are for everyone – both for the present and future generations.
  • The land should be distributed equitably.
  • The land should be conserved and restored.
  • Land-use planning must consider social and environmental impacts.
  • Land use should be appropriate to land quality; for example, prime farmland should not be used unnecessarily for urban expansion or highways.
  • The land should provide a moderate livelihood.
  • The land’s workers should be able to become the land’s owners.
  • The land’s mineral wealth should be shared.

Policy Applications

Guided by these principles and by the biblical and documentary references outlined above, there are at least three major emphases that are relevant when we consider policy land issues of the Philippines. This is where I return to the “value-added element” crucial to the discussions, debates and decisions about public policy.

First, the land policy must be grounded on the recognition that land is not simply another economic commodity, but something very central to the well being of human society. It is not to be bought and sold on simple market principles. It is, indeed, something sacred since it is so essential to the well being of every woman and man. This means that economic reform measures such as globalized agri-business programmes cannot be the primary determinant to land policy in a country like the Philippines. This calls, therefore, for a thorough review of the 1988 CARP Law with extension and reform and all its implications.

Second, a primary concern for the poor in the Philippines (the overwhelming majority of Filipinos!) must guide the land policies. Land tenure must always be designed in ways that do not discriminate against the poor—either because of cumbersome and expensive legal and management requirements to fulfil or because available good CARP-able land is possessed by landlords or investors who have access to ready cash. Allocation of titles to land, whether Customary or State, must respect the rights and needs of local communities and especially the rural poor—of whom the largest number are women.

Third, land policies must be holistic, that is, they must be integrated into larger development planning that takes account of issues like food security, employment, environmental concerns, community identity, regional infrastructure, etc. For example, when the CARP Law states that “By means of appropriate incentives, the State shall encourage the formation and maintenance of economic-sized family farms to be constituted by individual beneficiaries and small landowners” plans should be designed in this holistic fashion.


As the Philippine Government now evaluates whether agriculture is the number one national priority, it is clear that land policy moves to the forefront in addressing current burning issues like poverty and hunger. The Church’s Social Teaching has many significant things to say about these issues providing a framework for making decisions, taking action and achieving the Common Good. How men and women appear in the light of belief in Christ and his love is the root cause why the NRC II process can help re-awaken our Gospel Concern for the dignity of the rural poor and fulfil “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” envisioned forty years ago on February 5th 1967 by the first National Rural Congress and encapsulated in its slogan “The Church Goes To The Barrios”. Digg Facebook Technorati Google Windows Live Netscape Yahoo Feed Me Links co.mments Bloglines Ask Newsvine

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