“Agrarian Reform is an instrument of social justice and an act of political wisdom”
(Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, 1997)
A Pastoral Statement on the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program

AGRARIAN Reform is the centerpiece program of the 1987 Constitution. It pronounces in definitive terms that the law of the land upholds the protection of the rights of the poor in keeping with the principles of social justice. Despite the trails of failures in its implementation and the rising agrarian-related violations in the countryside, the farmers and the Church acknowledge that for the most part, agrarian reform has had a positive impact on poverty reduction.

Even before the funding for the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) expired last December 2008, several well-meaning legislators passed bills that extend and reform the flawed provisions of the old agrarian law. The Church commends these initiatives and we throw our full support to the consolidated Senate and House Bills, SB 2666 and HB 4077, now up for Senate’s and Congress’ deliberation and approval. Unfortunately, time is running out as there are only nine session days left for Congress to enact this essential law.

Correspondingly, we oppose in the strongest terms, the threat of “killer amendments” being inserted by some senators and congressmen that will effectively emasculate the objectives and gains of the CARP with Extension and Reform (CARPER) Bill for the poor farmers. These amendments are called “perfecting” amendments by their proponents, which in reality would dilute, slow down, and reverse the gains of the program and reduce the resources available for it.

Invoking guidance and inspirations from both the Philippine Constitution and the social doctrines of the Church, we find the proposals below to be unacceptable and antithetical to laws that govern the moral and social structures of our society.

• The phasing of land acquisition and distribution, which targets first those landholding measuring 50 hectares and above without prejudice to the coverage of lands below 50 hectares, after an accomplishment trigger of 90% by the respective provinces. This is unconstitutional in that our Constitution does not distinguish on whatever basis the agricultural lands to be covered under CARP. On the contrary, it mandates the coverage of all lands without qualification on the basis of size or even crop type. Allowing the State to distinguish between lands below 50 hectares and those measuring 50 and above would be discriminatory against, and would disenfranchise a huge percentage of potential farmer-beneficiaries, considering that the bulk of undistributed private agricultural lands is comprised of lands less than 50 hectares. Putting the 90% trigger as condition for resumption for coverage of smaller landholdings may actually result in most of the remaining landholdings being left uncovered or undistributed.

• Reconsolidation of agricultural lands by previous landowners after the 10-year retention period, and/or the reduction of the 10-year prohibition on sale of awarded land to three years. These provisions clearly favor former landowners and could defeat the purpose of the program because it will allow them to reacquire foreclosed lands, thus reconsolidate their landholdings.

• Allowing leaseback arrangements of awarded lands between farmers and landowners/corporations. We find this proposal to be inequitable and contradictory to the ultimate goal of agrarian reform, which is to grant ownership and control over the land and its resources to the tillers. CARP does not intend to protect whoever has the capacity to buy and operate big plantations, at the expense of the small farmers.

• Institutionalization of Commercial Farm Plantations in CARP. This proposal is objectionable as it expressly seeks the transfer of control of lands from farmer-beneficiaries to the landowner or any other agribusiness venture “partner”. It is contrary to studies which show that small-scale rice and corn farms by owner-cultivators are more productive than large scale farms. It is also discriminatory against rice and corn farmers. More importantly, this amendment is a contravention to the basic principle of agrarian reform which seeks to secure access, ownership, and control over land and its resources to the poor farmers.

• Increasing the compensation to landowners and increasing the downpayment from the present 25%-30% to 50%. This proposal, which is based on case-specific decisions of the Supreme Court, would result in a reduction of funds available for land acquisition and distribution and support services and would effectively prevent the program from being completed. Increasing just compensation for landowners is welcome as long as the corresponding increase will be matched by an increase in the allotted P147 Billion budget.

• Transfer of jurisdiction over agrarian cases from the Department of Agrarian Reform Adjudication Board (DARAB) to the regular courts. We believe that the resolution of agrarian cases entails the expertise of DAR on agrarian reform. This is sufficient and more equitable to the farmers because they are allowed to participate and represent themselves in the process, which are not bound by technical rules of procedure and evidence. We fear that the transfer of jurisdiction will only serve to marginalize the farmers, who could be subjected to a more adversarial and costly processes.

• Legislating the disqualification of “habitual squatters” from becoming CARP beneficiaries and making them criminally liable and punishable with specific penalties under the law. The Church, together with the farmers’ groups, registers strong opposition to this provision and we are one in calling for its deletion from the final version of CARP. There is an alarming likelihood that this will be used as an instrument to harass legitimate farmer-beneficiaries, who are typically branded as “squatters” by landowners. Legislating this provision will allow landowners to threaten farmers with criminal cases.

The social teachings of the church equally condemn the concentration and misappropriation of land as intrinsically immoral. Gaudium et Spes states that “God destined the earth and all it contains for all men and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all mankind under the guidance of justice, tempered by charity” (69). Similarly, Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s paper on “Towards a better distribution of land” quotes the prophet Isaiah as saying, “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field!” (5:8)

The same document also quotes the late Pope John Paul II’s dramatic address to members of the government and landowners in Mexico: “…leaders of the people, powerful classes which sometimes keep unproductive lands that hide the bread that so many families lack, human conscience, the conscience of the peoples, the cry of the destitute, and above all, the voice of God, the voice of the Church, repeat to you with me: It is not just, it is not human, it is not Christian to continue with certain situations that are clearly unjust. It is necessary to carry out real, effective measures – at the local, national and international levels… it is clear that those who must collaborate most in this are those who can do the most.”

Thus, it is with great sorrow and foreboding that we, the Catholic Bishops of the Philippines, witness some legislators willfully neglecting a vital sector that contributes to the country’s economic growth. Abandoning the agricultural sector will not only threaten farmers but imperil food security itself. Conversely, distributing lands to small farmers will provide equitable economic opportunities in the rural areas and eventually reduce poverty and unrests, which are major deterrents to democratic development.

Acquiescence to the evils of self-interest has serious negative effects in the social and economic well-being of the country and jeopardizes our collective pursuit of the common good. We appeal to our political leaders to make a serious examination of conscience and focus their attention on the swift resolution of the mounting forms of injustice and violation of fundamental human rights of the rural poor.

The small farmers deserve our attention and espousal of their cause. They continue bringing hope to society, and nurture life from season to season. No man of upright conscience much more that of a principled leader, can allow the Filipino farmer to be laid bare and vulnerable to the claws of globalization and continuous hopelessness.

Let us all pray for justice and peace to reign in our country, through an authentic agrarian reform, carried out in the spirit of distributive justice and solidarity with the rural poor. We pray for the Holy Spirit to lead us away from sin, enlighten our minds, and purify our intentions. And may the love of Christ impel us in our quest for a morally reformed society.

For the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines,

Archbishop of Jaro
President, CBCP
18 May 2008