ON Tuesday, a small group of protesting farmers were “violently dispersed” from the Batasang Pambansa complex after they attacked the office of House Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales 2nd with snails, according to several reports.
The 16 farmers from Negros Occidental, who at least earned points for creativity if not effectiveness, were protesting the “snail’s pace” with which a bill to extend the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was moving through the House, despite a counterpart measure already having been passed by the Senate.
Gonzales, who recently returned HB 4296 to the Committee on Agrarian Reform to “iron out some provisions,” is being blamed for the delay; the farmers have accused him of intentionally stalling the measure to favor “landlord-politicians in Congress.” Without the passage of the bill, the 27-year-old land reform program will end on June 30, 2015.
And well it should—CARP has been a dismal failure, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the post-Edsa era, at least in terms of the number of people affected. While the program has been reasonably effective in identifying and gathering the inventory of distributable lands, actually redistributing them in a productive way has proven to be beyond the country’s capabilities or convictions.
As a result, the lives of tenant-farmer land beneficiaries have hardly improved; they may have taken a symbolic step from serfs to landowners, but cannot substantially improve their standards of living with inadequate institutional support and properties that in most cases are too small to be commercially viable. Small farmers are among the poorest Filipinos; the poverty rate among them hasn’t budged in more than a decade, kept steady by high costs and low incomes on top of all the ‘normal’ risks of farming, such as unhelpful weather and fluctuating commodity prices.
Land reform is a delicate subject; it has democratic advantages, but on its own is detrimental to the overall economy. It decreases the rate of agricultural productivity growth (and can sometimes even push it into a contraction) relative to demand, and increases the complexity (and therefore the costs) of value chains. Success is not impossible, but it is elusive; where land reform has been successfully carried out, in places like South Korea for example, it is because it was carried out aggressively in a relatively short period of time.
It is hard to imagine that what could be achieved in following the same routine for two more years of CARP would accomplish anything more than it did in the preceding 27 years, but that is the proposition being considered. Even if we completely disregard the social implications of land reform (which we actually cannot), the sapping of the country’s economic strength through the perpetuation of an underperforming, impoverished agricultural sector is certainly undesirable.
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CARP is not the only one of Edsa’s ghosts to put in an appearance this week: final discussions are ongoing between the House and the Senate to hammer out a compromise measure granting President Aquino “emergency powers” through July 31 to address the phantom electricity shortage that will begin to impact Luzon any day now. The resolution will give Aquino authority to bypass procedures to contract additional power through the Interruptible Load Program.
Why he has to be given responsibility for this relatively simple function has not been explained—in all likelihood, Aquino’s personal involvement is a leftover in the current, much watered-down measure from his earlier attempt and that of Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla to get their booger-hooks on P4 billion of funding, ostensibly for the lease or purchase of floating diesel generators.
The difference in the two versions of the resolution is that the House measure sources the funds that will be given to users of their own generators as reimbursement, to the Malampaya gas royalties fund, while the Senate version proposes to pass the costs on to consumers, because Senators are horrible people.
While Petilla continues to stubbornly contradict his department’s own technical assessments that the shortfall will be in power reserves and not necessarily in actual supply (leading many, present company included, to assume he will see to it there is an actual power shortage this summer), the fact is that the power supply across the entire country is at best just barely sufficient. Aquino fils is grappling, as his three predecessors also did, with a disastrous situation created by Edsa icon Mama Cory, who sullied her own legacy by virtually ignoring the need to plan for increasing electric demand. By halting the Marcos-era Bataan Nuclear Plant (notwithstanding debate about the safety of nuclear power) and failing to initiate any new generation projects during her term, Cory Aquino left her successors a thorny problem, the solution for which the Philippines will continue to struggle toward for at least the next 10 years; assuming, of course, that Aquino’s successor grasps that accessible and logically-priced electricity is a basic necessity.