CONTROVERSY has erupted over the proposal by Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano to impose a two-year moratorium on the conversion of agricultural land, with just about everyone – the government’s economic cluster led by the National Economic Development Authority, the real estate industry, other business groups, and even poultry and hog farmers – objecting to the move.
The Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) is drafting an executive order that will place a two-year moratorium “on the processing and approval of all applications for all land-use conversion of agricultural lands for non-agricultural uses.”
The land areas that will be covered by the ban include those used for agricultural purposes with notices of coverage issued by the DAR, irrigated and irrigable land, other land designated for prime agricultural purposes, retention areas of land owners with tenants, and agricultural land being cultivated by farmers individually or collectively, or otherwise being used for agricultural activities.
The purpose of the moratorium is to allow a task force to “assess the status of land use conversion in the country,” presumably to determine if the existing policy needs to be amended significantly.
As justification for the moratorium, Mariano cited figures from a 2008 study that showed about 9,000 hectares of land that could be used for rice planting were being converted each year, either for non-agricultural purposes or for crops other than rice.
The moratorium is necessary from the DAR point of view to ensure lots that should rightly be given to beneficiaries of the land reform program is not being unfairly converted for other purposes. From the view of the Department of Agriculture, the moratorium is necessary to halt the disappearance of land that could be planted with crops – particularly rice – to ensure the country’s food security.
Although the DAR proposal is a valid social justice point, from an economic point of view, the complete moratorium should be reconsidered, and modified at the very least if not withdrawn entirely.
Those who are concerned over the availability of potential rice-growing land – presumably to meet the long-elusive goal of “rice self-sufficiency” may have to look into the many studies that have pointed out that crop diversification may be more advantageous. This is particularly so in view of wider regional trade under the Asean Economic Community in the coming years.
Assuming that all available land will be used for planting rice potentially consigns some land reform beneficiaries to livelihoods that are less than they could achieve with other crops, and still may not be enough to achieve self-sufficiency on a national level.
In terms of the economy beyond agriculture, untrammelled conversion and development of useful land into less productive things like shopping malls and housing developments is, of course, undesirable and unfair, but may be allowed to some extent to build local economies. Infrastructure and industrial development has an even greater impact. Economic development along these lines simply cannot be entirely stopped, and in fact, needs to be greatly accelerated if the country wishes to meet the aims of the Duterte administration’s 10-point economic agenda.
It may, indeed, be found, after careful examination of the existing extensive process for land conversion, that a moratorium on processing conversion applications is necessary, but in any case, the country does not have the luxury to wait two years while the DAR catches up with its job. A two-year moratorium pushes the start of development in areas covered by it into 2018, with the outcomes – new roads, new housing, new commercial and industrial developments, expanded agribusinesses – following sometime after that. In a growing, competitive regional market, that is simply too long.
The social justice of land reform is important, and should not be neglected. But economic growth, particularly of the sort that President Duterte envisions, is social justice for everyone in the nation.
The DAR should work with other agencies and concerned private sectors to find a better compromise that does not unduly hinder either one.