Agrarian reform and social protection

To equate agrarian reform with social justice in our society is to think of land distribution as the necessary starting point of the Filipino’s quest to live in freedom.  This is correct only insofar as agriculture remains the basic source of livelihood of the masses of our people. But changes in our social landscape in the last two decades have created a reality we cannot ignore – namely, that less and less Filipinos continue to regard agriculture as a sustainable way of life. A confluence of factors has led to this, not the least of which is the willful sabotage of the spirit of all past agrarian reform programs.

All over the country, small farmers are selling or pawning what little land they have, bending whatever legal restrictions may stand in their way, in order to raise money needed to feed their families, fund the education of their children, or pay for the enlistment of a member of the family for work abroad.  Living off the land has become an anachronism. Farming is no longer a way of creating wealth by combining one’s labor with nature’s gifts.  It has become, instead, no more than an act of conversion – one borrows money to buy expensive commercial seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and other inputs in order to make the land productive, and then sells the harvest in order to recover the cash needed to repay the debt.  Too often, the farmer ends up with less money than before, as he soon finds that his produce cannot compete with lower-priced imports.

This is the fate that awaits every land reform beneficiary unless the government intervenes.  For land reform is not just land distribution. It is a promise to free the tiller from economic dependence and debt by providing him and his family the assistance they need to make the land viable as a source of livelihood.  The government cannot leave them alone after awarding them the titles to the land.  To do so is virtually to force them to sell back the land.

Clearly, a commitment to agrarian reform cannot be separated from a commitment to agricultural development.  While it is conceivable to pursue agricultural modernization without land reform, land reform itself is pointless as a strategy of social justice without a clear vision for agricultural development.  Over the years, the Philippine government has made it difficult for small farmers to survive because of its neglect of agriculture.  It can be argued that perhaps more than the loopholes inserted by our legislators in the agrarian reform law, it is the degradation of the role of agriculture in the national economy that has killed the Filipino farmer.

Instead of building agriculture as a stepping stone to industrial development, successive administrations ensured its collapse by opening the country’s floodgates to agricultural imports. In an earlier time, this, coupled with the decline in budget support for agriculture, would have sparked a conflagration in the countryside.  But the opening of labor markets abroad in the mid-seventies provided an escape valve for the pressure that was building up in the rural areas.

Overseas contract work became a new factor in the social equation. One of its consequences was precisely to erase the urgency of agrarian reform.

Money from overseas work has brought every corner of our society into the circuit of the market economy.  This development transforms land into a mere commodity, to be bought and sold according to the rules of the market.  It releases land ownership from the social and cultural meanings in which it is embedded.  The culmination of this trend is the total subjection of land to the rules of the open market.  It is thus not a mere coincidence that even as Congress is administering the burial rites for a failed land reform program, it is also preparing to remove, by constitutional revision, the last stumbling block to the full commodification of land – the constitutional restriction on land ownership by foreigners.

We are obviously in the throes of a difficult and painful transition. What has happened to land is also happening to labor.  If profit from land ownership is now fully divorced from its obligations to the community and society, so also is the employment of labor now separated from the life and growth of the family, and indeed, of the nation, from which it is sprung.  That is why the cost to the Filipino nation of the billion dollars per month in remittances entering the economy has been the destruction of family life and the subjection of many Filipino migrant workers to regimes of virtual slavery abroad.

But, what can we do?  As Karl Polanyi, who documented the great transformation of European society under the impact of an overarching market economy, said, “…great as the pending changes are, the restoration of the past is as impossible as the transference of our troubles to another planet.”  Our problems are indeed more complex today, but they are not beyond solution.  The pursuit of social justice has to go beyond the transfer of land to the landless.  It has to encompass all aspects of the social protection of the poor, the underprivileged, and, especially, of the young in our society.  This brings us back to the fundamental function of states in the modern world – to protect society against the excesses of unbridled markets.

May the spirit of Christmas inspire us in our quest for a just and free society!

Comments to <>