Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Addressing personally for the first time concerns of peasants and prelates, Philippine President Benigno Aquino yesterday vowed to fully implement his mother's 24-year-old agrarian reform programme and allocate the necessary funds for the effort before its expiration in two years.
Briefing reporters after the two-hour meeting in the Philippine Palace with representatives of the farmers and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda also said the President directed the military and police to ensure "the peaceful and orderly installation of farmer-beneficiaries of all lands under the programme."
The meeting was hastily called just after noon on a day some 300 farmers were to begin a hunger strike to press Aquino to make a firm commitment he would implement Carper within its mandated term, an issue he had ignored even in his State of the Nation Addresses.
Leaders of Task Force Mapalad (TFM), a civil society organisation helping the farmers, said the hunger strike had been called off temporarily until the farmers were satisfied that Malaca?ang would carry through its promises.
Christian Monsod, TFM counsel, said the farmers were "very happy" with the president.
"He opened the doors. He said he can meet them when they need him," said Monsod, who participated in the meeting marking the first time Aquino, himself a wealthy landowner, addressed the issue he had previously left to his aides to deal with.
"That's sending a message that the president is hands-on and that the Philippine Palace is on top of hastening the implementation of land acquisition and distribution," said Butch Olano, a TFM board member.
Carper beyond 2014
Lacierda said that the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Department of the Interior and Local Government and the Philippine National Police would be mobilised for the distribution of nearly 1 million hectares of land, comprising some of the country's prime agricultural estates, yet to be covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP).
CARP was launched by the late President Corazon Aquino in 1988 as the centerpiece of her social justice promise to ease widespread poverty and remove one of the major causes of a simmering communist insurgency. It was extended for another five years in 2009 with a total allocation of 150 billion pesos (US$3.564 billion) and is now called CARP extension with reforms, or Carper. It expires on June 30, 2014.
"Between now and June 2014 all agricultural land shall be covered and distributed to qualified beneficiaries. Priority shall be given to landholdings 25 hectares and above and notices of coverage shall be issued on or before December 2012," Lacierda said.
He said notices of coverage for lands 10 ha and above should be issued on or before December 2012. He said that for land holdings under 10 ha, notices of coverage would be issued not later than July 2013.
Asked whether the President mentioned what would happen if the government failed to meet its target, Lacierda said, "Our commitment is to put all the agricultural lands under notices of coverage that will ensure the implementation of the Carper beyond 2014."
Some 300 farmers had staged a 10-day march from their farms in Negros Occidental, Davao and Bukidnon provinces to dramatise their concerns that the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) under Aquino was "consistently underperforming," an apprehension contained in a letter prepared by the Catholic Church and sent to Aquino on June 1. The letter was endorsed by 52 of the 100 members of the CBCP.
Olano said that Aquino basically agreed to implement commitments made by Cabinet officials in a meeting at the Palace on June 8 when the farmers marched on Malaca?ang at the end of their long march while Aquino was in London.
Lacierda said among those in the meeting were Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes, Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala and Secretary Julia Abad of the Presidential Management Staff.
The farmers were represented by Monsod, former Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr., TFM national coordinator Armando Jarilla, TFM president Alberto Jaime, and TFM spokesperson Edna Sobrecaray.
The members of the Catholic Church present were Ipil Bishop Antonio Ledesma of the CBCP, Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines executive director Fr. Marlon Lacal and Fr. Anton Pascual of Caritas Manila.
Lacierda indicated that the government would start allocating the budget required under the law for the programme.
"So every year, you have 30 billion pesos ($708 million). We expect, because of the agreements today, that we will be able to use up the 30 billion pesos in the year as it is mandated," Lacierda said.
The Aquino administration had set aside 16.37 billion pesos ($386 million) for agrarian reform in the 1.6-trillion pesos ($37 billion) national budget for 2011 and 17.9 billion pesos ($422 million) in the 1.8-trillion pesos ($42 million) national budget for 2012. In the last budget under the Arroyo administration, Congress gave the DAR 20.77 billion pesos ($490 million).
"The farmers spoke of some bureaucratic red tape and the President committed to ensure that we're expediting the entire process of land distribution," Lacierda said.
"That's the reason why we are setting up, number one, on the side of both farmer representatives, Church, and the government this multistakeholder mechanism to make sure to follow up the procedure and the cases of each claim folder," he said.
Lacierda said both sides agreed to the mechanism to be composed of representatives from the DAR and other CARP-implementing agencies of the government, Church, NGOs, peoples' organisations, and other farmer groups and federations.
Doing away with red tape
"So we are doing away with a lot of the red tape. We're doing away with a lot of the hindrances in the expectation that we will be able to cover all agricultural lands as we've stated in this agreement," Lacierda said.
The panel will be immediately established to monitor the implementation of CARP, especially on coverage and distribution of agricultural lands, movement and performance of DAR personnel, delivery of support services to the beneficiaries, and budget allocation and utilisation.
"There will be a fast-tracking of the resolution of pending cases on stock distribution options and lease back arrangements before the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council, or PARC," Lacierda said.
On the difficulties to implement land reform in privately owned lands, Lacierda said, "[That's] the reason why it is a multidisciplinary approach."
"That's why the DILG is there, the DAR, the DA (Department of Agriculture), the DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) are all going to be involved. We're making sure that the processes within the DAR will be expedited," Lacierda said.
Lacierda said that judicial adjudication in the implementation of the Carper law was "beyond our sphere of influence."
"But, insofar as the executive branch is concerned, we are committed to putting all agricultural lands based on the timeline that we've provided with a notice of coverage," Lacierda said.
"With respect to support services, as mandated by Section 37 of Republic Act No. 9700 on support services, the provision on initial capitalisation for new agrarian reform beneficiaries and socialised credit for existing agrarian reform beneficiaries shall be implemented," Lacierda said.
"To this end, the DBM (Department of Budget and Management) has committed the immediate release of 1 billion pesos ($23 million) to be allocated for support services," he added.
Lacierda said Land Bank of the Philippines would review its policies, rules and regulations on providing credit to farmers to make it more accessible to agrarian reform beneficiaries.
"In addition, the DAR and the Department of Agriculture with assistance from DBM will develop a socialised credit programme solely for ARBs, or agrarian reform beneficiaries, that is mutually acceptable to both parties," Lacierda said.
"Socialised credit programmes shall enable the farmers to maximise the productivity of their land and utilise the resources available to them," he said.
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