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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


The battle over a Mindanao estate
reveals how rich landowners are making a mockery
of Manila's 10-year-old agrarian reform program

By Susan Berfield

Map Feudal Legacy

Karina Morales was on the way to celebrate her father's 55th birthday on Sept. 14 when four armed men abducted her from the parking lot of Robinson's Galleria in Metro Manila. She was blindfolded, gagged with chloroform, driven around the city and released unharmed after two hours. This was no ordinary Philippine abduction. Seventeen-year-old Karina's father is Horacio "Boy" Morales, the man named recently by President Joseph Ejercito Estrada to complete the nation's slow-moving agrarian reform program in four years. Karina returned home with a warning: If Morales continues to give valuable land to poor farmers, his family will pay the price.

Morales, once a communist organizer and still suspect in some landowners' eyes, was equally blunt in his reply. He said: "Even killing me won't stop reform." Nonetheless, the incident showed once again how far some in the Philippine elite are willing to go to maintain the cherished status quo - a feudal society that puts power in the hands of the fortunate few and poverty in the hands of the unfortunate many. The land-reform program initiated by Corazon Aquino, tolerated by Fidel Ramos and supposedly supported by Estrada seeks to break the aristocracy's grip on real estate and give farmers a stake in their own destiny. The great land transfer was to have been completed this year. But there was trouble from the start. When Aquino (a member of the land-owning Cojuangco family) forced Congress to draft the legislation, a group of landowners and lawmakers signed a declaration in blood vowing to defend their property. Social justice maybe, but not in their backyards.

The law that finally emerged guaranteed that the reform program would proceed slowly and remain inadequately funded, its resolve often challenged and its intent easily circumvented. Landowners can resist reform by going to the courts, going to their friends, hiring guards, raising cattle instead of crops or reclassifying their property as industrial rather than agricultural. The private land that has been offered for sale to the government has often been unirrigated, remote or barren. Manila has had to fight to purchase much of the valuable ground. Morales knew he was inheriting a political minefield, but he is certain that this is the only way to defeat poverty and hunger in the Philippines. Already, in some cases, the program is raising the living standards of farmers. "If reform fails," says Morales, "revolution is the only other way." This is not a threat, just a reminder. Land reform was essential to the development of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It occurred under authoritarian (and military) governments, however. The Philippines is trying to take from the rich and give to the poor - and do so by consensus.

The program began with defeat. Despite Aquino's vows that her clan's 6,000-hectare sugar estate in central Luzon would be part of the New Philippines, it remains in the Old World. Today Hacienda Luisita is the second-largest intact family property in the country. To listen to the owners, it is an immense burden.

"The people and their problems will always be with us," says Don Pedro, the family patriarch, as we sit on the verandah of the hacienda clubhouse. The Cojuangcos say they couldn't just break up the property and walk away. So they gave the farmers stock in the hacienda instead. The family speaks about its responsibilities to the farmers, the requests for money or more work, the cost of the free medical care the hacienda provides, the training they offer, the factory jobs they are trying to create in a new industrial estate. At Hacienda Luisita and other landholdings large and small, paternalism is a matter of pride.

Overturning the feudal attitude is one problem. There are others. The people implementing the reform program sometimes yield to pressure from local politicians or worry more about their own tenure than land tenure. Farmers don't always have the experience, training or money to work the soil efficiently; the agrarian reform department (known as DAR) has been slow to realize this. Landowners complain they are not fairly compensated.

The government says 57% of the designated 8.1 million hectares, or 4.6 million, have been redistributed; a private group claims 35%, or 2.8 million. The very first beneficiaries say they are being cheated by the company that leased back their land.

Indeed, 10 years into the program, dozens of land wars are being waged throughout the country. Perhaps the most protracted is in the southern province of Mindanao, where 137 families are fighting to receive 100 hectares of promised land. The Mapalad farmers (as they are known) are up against just about everybody: the owner of the estate, the courts, the six-term provincial governor of Bukidnon, the town mayor, even the barangay captain. They all believe a family corporation (the Norberto Quisumbing Sr. Management and Development Corp.) should be allowed to keep and develop the prime agricultural land. "The farmers are not our enemies," says Solomon Dalid, spokesman for the Quisumbing Corp. "We just have a different concept of development."

The battle is a study of privilege and vulnerability and of resistance on both sides. The case has been to the president's office (twice), to a bench of the Supreme Court once already and is now on appeal. If the farmers lose, other owners will be tempted to convert their land to avoid losing it. As if they need any more encouragement. The program will be undermined at a time when Estrada has vowed to pay more attention to agriculture. Morales, in his understated way, says losing would be a "setback" but that his department "has a lot of options either way." The Mapalad farmers aren't so sure. They await the court's final decision.

Part 1: Promised Land | Part 2: The Governor's Way | Part 3: A War of Attrition

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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