Why the Philippines’ feudal agricultural system is here to stay

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Critics believe the Philippines’ feudal agricultural system is responsible for growing inequality. Do they have a point?

By John Pennington

In 2017, 61 people died in 11 months in the Philippines due to land conflict-related disputes. During this period, there were more dispute victims (1,977) than anywhere else in the world.

The authors of the report claimed that most of the victims were, “fighting for genuine land reform and resisting the loss of ownership and control over their land and resources.” Previous governments failed to change the country’s feudal agricultural system. The current regime took a hard-line approach to dissent. This approach led to an increase in killings from February onwards.

The situation may get worse before it improves. “One month before the end of 2017, the Philippines sees no end in the current administration’s spate of killings,” reported advocates from PAN Asia Pacific (PANAP).

President Rodrigo Duterte ended talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). He was also in discussions with the CPP’s militant wing – the New People’s Army (NPA) – and the CPP’s negotiating wing – the National Democratic Front (NDF). He went on to declare that the CPP and the NPA were terrorist organisations.

“In fact, human rights and peasant organisations fear for the worst as President Rodrigo Duterte terminated the peace talks and declared a crackdown on organisations defending human and land rights,” the PANAP advocates continued.

Feudalism is a controversial issue in the Philippines

Activists believe feudalism and imperialism keep many Filipinos poor. Their poverty contrasts with abundant natural resources.

In the Philippines, many farmers do not own the land they work. Instead, landlords own the land, and the farmers work for them. This hacienda culture is one that the Philippines inherited from the Spanish. Despite attempts to reform the system, poverty in the Philippines is rife.

Source: The Straits Times

Farmers and rights activists fought for the land they believe is theirs. They occupied and seized the property of leading Filipino families.

Duterte’s response put activists and farmers at risk

Activists warned that Duterte’s actions against political organisations would threaten legitimate organisations. Unfortunately, they were right.

The rights groups who are protesting do not necessarily have links with the CPP or NPA. However, the military seems ignorant of that fact. The army killed several farmers and activists after the peace process broke down. The military accused the Compostela Farmers Association of being a Communist front.

Now, the protesters view Duterte as a fascist. They feel he is setting the agrarian reform process back by decades. They criticised his links with the US and a recent meeting with Donald Trump.

“Duterte believes US backing for his regime will keep him in power amid rising unrest over his anti-people and terroristic rule, but he is dead wrong,” warned Vencer Crisostomo, chairperson of activist group Anakbayan.

The latest push for agrarian reform has fallen by the wayside

Duterte claimed that violent acts by the communists forced his hand. Doubts surrounded Duterte’s commitment to finding a peaceful settlement. He described the attempt as a “waste of money”.

During the talks, he warned the NPA that the government would, “pursue them to the ends of the world.”

Some claim that Duterte sabotaged the talks. Jose Maria Sison, NDF’s chief political consultant, alleged Duterte began “to rant every day against the CPP, [New People’s Army] and the NDFP in connection with recent incidents in the armed conflict.”

The parties had reportedly produced draft agreements. They discussed an amnesty. They talked about the release of political prisoners, agrarian reform and national industrialisation. The impact of Duterte’s decision is clear. He remains at war with the communist rebels.

If a government implements agrarian reform and industrialisation well, it could benefit millions. Duterte has delayed those changes.

Several governments have attempted agrarian reforms

It is a repeating cycle. Attempts to end the feudal agricultural system are not new. Previous governments tried to put changes in place, but they proved ineffective. The 1933 Rice-Share Tenant Act was severely flawed. The Comprehensive Agricultural Reform Program (CARP) launched in 1988 failed. Administrators distributed only 22.5% of the land during the Aquino administration.

Landowners used loopholes to drive farmers from their land. They were able to keep property instead of redistributing it. Nineteen agencies work on land administration and management. Institutions, laws and mandates overlap. It is a convoluted system. There are delays, high costs and corruption.

Analysts held mixed views about the success of CARP, and its successor, CARPer. The government must carry out agrarian reform to reduce poverty among its people. By that measure, every single attempt has failed.

A form of feudalism exists throughout Filipino society

Under the system of feudalism, a dominant ruler receives favours as payment or reward. In the agricultural system, the favour is work. In politics, the favour may be a pardon or a release from prison. In that sense, the feudal agricultural system mirrors Filipino politics.

Powerful families have dominated Filipino politics since independence from the US in 1946. This form of feudalism became part of the social structure.

As 86.6% of the country’s population has less than P506,000 (US$10,000) to their name, the rich are reluctant to let go of their land. By comparison, just 0.1% of the population have more than P50.6 million (US$1 million). The remaining 13.3% have between P506,000 (US$10,000) and P50.6 million (US$1 million).

The wealthy enrich themselves at the expense of the poor. Financial inequality is growing. The Philippines’ Gini rating – a measure of inequality – is at 83.9%, up from 83.4% last year.

There is, however, some hope for farmers and activists

The government does not seem ready to reduce its efforts against communist organisations. Other activists including farmers remain at risk.

It could be some time before Duterte sits down with the communist rebels. He may prefer to eliminate them. He does not care about accusations that he is a fascist.

Although Duterte cancelled the talks, his Presidential Peace Advisor Jesus Deruza remained optimistic. “Despite this setback (hopefully only temporary), we remain steadfast and undeterred in our unrelenting journey for sustainable and just peace,” he said.

Those pushing for agrarian reform must trust in Deruza’s statement rather than Duterte’s. As his staff have admitted, he does have a habit of “doing something and taking it back.”

Shifting the national psyche to accept an alternative to feudalism could take generations. It will need sympathetic leadership. It will require a government willing to put its country’s prosperity ahead of its own. That is a far cry from the current situation. For now, feudalism is here to stay.