From price caps to food stamps, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. continues to forward populist policies that only recognize the surface level of deeply rooted peasant issues in the country.
This tendency extends toward his attempts at agrarian reform. On July 7, Marcos Jr. signed the New Agrarian Emancipation Act (NAEA) which aims to free around 610,054 farmers from P57.55 billion in unpaid amortizations from lands awarded to them.
However, the NAEA falls short of addressing the persistent flaws of the existing agrarian reform program. This superficial policy, among many others, exhibits Marcos Jr.’s preference for popular solutions over genuine reform.
While the bill addresses the burden of debt that thousands of agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARB) are subjected to, it fails to address the root cause of their struggles and offers no clear step for farmers after being relieved from their loans.
The problem runs parallel to the current government redistribution program, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), aimed at providing farmers with equitable land ownership. Under the policy, ARBs still need to comply with 30 annual payments at 6 percent interest per year for awarded lands.
Years into its implementation, the reform has only created an emerging class of landed but poor ARBs where 54 percent of peasant households are placed below the poverty line, according to economist Raul Fabella. This, combined with the country’s importation dependency and rising fertilizer costs, means farmers face severe productivity issues that hinder their capacity to compete in the market.
“Kung walang probisyon na nag-oobliga sa mga ARBs na magbayad ng amortisasyon sa lupa plus interest, walang maiipong utang at walang buburahin,” said Rafael Mariano, former chairperson of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.
With farmers experiencing afflictions on multiple fronts, freedom from debt is not enough. Mariano stressed the importance of reforms that have the central principle of free redistribution and protection of farmers' rights. However, the NAEA still exposes farmers with lands to the same systemic dangers of the pro-market CARP, providing only a minor band-aid to the many obstacles the current agrarian program has created.
Appeasement Over Reform
As the self-appointed head of the Department of Agriculture, Marcos Jr. has so far only pursued band-aid solutions in addressing the decades-long and systemic woes of farmers. Many of his campaign promises for the country’s agricultural and agrarian problems have gone unfulfilled, replaced with shallow policies that save face to maintain public trust.
High food prices have been consistent under Marcos Jr.’s leadership, reaching as high as P65 per kilogram for certain types of rice a far cry from his targeted P20 per kilogram of rice campaign pledge. Establishing food sovereignty through an all-encompassing food production program and secure agricultural sector is also one of his aspirations, but the vision remains unfulfilled.
These failed promises along with worsening inflation manifested a double-digit drop in approval ratings from 80 percent in June to 65 percent in October. In this time of crisis, Marcos Jr. saw fit to employ populist band-aid policies and feign control to retrieve public favor.
Once rice prices doubled in August, the president set a price cap the following month despite objections from economists that it would negatively affect rice producers, all the while opting to exacerbate import dependency to resolve agricultural supply issues and approve a food stamp program instead of strengthening local agriculture.
Marcos Jr. lifted the price caps this October in anticipation of the harvest season, but the policy itself did not yield any concrete change. These are unsustainable, quick-fix solutions aimed at increasing short-term approval, much like the NAEA.
“Mahalaga na ‘wag magkakaroon ng ilusyon ang uring magsasaka na mabuti naman at binura ni BBM ang utang,” Mariano says. For true peasant emancipation, laws like NAEA are no substitute for genuine agrarian reform.
Nevertheless, Marcos Jr. recognizes that eroding trust can give rise to severe backlash, especially in a nation afflicted by severe economic instability. Under an administration that puts approval ratings at the forefront of their priorities, genuine peasant emancipation will remain unfulfilled.
Mariano believes that what farmers need is a redistributive and free land distribution program built on a developed industry that supports local agriculture rather than a law that offers superficial emancipation.
Over a year into Marcos Jr.’s leadership, farmers still lack significant support services while import dependency replaces promises of food self-sufficiency and security–both of which the administration had vowed to achieve.
Desperately needed policies like the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill and Rice Industry Development Act have been snubbed by lawmakers despite answering the demand for social justice and a reinvigorated national economy, while bills like the National Land Use Act are prioritized despite issues of unsustainable land use that runs opposite to its proposed objective.
For Mariano, these policies emphasize the president’s priority of bettering his public image and the class he chiefly represents–landowners. Under an anti-peasant agrarian program and administration, it is through the collective action of farmers that genuine reform can begin.
“Lalong lalakas ang pangangailangan na magpatupad ng bagong batas sa reporma sa lupa na ang sentral na layunin ay hustisyang panlipunan,” Mariano says.
Solutions must go beyond band-aid policies of short-sighted politicians. Overhauling CARP in favor of genuine redistributive agrarian reform and national industrialization will provide farmers with true emancipation from the chains of poverty and landlessness. ●
First published in the October 20, 2023 print edition of the Collegian.
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