The perennial land problem in the Philippines is one characterized by the centuries-old issue of dispossession, bleeding into the other longstanding crises of poverty and food insecurity. Professing to address these dilemmas, the National Land Use Act (NLUA), deemed one of the priority bills by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., aims to forward a “rational, optimal and sustainable settlements development, consistent with the principles of environmental management and equitable access to land and security.”
As one of Marcos Jr.’s legislative agenda, NLUA’s rationale hinges on spurring housing development while supposedly maintaining farmers’ land ownership. Proponents of this bill also highlighted the crucial role that NLUA will play in providing food security for the country. The bill was approved in Congress on May 5.
Yet with the classification system entrenched in the bill and previous maneuvers by lawmakers, progressive peasant group Kilusang Magubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) argues that this is just another ploy by the government to plunge their sector into further decline. It is a tool for exacerbating the disenfranchisement and landlessness of peasants, consequently hampering our country’s realization of food security, which the policy purports to achieve.
The peasantry is no stranger to the deceptive disguises in which land-related policies are veiled. Although NLUA explicitly states its “protection of prime agricultural lands for food security," section 4 stipulates that the agricultural land being referred to only includes those classified as such by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and excludes lands classified under residential, commercial, or industrial use. Such exemption is reminiscent of landowners’ persistent tactic to circumvent the law in their pursuit of keeping their property.
“Ginagamit ang mismong land classification na gobyerno rin ang nagse-set para ma-exempt o maialis sa klasipikasyong agrikultural ang mga lupain,” explained Maureen Hermitanio, Deputy Secretary General of KMP. To evade distributing lands to farmers under CARP, landowners opt to convert agricultural lands to other uses.
Starting in 1988, upon the implementation of CARP, to 2016, around 97,592.5 hectares of agricultural land underwent land-use conversion from agricultural to non-agricultural use, as data by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) show. The National Irrigation Administration paints a more grim picture: 165,000 hectares of irrigated prime agricultural lands are converted yearly. The disparity in data, according to economic think tank IBON Foundation, evinces the growing number of illegal conversions over the years.
By simply reclassifying, lands are recouped by landowners who claim ownership over large tracts of land and are shifted into other business ventures. This is why KMP fears that farmers will be dispossessed as commercial establishments will be erected on agricultural lands and be considered part of the production land use stated in the 17th section of NLUA. Under production land use are those with “direct and indirect utilization of land resources for crop, fishery, livestock and poultry production, forestry, agroforestry, mining, industry, energy development, indigenous energy exploration and development, and tourism.”
Even other provisions in the bill supposedly crafted to protect agricultural lands, like the section 52 pertaining to land-use conversion, do not provide anything new from existing measures that have been insufficient in deterring conversions.
The House of Representatives disapproved a proposed amendment regarding the protection of all agricultural lands, including those used for food production, from being converted at all costs. According to Hermitanio, the Marcos administration is also mum about KMP’s demand to halt land-use conversion, especially those used for the production of rice and corn among many others.
Sans any security and ownership over the lands that peasants till, the promise of food security is only bound to remain unfulfilled.
A 2021 study based in Butuan found that the city’s conversion of some agricultural lands to other uses negatively impacted their food production and security, leading to a supply deficit in rice production from 2014 to 2016. Dependence on importation has also persisted as IBON Foundation noted that “the country’s chronic agricultural trade deficit has worsened,” with the deficit in 2022 being the largest in 28 years.
Championing food security and a sustainable land use policy, then, relies heavily on a successful agrarian reform program. Agriculture’s ability to reduce poverty is contingent on having access to resources, particularly land, a 2010 study in The World Bank Observer showed. As such, KMP renews its call for the passage of the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill (GARB). Unlike CARP, the group’s alternative will include all agricultural lands which will be distributed freely within five years.
“To our belief, ito (GARB) na ang pinaka-pro people, pro-farmer, at pro-Filipino na land use plan,” said Hermitanio.
The enduring land problem NLUA inevitably sustains would cause the peasantry to careen to worsened poverty and dispossession while the country languishes in insufficiency. Only by being granted absolute ownership of the land that the peasants till will they be able to finally steer the country’s use of productive land toward the end of food security. ●
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