Land reform program is ridden with loopholes

Last of two parts

BGY. TINANG, CONCEPCION, Tarlac – Farmer Loreto Rivera has been tilling the soil here for the past 30 years, and it shows on every inch of his thin, bent, and sunburnt body. Now 63 years old, he knows almost every family in this barangay of 2,000 people.

But he cannot name a single farmer or farm worker who was given land from the 212-hectare de Leon estate here, one of the biggest haciendas in Tarlac. Officials of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), however, say the land had already been placed under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

Na-CARP daw pero ni isang tao walang nabigyan (The land was placed under CARP but not one person benefitted),” Rivera wonders aloud.

The DAR officials, however, were right: the land had been sold to 77 “farmer-beneficiaries.” But these beneficiaries were not farmers. They were the children and grandchildren of the wealthy de Leon landowners. As a result, the hacienda remains in the de Leon clan, the documents attesting to its members’ being “farmer-beneficiaries” drawn up, received, and endorsed by the very bureaucracy in charge of implementing the land reform program.

The Tinang estate is an example of the many problems that impede the implementation of a genuine land distribution program in the country. Landlords evading CARP are just one of them. Another is the agrarian reform bureaucracy that seems to be more concerned with “fast-tracking” land distribution than in checking who actually gets the land. In many places, DAR bureaucrats are also beholden to landowners.

Meanwhile, the landless peasants for whom the program was intended in the first place get a raw deal. Most of them are unschooled and unaware of their rights under CARP.

Nahihirapan ang mga magsasaka na tumuklas kung ano ang karapatan namin (Farmers like myself are hard-pressed figuring out what our rights are),” says Rivera, who used to head the local farmers’ cooperative here. “Wala kaming alam sa CARP, wala kaming nalalaman sa batas (We know nothing about CARP, we know nothing about the law).”

Most farmers here did not reach high school and are clueless about the CARP provisions and processes. No one, in fact, had bothered to inquire about the de Leon estate. The farmers learned about it only by accident-a local resident went to the Tarlac Register of Deeds asking for a cadastral survey of the land but was instead given the Transfer Certificate of Title that showed 77 farmer-beneficiaries with surnames like Escaler, Jalandoni, Rufino, and Lopa.

The land, as far as residents know, is managed by Luis Jalandoni, a grandson of Jose Joven de Leon who owns vast tracts of land in Central Luzon. Jalandoni is also the president of Daniel Agricultural Corporation (DAC), which local people know as the employer of farmworkers here in Tinang, and in another sugar estate in Barrio Plastado, Gerona, Tarlac.

Jalandoni, local residents say, was once married to Georgia Osmeña of the influential Cebu clan. Their children’s names also appear as “farmer-beneficiaries” of the de Leon sugar land here. Several attempts to reach Jalandoni at his office in the de Leon-owned Regina Building on Escolta, Manila failed. A written request for an interview went unanswered; when the PCIJ called up his office, it was told he was “on vacation.”

“There is so much corruption in land reform… it’s a real joke,” says Michael Escaler, a sugar miller and trader whose name, ironically, appears as one of the 77 farmer-beneficiaries to the de Leon estate. Escaler says he is talking from his own experience as landowner dealing with the DAR. “Somebody in the DAR is making a lot of money and I don’t know that anybody else is really benefiting now.”

Escaler, a cousin of Jalandoni and son of one of the landowners, shares farmers’ criticisms of land reform, but from the point of view of landowners and businessmen. “I think land reform made us a poor country rather than a rich country,” he says. Like other landowners, he favors big corporations retaining control over the land or buying it back from farmers who do not have the means to make the land productive.

To Escaler, questionable practices on how the land is distributed, such as the irregularities in Tinang, are just minor problems. “The big problem,” he says, “is how to feed the people cheap; that is, we have to be efficient. We have to provide jobs so we keep our agriculture alive. Land reform isn’t doing that.”

Indeed, being a farm worker or tenant in Tinang, employed by the de Leon descendants, doesn’t bring much relief either. A farm worker employed by the Daniel Agricultural Corporation is paid only P140 daily, which is way below what a family of four or five needs to subsist on.

Schooling costs can barely be squeezed into family budgets; an illness could force a family into debt. In fact, most people here, says barangay councilwoman Edita Mariano, are locked in an unending cycle of debt. Even those like farmer Rivera who were given rice land under the old land reform program of Ferdinand Marcos are forced to use their land as collateral to enable them to borrow. Many eventually end up losing their land to usurers.

Karamihan sa mga magsasaka below poverty line,” laments Rivera, who plants sugar on his land that is less than a hectare in size.

Even farmers who have been given land under CARP often realize that they do not necessarily run out of worries. Although CARP makes available seeds and fertilizers to farmers, there is no income with which to feed their families until the next harvest season. In between harvests, the farmers again fall into debt. Remarks Rivera: “Ang CARP sasabihing programa ng gobyerno. Pero kailanman hindi nila hahayaan umangat ang maliliit. Kung umangat ng konti, pababagsakin. (CARP may be a government program but they will never let the poor progress. If the poor are able to rise even just a little, they are swiftly dragged down.) “

Farmers have also become wary of DAR. Around 1995, say Rivera and Mariano, a team of DAR employees came to Tinang asking local farmers and farm workers to sign up as potential CARP beneficiaries to the de Leon sugar estate. But nothing became of that, although 10 years later, they would be told the land had already been given away.

In 1995, the de Leons submitted their estate to the CARP program. As then Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer for Tarlac Teofilo Inocencio recalls, the department was concentrated on rushing program implementation, targeting as many as 8,000 to 10,000 hectares of Tarlac land each year for coverage, the better to beef up annual achievements. Unfortunately, “mukhang nasingitan kami (one case got away),” admits Inocencio who as PARO gave final approval to the de Leon land transfer.

Inocencio argues that his job as PARO was ministerial-he did not look into the details of voluminous Voluntary Land Transfer (VLT) cases and only signed a worksheet or summary attached to the file. “It’s a revolutionary program,” he says. “We’re doing it in a democratic way. It’s moving, pero alam mo naman may mga butas din ang batas eh (you know our laws are flawed).”

One of the law’s loopholes was apparently the VLT scheme-or more precisely, the people who were supposed to monitor it. A VLT is intended to be an amicable arrangement where landowners can sell their land directly to landless farmers without the need for government funding and intervention.

At that time, the VLT entailed minimal involvement from DAR, and was settled only among the landowners and farmers, the barangay captain who acts as agrarian reform representative, and the municipal agrarian reform officer. Final approval of any VLT rested with the PARO. DAR has since revised this policy, giving final approval to the regional director as a means of instituting a check-and-balance mechanism, says Inocencio.

Crucial to this system is the barangay captain, whose job as representative of the Barangay Agrarian Reform Council (BARC) is to ensure that it is legitimate farmer-beneficiaries who get the land; he is supposed to screen them and verify that they meet the criteria for beneficiaries. In the de Leon case, barangay captain Vernon Villanueva happened to be the son of Jose ‘Pepe’ Villanueva, the overseer of the de Leon estate until last year.

Vernon, who also chairs the Association of Barangay Captains (ABC) in Concepcion town, has since taken over his father’s job as katiwala of the de Leon land. Vernon’s brother Jojo heads the farmers’ cooperative in the neighboring hacienda once owned by the Dominican Province of the Philippines and recently placed under CARP. In the last election, another Villanueva brother, Noel, ran for mayor of Concepcion and won.

Vernon Villanueva’s signature appears as the BARC representative certifying to the authenticity of farmer-beneficiaries. Also appearing on the documents is the endorsement of Virgilio Antonio, then the municipal agrarian reform officer.

Documents on file at the Tarlac Register of Deeds show that the de Leon estate’s 77 farmer-beneficiaries had been given certificates of full payment and their Certificates of Land Ownership Award or CLOAs as far back as 1996, or less than a year after their VLT applications were approved. Current DAR insiders say this alone should have puzzled the CARP implementors in Tarlac in 1995. Genuine farmer-beneficiaries usually take years to pay, if they manage to do so at all.

The Transfer Certificate of Title (TCT), as well as documents submitted by the barangay captain to the municipal and provincial agrarian reform offices, reveal that the 77 farmer-beneficiaries “bought” the land at the price of P150,000 per hectare. The de Leon VLT folders at the Municipal DAR office in Concepcion show that each of the 77 De Leon “farmer-beneficiaries” individually filled out beneficiary information sheets, certificates of full payment, and deeds of voluntary transfer. They identified themselves either as farmers or farmer-businessmen, residents of Tinang, owning no other landholding anywhere else in the country.

Inocencio, who is now assistant regional director for operations for Central Luzon, said DAR Region 3 is considering forming a task force to look into what can be done to correct the situation at the de Leon estate. But DAR might not be able to undo what it did there.

One option, says Inocencio, is to disqualify the “farmer-beneficiaries” and revoke CARP in the de Leon estate. But previous experience brings little hope. Inocencio himself talks of a CARP case in Nueva Ecija that the DAR sought to cancel before the courts. The case was dismissed and the cancellation turned down. “Kasi nga raw, ” says Inocencio, “DAR ang nagbigay, siya pa nagpapa-cancel (DAR was the one who gave it, and now it was the one having it cancelled). “

In the meantime, Loreto Rivera continues to till the soil. His children, now all grown, do not seem interested to follow his footsteps. One is a tricycle driver, another does odd jobs here and there, while a third has somehow managed to go to college and is studying economics.

Someday, with or without government help, the family’s fortunes may change for the better, although Loreto Rivera is already resigned to his fate. “Kaming mga mahihirap pasensiya na lang tutal kami kaya naming magtiis (Too bad for the poor like us, but we can take it),” he says. “Ang mayayaman hindi (The rich can’t).”

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