The Development of Post-War Philippine Land Reform: Political and Sociological Explanations

By David Wurfel. In Second View from the Paddy, Antonio Ledesma, Perla Q. Makil & Virginia A. Miralao, eds., Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila, 1983


The history of Philippine agrarian policy since independence is a sadly monotonous one for the scholar, a bitterly disappointing one for the hopeful tenant cultivator. It is a story of repeated initiative from the center of government that did not result in anywhere near the announced change in the countryside. Explanations for this series of ineffectual reforms have varied from insincerity and corruption to lack of peasant interest in getting ownership of the land. The most convincing analysis, however, seems to relate to the political and economic interests of the top decision makers, those initiating policy and supervising its implementations, and to the socioeconomic characteristics of the agrarian systems being reformed. The cumulative political consequences of agrarian policy also find both political and socioeconomic explanations.

Agrarian reform is a complex of policies designed to transform rural society in the direction of greater equality of wealth and power among groups and classes, and greater equality of opportunity for individuals. Where agrarian reform has followed a successful revolution it has usually involved the uncompensated redistribution of land. A much more modest attempt at transformation may be the creation of cooperatives in which small cultivators are given greater opportunities than their large competitors. But the type of reform on which we will focus here is the redistribution of tenanted land with compensation to the original owner, land for which the beneficiary of reform must repay the government. Despite all the permutations in Philippine policy over more than 30 years, these basic elements of land reform have remained constant: government purchase of tenanted land and its resale to tenants.

Philippine land reform has been further restricted over the years to grain cropsrice and corn-for domestic consumption. Export crops have consistently been exempted, the official argument being that land reform might disrupt production and thus jeopardize foreign exchange earnings. Perhaps a more important reason, however, was that large landowners in sugar, coconuts, and tobacco were politically too powerful to be touched. The scope and nature of the reforms that were implemented posed no threat to the interests of the political elite, but were, in fact, perceived as strengthening their position. The changes in the content of reform from the 1940s to the 1970s indicated the waning influence of rice and corn landlords within that elite.

Land Reform Under Roxas and Quirino (1946-1953)

Agrarian policy initiatives had for the most part begun in the 1930s under President Quezon who was sensitive to the peasant unrest in Central Luzon and wanted to appear to meet some of its demands, without too seriously discomforting his landlord friends and allies. (His national political organization depended on local leaders who were usually either landlords or their proteges.) Components of that policy included regulation of tenancy relations, organized land settlement in Mindanao for the landless of Luzon and Cebu, the long-standing anti-usury law, issuance of free patents to homesteaders on cultivable public land, and a “landed estates policy” which provided funds for the negotiated purchase of large holdings for resale to the tenants.1

Before World War II, the Rural Progress Administration (RPA) had purchased tenant homesites on four estates and the agricultural land of two more; the area of the six totaled to little more than 6,000 hectares.2 The RPA had also leased the huge 27,000 hectare Buenavista Estate with future prospect of redistribution. But disputes about tenant rights abounded and none had become amortizing owners. The American “liberation” of Manila was terribly destructive of government offices, so that landed estate records after the war were either chaotic or nonexistent.

Nevertheless, the acquisition of estates by the RPA resumed in 1947, so that by 1950 another 19 had been purchased amounting to over 10,000 hectares in addition to the vast Buenavista Estate. Over 3/4 of this area was owned by some official or agency of the Catholic Church. Most of the land acquired was in Central Luzon where the Huk rebellion made many villages unsafe for landlords or their agents; much of the area was uncultivated. Some of the estates were purchased from persons whose legal ownership was in question. Clearly the landed estates policy was not “land reform” primarily designed to transform tenants into owner-cultivators, but was a social service agency for landlords with shaky titles or poor profit ratios. Landlords who were opposed to appropriation were usually able to stop it in the courts. In fact, it was RPA policy to discourage tenant petitions for estate purchases by the impossible requirement that petitioners deposit an amount equivalent to the assessed value of the land in question on the date the petition was approved) The RPA was starved for funds, receiving no post-war appropriation; they operated largely with borrowed funds. Even when landed estates were purchased, the cultivating tenant was not likely to be the main beneficiary. Many of the estates had cash tenants who in turn sublet to cultivating sharecroppers. The tenants who were allocated lots for purchase often had farms of 10 to 50 hectares, while the average size of a cultivator’s plot was under 3 hectares.3

Many of the cultivating tenants who were fortunate enough to acquire purchase rights could not afford to keep them. Despite the explicit rules against transfer, such rights had become a saleable commodity. Poor tenants deeply in debt surrendered their rights to creditors. The same processes that resulted in concentration of land ownership in the Philippines generally operated within the government estates. Thus, large portions of the estates under RPA administration continued to be cultivated by share tenants with no prospect of becoming owners. The “landed estates policy” had simply displaced some large landlords to create many medium sized ones. And since the RPA, a government agency, became directly involved in the burgeoning disputes over land rights, that traditional source of peasant anger and frustration more quickly than before produced political unrest. Not surprisingly the Bell Mission to the Philippines appointed by President Truman in 1950 concluded that “the land problem remains the same or worse than four years ago.”

The Bell Mission Report was, in fact, expected by many to be the impetus for the next stage of land reform. It recommended that “a broad program should be inaugurated of acquiring large estates at fair value for resale in small holdings to tillers of the soil.” At the same time the report recommended expanded programs of agricultural credit, organized land settlement on virgin land, and the improved administration of land registration and homesteading on public land. Each of these other recommendations, less threatening to elite interests, was backed with some U.S. aid, but not land redistribution. The U.S. land reform advisor drew up a detailed proposal, but it was blasted by leading Filipino congressmen, and not even supported by the U.S. aid mission. In fact, in 1950 the Rural Progress Administration was abolished and its functions transferred to a newly created landed Estates Division of the Bureau of Lands. No new estates were purchased throughout the remainder of the Quirino administration, and redistribution policy on RPA-acquired estates dropped even the pretense of preference for the tiller. The simulation of land reform was suspended in the early 1950s.

This was the same period in which the Huk rebellion peaked and then was put down. The Liberal Party’s political elite under Quirino certainly did not view land reform as a cure for peasant unrest, though a number of opposition figures did make the connection. Liberals were, in fact, even less interested in land reform in 1953, when the Huks had been largely defeated, than in 1950 when the rebellion was at its height. The election of Ramon Magsaysay as president in 1953 made some difference in this regard, however.

Land Reform Under Magsaysay and Garcia (1954-61)

Magsaysay had brought his campaign directly to the peasantry in a manner unprecedented. After he was elected, several of his advisors understood the importance of taking concrete action to meet peasant complaints and thus reduce unrest. Since the “landed estates policy” remained in the Bureau of lands, the aggressive new Undersecretary of Agriculture, Jaime Ferrer, had an important role, as did some of the pro-tenant young officers in the Tenancy Division of the Judge Advocate General’s Office. In two instances, in San Luis, Pampanga and San Pedro Tunasan, Laguna, within a few months of Magsaysay’s assuming the presidency, the Executive Office took initiative directly to acquire landed estates. The landed Estates Division began a number of negotiations and expropriations, and within the estates they already administered, dramatically increased the rate of redistribution, giving clear preference for the first time to cultivating occupants of the land. All this activity clearly raised the expectation of tenants. During FY 1955 the Bureau of lands received 116 petitions for the expropriation of landed estates covering more than 113,000 hectares.4

But those expectations could not be adequately met without new legislation and new implementing agencies. The Inter-Departmental Committee on land Tenure, appointed by the President in March 1954, worked at unusual speed and produced a draft of the land reform bill by 6 May which was immediately introduced into the House of Representatives. At about the same time, however, legislation to improve landlord tenant relations was introduced and this received priority attention. No action was taken on land reform in the 1954 regular session, and it did not even appear on the agenda of the special session of that year.

In his 1955 State of the Nation message Magsaysay did reiterate his desire for new land reform legislation. But just as the President announced that he would take land reform seriously, so did its opponents. At every stage of the legislative process landlord interests attacked both directly and with subtle indirection. Magsaysay was neither so persistent nor so skillful. He never issued a public statement in favor of any portion of the bill. His only significant effort was to call a special session with the “land tenure bill” as highest priority. Nevertheless, the bill was almost scuttled at the conference committee stage. The final legislative product was so inadequate that Atty. Fernando Santiago, one of the authors of the first draft, sent a memo to the President recommending that he veto it and ask for a simple appropriation instead.5 Congressman Casas of la Union tried to amend the bill’s title at the last minute, so that it would read — ironically but accurately — “An act defining a landlord tenure policy,” Republic Act 14006, signed by the President in September, had only one improvement over preexisting legislation, a modest appropriation and authorization of a bond issue.

The power of expropriation was more restricted than it had been under Commonwealth legislation. It was limited to that portion of individual land holdings in excess of 300 contiguous hectares, and corporate holdings of more than 600, though there were no such restrictions on negotiated purchase. Petitions signed by a majority of tenants in the whole estate were required to initiate an expropriation, or negotiations.

The Land Tenure Authority (LTA) established by the Act to implement this policy, did not begin to actually function until January 1956; Magsaysay had named a defeated Congressman to head it. In large part, perhaps, because of the administrative reshuffle resulting from the closing of the Landed Estates Division in the Bureau of Lands and transfer of its personnel to LTA, the pace of activities slowed down in early 1956: only one estate with 187 tenants was purchased. Within the same 6 months petitions from tenants came in at a rate of one a day.7 Aspirations had clearly been raised by the new Act, but were not being fulfilled. (Yet not all such petitions could be regarded as indicative of pure tenant aspirations; there were many cases in which tenants were manipulated by landlords .who wanted to sell unproductive, partially idle or improperly titled land.)

Strangely enough, landlords sometimes seemed to favor expropriation over negotiated sale. They had friends in court. The price set by courts in expropriation proceedings were sometimes nearly double those of negotiated settlements, disadvantaging the tenant who had to repurchase the land at the same price. (Landlords were paid in cash and/or negotiable bonds.)8 Rights of repurchase remained confusing with LT A policy often failing to protect the actual cultivator.9 Only on estates where cultivating tenants were well organized could they be assured of priority in land redistribution, and most were not. Even when lots were allocated, and before they were fully paid for, the transfer of rights for cash – especially to non-cultivators-was rampant.10 Nor could tenants on sugar estates expect to benefit from LT A programs in any way; there was an informal understanding that petitions for the expropriation of sugar land would not be acted upon favorably.11

Despite confusions in implementation, the LTA increased the pace of land acquisition several times over in FY 1957; seven estates were purchased. The rising number of investigations in 1957 resulted in the acquisition of 18 estates in FY 1958 encompassing over 14,000 hectares with more than 5,200 tenants. But in March 1957 President Magsaysay died, succeeded by his Vice-President, Carlos P. Garcia. Within a year many of the officials committed to land reform left the Administration. In the next two fiscal years only 6 estates were acquired, and corruption in the process became more widespread.12

During the time of President Garcia there was “what amounts to a stalemate between landlords and their allies in Congress and in the executive departments, and the elements favoring land reform.”13 The hopes of accomplishment raised in 1954 had again been dashed. Though other agrarian programs may have somewhat improved the bargaining position of the tenant vis-à-vis the landlord, only an insignificant portion of the nation’s tenant farmers were on the way to becoming owners. The land acquired for redistribution by the LT A in the first 5 years of its existence amounted to less than 10 percent of the area of landed estates over ISO hectares in the five provinces of Central Luzon alone!14

At the rate of progress maintained under Magsaysay and Garcia it would have taken approximately 700 years to repurchase and redistribute the 1.8 million hectares of tenanted agricultural land in the Philippines.15

The defeat of President Garcia in the 1961 election was not, therefore, a great loss to the cause of land reform. Nor did it appear to be any particular gain. It was hardly mentioned in the campaign, nor was it referred to at the inauguration of the victor, Diosdado Macapagal. Though a congressman in the 1950’s, Macapagal had not participated in the land reform debate in 1954 or 1955, and had not even voted on the bill that became R.A. 1400.16

But in January 1963 President Macapagal appointed a special committee on land reform, headed by Acting Secretary of Labor Bernadino Abes, to draft what eventually came to be known as the Agricultural Land Reform Code of 1963. It was introduced into Congress in March and adopted by both houses in July. What had led the President to issue an emotional call in his State of the Nation Address: “We must give the tenants liberty from economic peonage, in which they have long languished”? In part it seemed to be the arguments of his top economic advisor, Sixto Roxas, that land reform was a necessary component of a strategy for rapid economic development, permitting, for instance, the transfer of capital in land to industry. It was also apparent to many that Macapagal intended to create mass support among tenants, thus insuring his reelection.17 Nor was he unresponsive to the views of American advisors.

Macapagal was not the popular leader Magsaysay was, coming into office on a wave of proreform sentiment. But Macapagal was a much more skillful strategist, using successfully what influence he had to gain early passage, even though the Senate was not under his party’s control. He had appointed Federation of Free Farmers’ leader Jeremias Montemayor and Philippines Free Press editor Teodoro Locsin to his special committee, thus helping to provide some active support for his legislation in the press and from tenant groups. And when the legislation had not yet been passed by Senate at the end of the regular session, he called seven special sessions of a few days each until it was adopted, helping to direct tactics from Malacanang.

The Land Reform Code of 1963 was the most comprehensive piece of legislation ever enacted in the Philippines on the subject. It reorganized and strengthened land settlement, small farmer credit, the dissemination of new agricultural technology, legal assistance to tenants and small farmers, and created a structure for better coordination of all these functions, as well as dealing with land reform more narrowly defined. A Land Authority was created to take over most of the activities of the LTA and a Land Bank was established to handle the financial aspect of land acquisition.

Though the initial bill was somewhat weakened before final passage, the emasculation was nowhere nearly as great as in 1955. The most serious excision was the chapter on land taxation which would have imposed a progressive tax based on assessment of potential productivity and could have greatly improved collection. A major incentive for landlords’ acceptance of government purchase and redistribution was thus lost.

The Code had several advantages over previous legislation, especially the authorization for the Land Authority to acquire estates of more than 75 hectares, whether owned by individuals or corporations, removing the term “contiguous.” However, the earlier absence of any effective restraints on landlord evasion by transforming land use or transferring ownership to family members remained. And while in 1955 sugar and coconut were excluded from land reform by tacit agreement, in 1963 this exclusion was made legislatively specific, with fruits and other crops added to the list. Furthermore, the provision that the National Land Reform Council needed to declare all government agencies dealing with land reform fully operative in a region before implementation could begin was, while logical from one standpoint, an additional juncture at which landlord pressure and bureaucratic wrangling could delay any action.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy, however, was that after President Macapagal had shown considerable political sophistication in getting the Code enacted, he was lax in pushing its implementation. It. was a dramatic example of the politics of symbolism that has so permeated Philippine public affairs. It was as if Macapagal, having signed an important document, found little compulsion to act on it. The new agencies established by the code were not fully operative until March 1964.18 As late as 1966 no agricultural land had yet been purchased under the terms of the Code!19 Even under the provisions of previous legislation in the 2 years following enactment of the Code only 1,610 hectares were purchased, or less than the annual average under Magsaysay and Garcia.20 A few months before the November 1965 election Macapagal panicked, and made vigorous efforts to implement the Code.21 But it was too late to turn the political tide against him.

President Marcos came to office, like his immediate predecessor, without any record of interest in land reform. The fact that machinery for implementation was established by his defeated rival may have caused him to be even less enthused. Certainly the commitment of funds was modest. None other than Conrado Estrella, appointed chairman of the Land Reform Council by Marcos and later secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform, called attention in early 1972 to the fact that in 1965 the total appropriation for all land reform agencies was PI56 million, but that “out of this amount only … 20 percent was released. This trend has continued through the years. The proportion of the amount released against appropriations ranged from 20 to 30 percent.” “In 1971 only … 24 percent [was] released from an appropriation of PI82 million.”22 As of September 1971 land reform, had not even been “proclaimed” in more than 236 of the nation’s 1,506 cities and municipalities (varying in size from a country to a township), Agricultural land purchase and redistribution had fallen to a low level: during the first 4 years of the Marcos presidency approximately 2,600 hectares had been purchased by the Land Authority and another 1,500 by the Land Bank, or about 1,000 hectares per year. Though slightly above the pace of activity in Macapagal’s last 2 years in office, this was only {%} of the annual average during the Magsaysay/Garcia years.

The way in which Mr. Marcos won reelection in 1969 with charges of massive fraud, inducement and intimidation, triggered a political reaction that had a profound impact on the national attention to and perception of land reform. It marked the beginning of a new stage in the history of Philippine agrarian reform.

Land Reform Since 1971

The raucous demonstrations that accompanied President Marcos’ second inauguration marked the tenor of the times. Students were aroused and were making common cause with tenants and trade unionists. The only positive response in the President’s State of the Nation address was a proposal to sell military camps near Manila to generate funds for land reform. Later special committees in both chambers of Congress conducted hearings which heard representatives of peasant groups and land reform Agencies.23 On 5 May as a consequence of those hearings, omnibus bills were introduced to promote land reform in both the Senate and the House, but the problems and costs which became associated with the idea of selling military land scuttled that plan. For the first time in Philippine history legislative initiative on land reform did not come from the President, but resulted in large part from popular clamor heeded by Congress.

The Senate bill was favored by peasant organizations since it incorporated their demands for a lowering of the retention limit to 24 hectares and a prohibition on the creation of subdivisions or the “resumption of personal cultivation” (through wage laborers) as justification for the ejection of tenants, and thus avoidance of land reform. (Both were widespread practices since 1955.) They were less enthusiastic about the Estrel1a-favored bill to create a Department of Agrarian Reform. But the regular session ended without any land reform related bills being passed. The first and second special sessions saw little progress either, and before the third special session was called a meeting of Congressional leaders with the President agreed to strike land reform from the agenda.24 It was decided to suspend action on land reform while a special committee conducted an in-depth study, submitting its report to the regular session beginning in January 1971. Peasant and student groups were angry.25 Jeremias Montemayor, President of the Federation of Free Farmers, questioned the sincerity of President Marcos for saying that land reform would become the “epicenter” of all government activities.

Soon after the January regular session began sitting, debate on land reform was again suspended to refer the matter to another subcommittee, chaired by Senator Salvador Laurel. The peasant-favored Senate Bill 478 was amended, omitting the lowered retention of 24 hectares. Despite 2 days of demonstrations at Malacaftang in May by 5,000 farmer-members of the Cooperative League of the Philippines, demanding to see the President, the regular session ended without land reform legislation having been certified as urgent.26 Both peasant leaders and progressive legislators increasingly blamed the President for inaction.

With the calling of the first special session of 1971 there was launched a unique form of political action, the “live-in picket.” On 1 June hundreds of small farmers, supported by students, priests, nuns, and urban trade unions, encamped in front of the Congress building to insist on effective reform legislation. At the beginning of the second special session, when legislative action on land reform was still far from complete, the demonstration had already lasted for 2 months.27 Peasant organizations, especially the Free Farmers, brought in buses and jeeps loaded with tenants from villages as far as 200 kilometers away. During each legislative day small groups badgered individual Congressmen demanding to know how they would vote on each article of each pending land reform bill, and why, and explaining the importance of the reforms proposed. Members of Congress had increasing difficulty in handling this unprecedented pressure. In the early days of the second special session they began to question the legality of such action; debates on land reform were even suspended, to reinforce the demand that demonstrators abandon their round-the-clock picket.28 But the picketers only gained greater mass support. Representatives of the Philippine Public School Teachers Federation joined the demonstration. The 87,OOO-member Philippine Federation of Labor threatened to strike nationwide if farmer demonstrators were evicted from the Congress building.29 Finally on 9 August House Speaker Villareal announced that the leadership had decided to withdraw their demand for the pickets’ removal and to resume debate on land reform. Said a spokesman for the Philippine Congress of Trade Unions, “this proved that democracy, if given a chance, can still work in this country.” One observant Congressman threw light on the motivation for the turnabout when he commented, “those who would evict the demonstrators would be doing exactly what the Russian aristocracy … did just before the October revolution began …30 From then on debate on land reform, especially in the House, was more constructive. Two bills had been enacted, R.A. 6389 and R.A. 6390, when the fifth special session ended on 5 September.

Unlike every experience in the past, the final version of the first piece of 1971 land reform legislation was in some ways more favorable to the tenant than the first. Certainly lowering the retention limit to 24 hectares and preventing landlords from claiming “personal cultivation” or subdivision as an excuse for ejectment of tenants would not have survived the legislative process without intense peasant pressure. Furthermore, the piecemeal approach was ended and the whole country was declared a land reform area. R.A. 6390, the funding bill, was more disappointing, providing appropriation for on1y P50 million, no higher than the funding level in the previous few years, and much less than the original Senate bill. It was, in fact, the President’s intervention which tipped the scale for the much more modest figures in the House version.31 Only the provision in R.A. 6389 creating a Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) received consistent Administration backing.

There are two major conclusions to be drawn from this legislative history. The more general one was articulated by both conservative solons and radical peasant leaders: the democratic process works, the people may peaceably assemble to redress their grievances. More specifically, genuine progress toward land reform was possible through Congress if small farmers were organized. Neither of these conclusions was consistent with the contentions in September and October 1972 that only through the setting aside of Congress and presidential rule by decree could genuine land reform be accomplished. The evidence of peasant mobilization in 1971 and the implications it had for the future of the Philippine political system, were undoubtedly factors that helped President Marcos decide to reduce mass participation through Martial law. (A fuller explanation for the abrupt transition in September 1972 to authoritarian rule must be found elsewhere, however.)

Presidential Decree No. 17

In the early years of martial law agrarian reform was given great prominence. One month after its declaration the President issued Presidential Decree No. 27 for “the emancipation of the tiller from the bondage of the soil.” And on the first anniversary of P .D. 27 he went so far as to say: “land reform is the only gauge for the success or failure of the New Society. If land reform fails, there is no New Society. “32

In the decree’s preamble President Marcos hinted at one of the motivations for this emphasis: “Inasmuch as the old concept of land ownership by a few has spawned valid and legitimate grievances that gave rise to violent conflict and social tension, the redress of such … grievances … [becomes] one of the fundamental objectives of the New Society…“The fear of agrarian unrest, and Communist leadership thereof, was certainly the explanation for the fact that only 2 weeks after martial law had been declared, Dr. Roy Prostermann, of the University of Washington, author of the

1970 land reform in Vietnam (and the subsequent program in El Salvador) arrived in the Philippines with a draft decree in his pocket. (His draft influenced but did not determine the final document.) About the same time, Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor was in Washington trying to justify martial law on the grounds that it was necessary for the quick implementation of broad social reforms. But for the President himself, land reform’s most important political function was to strike a blow at the “oligarchy,” those wealthy elite who had formed the core of his political opposition. Not surprisingly the Aquino estates were among the first to be expropriated. The subsequent pattern of implementation helped to confirm this interpretation. The President simply lost his originally keen interest after the owners with more than 100 hectares had been dispossessed.

In sum, the political purpose of land reform and its ancillary policies was to create mass support for the New Society and its leader, legitimize him abroad, and undermine support for alternative leadership on both the right and the left. Since great estates in sugar, coconut and other export crops were excluded from its coverage in any case, it is probably fair to say that in the long run none of these goals were accomplished. In the first few years of martial law, however, agrarian policy did help create support for Marcos in the countryside, blunted foreign criticism of his regime, and put the landed elite on the political defensive.

In principle P.D. 27 was a great improvement over previous legislation because all rice and corn tenants whose landlords owned more than 7 hectares were to be sold the land they tilled at a price 2 1/2 times the average annual production; they were given 15 years to pay the land Bank at 6 percent Interest. No tenant initiative was required. When the tenant fully paid, and only then, he would receive a title transferable exclusively to his heirs. (Landlords were to be paid 10 percent in cash and 90 percent in Land Bank bonds.) In the meantime the eligible tenant would receive a “Certificate of Land Transfer” (CLT) identifying his cultivated area and promising him the right to purchase the land.

The number of tenants to benefit from this decree quickly became a controversial question. In the first month the Department of Agrarian Reform (which had already been created before martial law) announced that over I million tenants tilled 1.44 million hectares of rice and corn land. But research in 1975 established that 57 percent of tenants farmed land owned by persons with less than 7 hectares. Subsequently DAR announced that based on its own “field identification,” its goal was to service more than 390,000 tenants on 730,000 hectares, or little more than 1/3 of all rice and corn tenants. By 1980, DAR claimed to have “issued” CLTs to 90 percent of the targeted tenants, but best estimates are that nearly half of those printed in Manila never actually reached the hands of the cultivator.

CL T holders were still being asked to pay rent to their landlords. Not until the price of the land was fixed and the tenant began to pay installments to the land Bank was he an “amortizing owner.” Only 86,500, or 22 percent of the target, had reached that stage; and of that number only 1,667 had completed payments early and become full owners.33 Most amortizing owners were delinquent.34

Delay in fixing the price, and delinquency in amortization resulted from the fact that instead of setting land price on the basis of production as the decree provided, landlords were allowed to negotiate with tenants and DAR field officials sometimes aided the landlord, already the stronger party. On other occasions, to be sure, when DAR officials stood up for tenant rights under the law, they were verbally threatened or judicially harassed by landlords. Many DAR officials had court cases initiated against them for merely doing their duty.35 Landlord foot-dragging could postpone a pricing agreement indefinitely. Thus by 1977, the average price per hectare being paid by the tenant of nearly P7,000 was 44 percent higher than it would have been if it had been based on the average yield as reported by the Ministry of Agriculture.36 Since land Bank bonds could be sold for cash by landlords, at a discount to be sure, in order to make other investments, or could be invested in approved projects at face value, the loss of land usually did not involve a significant loss of wealth. By 1980, 5,860 landowners had been paid by the Land Bank an average of P207,347 each.

The net result of land redistribution was to put more than 86,000 tenants on the road to ownership (with only 2 percent completing the process); while this was less than 9 percent of a very conservative estimate of all rice and corn tenants, it was, nevertheless, a greater accomplishment than in any previous administration. However, since the announcement and the early stages of implementation gave the vast majority of all tenants a feeling that they personally were going to benefit, the consequence was that for every farmer who was grateful to the government for having achieved a new status, and perhaps improved income, there were many resentful that their hopes had been frustrated. Probably the thousands of tenants who first received CLTs, and then had them recalled — either because of simple bureaucratic confusion or because of landlord intervention — were most upset. Though the thousands more who were illegally ejected from their tenant holdings in 1972-74 by foresighted landlords wishing to evade the reform may have been at least equally frustrated.

The slow pace of implementation was due partly to a chronic bureaucratic complaint, lack of personnel because of lack of budget. Even though there was a real increase in funds (even after compensating for inflation) for agrarian reform between FY 1973 and FY 1977, the priority for the Ministry of Agrarian Reform within the total national budget continued to slide, however. In 1973 it was 0.8 percent of the total, in 1977 only 0.7 percent and in 1981 down to 0.5 percent).37 More serious, however, was the delay, and even retreat, in the face of landlord pressure by top decision makers. Nor was this the result of inattention by the President; Minister of Agrarian Reform Conrado Estrella, who remained in office from before the declaration until after the lifting of martial law, boasted of easy access to President Marcos to consult on problems within the ministry. There was apparently a feeling in Malacanang that more was to be gained politically by easing the pressure on landlords (especially those with less than 24 hectares) than by pushing through to the full extent of the law. Foreign analysts, however, were more inclined to conclude that half measures were worse than none at all, i.e., that incomplete reform raised expectations and thus intensified the frustration of those who did not benefit. Revolutionary political organization in the countryside by 1981 would seem to have justified that conclusion. Some prime land reform areas had become bases for the Communist-led New People’s Army (NPA).

In any case, government spokesmen did not bother themselves with trying to explain shortcomings; they proclaimed complete success. The government-owned Philippine News Agency release on the eve of the 8th anniversary of P.D. 27 stated: “359,000 farmers now own the land they till via the issuance of 501,364 certificates of land title [sic]. The figures represent 82 percent of the total target.”38 The previously subtle attempt to equate CL Ts with titles had lost its subtlety. Some foreign publications used the language of the release, thus perpetuating the gross inaccuracy. Even AID officials in Washington bought this line, though their Philippine specialists knew otherwise. The AID presentation to the House Foreign Affairs sub-Committee on Asia and Pacific Affairs hearings in Washington in March 1981 reported flatly that “88 percent of eligible families had received land titles” under Philippine agrarian reform.39


To look at the sweep of policy over more than 30 years raises the very basic question whether “conservative land reform” is possible, i.e., whether the announced goals, to transform cultivators into owners, can be accomplished by any regime dominated by men of great private wealth. Does its achievement either require a period of foreign domination, as in Japan, or a prior sociopolitical revolution, as in China? Or, posed another way, does the goal of peasant ownership require rapid industrialization as the context for agrarian change, as in Japan? And is the only alternative agrarian revolution that ultimately denies the principle of cultivator ownership anyway, as in China? Perhaps farmer owners are a transitory breed in any case; both Japan and Western societies that were long based on peasant ownership are seeing the rise of the corporate farm.

These questions lead us into the broad field of comparative history, fascinating, but sometimes speculative. The questions which are more directly related to the historical survey of Philippine land reform policy here presented are: Why was this type of policy enacted? Why was implementation so consistently frustrated? And what are the political consequences of such programs?

It is abundantly clear that until 1911 peasant demands had no direct effect on policies enacted. Thus heroic rhetoric, e.g., “The evolution of the various land reform legislations since 1905 is the story of accumulated piecemeal concessions bitterly fought for by the Filipino peasantry,” sometimes lacks historical accuracy.40 The presence of the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) president on Macapagal’s special committee gave an opportunity for a peasant leader (balanced by an influential landlord on the same committee) to present his ideas in the drafting process. But peasant mobilization was insignificant; thus it was only the perceptions of the political elite about possible future peasant reactions that affected policy. And those perceptions were important to decision makers primarily as they entered into broader calculations of self interest, i.e., how elite interests are influenced by peasant reaction.

Insofar as peasant protests were violent, and constituted a threat to system stability, they stimulated concern within the elite, though without legislative consequence at least until the 19205.41 As early as 1933, however, the Rice Share Tenancy Act may be seen to be a kind of response to the furious Tayug uprising of January 1931. The more extensive peasant mobilization in Central Luzon of the late 1930s frightened President Quezon into launching the landed estates policy, though the more short-sighted members of the National Assembly effectively hamstrang other agrarian reform measures. Ultimately, “Quezon’s desire simultaneously to placate both landlords and tenants … pleased neither, and in 1941 rural class conflict was more acute than ever.”42 This characterization of the 1930s aptly fits, as we shall see, the interactions in later stages of land reform policy.

The Roxas Administration, the first after independence, was closely linked, as had been Quezon, to the landed elite of Central Luzon. Its response to the rising Huk Rebellion was the “mailed fist,” thus contributing to mobilization of the peasantry by the left. Roxas’ Vice-President and successor, Elpidio Quirino, was himself from the Ilocos region and was therefore less closely tied to the great landowners of the Philippines’ “ricebowl.” He saw some political advantage in wooing the dissidents, called for a cease-fire, granted amnesty to the Huks and seated Taruc in Congress. But the accumulated distrust was too great; militants on both sides sabotaged the cease-fire and the guerrilla movement was resumed. Under U.S. prodding, Quirino did attempt, however, to mount some agrarian reform programs except for land reform. The Hardie Report from the U.S. aid mission, which proposed a sweeping land redistribution, was branded as “communist” by vehement congressmen, undoubtedly speaking for the landed elite. Land reform had to wait until after the election of Magsaysay.

In the Magsaysay Administration the elite composition again changed, bringing in younger, and more middle class elements, dedicated to solve the underlying problems that caused unrest. Magsaysay himself had aroused the expectation of reform among the masses. But Magsaysay was, in politics, a tactical neophyte. And the landed interests in Congress were still strong. Since he delayed more than a year in pushing land reform legislation, the threat of the Huk Rebellion had drifted into the hazy past for most parliamentarians – they lost interest in forestalling unrest. “Community development” was a more comfortable concept, without implications of class conflict; it was thus a high priority program. Garcia, who became president on Magsaysay’s death, was fortunate to inherit a relatively tranquil society, which could afford an interlude of old fashioned politics.

Macapagal had indeed grown up a poor boy, but he had been co-opted by the landed Pampanga elite. His sudden conversion to the virtues of agrarian reform in 1963 is thus all the more surprising. Certainly he was respectful of American advice, and like every other Filipino politician adored the prospect of new agencies to fill with his appointees, and the Agricultural Land Reform Code created several of them. But his reaching out for mass support on the land reform issue was a harbinger of change in the Philippine system, a harbinger of trends that many thought had died with Magsaysay. But Macapagal started too late in the building of a new mass base to succeed.

With Marcos during his first term, as with Garcia, there was little interest shown in land reform. There were no new agencies to staff and Central Luzon was comparatively quiet. The quiet was deceptive, however, and by the end of the 19605 a new rebellion had been launched by the New People’s Army. The landed elite was not as influential in Congress as it once was and peasant organizations were larger and more politically skilled than ever.43 For the first time they had the commitment, the leadership and the allies to put direct pressure on Congress for reform..

The reaction of Marcos to the land reform debate of 1971 is curious. He was certainly not displeased with the prospect of a new administrative structure, the Department of Agrarian Reform, which would allow him to make new appointments. But his negative approach to other peasant demands reflected either a serious miscalculation of the changing political realities or a hidden agenda. One could almost imagine that there was a desire to see land reform efforts in the “Old Society” frustrated, while plans for the unveiling of the “New” were being quietly laid down. His discomfort with the “oligarchy” was already apparent, thus his posing as the champion of land reform might have seemed appropriate. But that role was saved until after the declaration of martial law. And when the purposes of land reform after 1972 seemed to enjoy short-term success, the program was allowed to languish.

Tai has quite rightly pointed out that political elites initiate land reform “to gain political legitimacy, i.e., to strengthen popular support for a new political order or to safeguard an existing regime against threatened political changes.”44 The first case may fit land reform after martial law, and the latter is typical of the earlier examples. Tai continues, “Elites are sensitive to the danger that in initiating reform they may immediately encounter the opposition of the landed class but only slowly gain the support of the peasants.” Conceivably, they may lose the loyalty of the former before gaining that of the latter. In fact, this sensitivity is sometimes developed only after the reform process has begun, thus inclining the same leadership which initiated it to leave it half finished. (This seemed particularly apparent in the Philippines in the late 1970s.)

The incomplete reform is also a function of the nature of the Philippine political elite. It is in Tai’s classification a “conciliatory elite, “45 one in which landlord interests are strong enough that they must be conciliated. Conciliatory elites, he says, Hare generally more committed to passing some kind of law than to fighting for its effective implementation.”46 He also recognizes that it is in countries where land reform has made the least progress, as in the Philippines that the greatest threats to stability persist.47

Land reform exacerbates class conflict in rural communities, especially when landlord evasion causes suffering for peasants, e.g., eviction to make way for mechanization and wage labor, inappropriately termed “personal cultivation” in Philippine parlance. If such a period of conflict is only a brief transition to full peasant ownership it is not destabilizing to the whole political system. But when it continues indefinitely and is exploited by sophisticated radical leadership, the consequences can be devastating. The spread of guerrilla warfare in land reform areas in the 1980s is such a consequence.

The lack of follow through in land reform may have explanations other than the character of a “conciliatory elite.” It may be the result of the rampant “ritualism” that characterizes so much of Philippine politics, the belief that appearance is reality, that to make a declaration is to create a condition. This style is so pervasive that many leaders may not even be conscious of the lack of substance to their declarations.

The acceptance of ritual may also result from the clogging of communication channels in an authoritarian regime, where the opportunity for bad news to reach the top is very limited. In a centralized system of decision making, when the reality is not fully known at the center there can be no rectification of errors. Authoritarianism does not provide efficient feedback. Yet many authors have extolled the advantages of highly centralized regimes for implementing land reform. Samuel Huntington has been one of these. He adds, however, that in addition to concentration of power in an elite committed to reform there must be “the mobilization of the peasantry and their organized participation in the implementation” of reform. That is an intriguing combination, with a severe internal contradiction.

A concentration of power is not compatible with freedom of organization, which is based on the assumption that various interests in society have a right to share in the decision-making process. That sharing took place for the first time in 1971. When power was concentrated in 1972, independent peasant organizations were crushed. By the late 1970s even those groups that had been domesticated by martial law tried to bring to the President and Secretary Estrella the complaints of small farmers, but their message fell on deaf ears. They had no legitimacy within the decision-making process; they were powerless.

The critique of a close observer of the Philippine program, one who follows the Huntington school of thought, reveals a similar inconsistency. He points out that land reform has been handicapped since 1972 because the relationship between central authority and the peasantry has been one of central dominance.49 He emphasizes the value of greater local initiative, then in the next paragraph recommends that wider use might be made of the military in implementing land reform! One wonders what such analysts mean by “local initiative.” The military constitute the greatest single constraint on autonomous peasant political activity especially in relation to agrarian questions.

The final point that must be made in the attempt to understand the inconclusive character of Philippine land reform relates to the differences between central and local elites. While it is true that in the last decade landed elements in the national political elite have declined in influence, permitting ever stronger legislation in 1963, 1971 and 1972, changes in local elites have been much slower. Despite the highly centralized character of Philippine public administration since the Spanish times local political leaders expected to be able to intervene in administrative matters to protect their own interests, and did so with impunity. Furthermore, at the provincial and municipal level civil servants were often relatives or recommendees of local politicians. And even though local politicians from the 1950s or 1960s had become a distinct category from the landlords, they were usually closely linked. The habits of nearly three generations of electoral politics died hard after 1972, so that local political leaders did not easily accept the supremacy of the bureaucracy, continuing to manipulate into their own ends. Thus the failure to implement land reform was often the gap between central policy and local practice, which could not be effectively corrected from the center. A mix of both authoritarian and democratic elements combined to frustrate the implementation of reform.

If land reform is to be fully implemented, there must be a cleansing of the bureaucracy of those who do not support it, along with much greater autonomy for peasant organization and an adequately funded, clearly committed central authority. It is difficult to foresee when these conditions may prevail.


DAVID WURFEL holds a Ph.D. in government and Asian studies from the Cornell University. He has conducted extensive research on land reform in South Vietnam. Thailand and the Philippines, and reports his findings on the subject in various periodicals and a compilation entitled, Government and Politics in Southeast Asia. Wurfel has, at onc time or another, served on the faculties of the University of Missouri, University of Michigan, International Christian University in Tokyo and the University of Singapore.


1 See D. Wurfel, Philippine Agrarian Policy: 1946-1961 (Unpublished MS, 1962), ch. V.

2 Resolution No. 42, Nov. 14, 1946.

3 See Bahay Pare Eswe Investigating Committee, “Findings,” July 24, 1954; Presidential Committce created to look into the conditions of the Buenavista &we, “Rcpon,” Aug. 20, 1954, and others.

4 Bureau of Lands, Annual Report, 1955, p. 53.

5 Wurfel, op. cit., p. 317.

6 House, Congressional Record, July 8, 1955, p. 3599.

7 LTA, Annual Report, 1956, p. 17.

8 see Manila Times, July 10, 1956; also Official Gazette (August 15, 1956), p. ccclxvii.

9 Note especially the case of Hacienda Dina Jupihan. MT, May 10, June 29, July 16, 1956, and author’s field notes.

10 see LTA Resolution 112, March 24, 1956.

11 Wurfel, op cit., p. 331.

12 Land Tenure Administration, Annual Report, FY 1959, (Manila, Sept. 25, 1959), pp. 100-101; Manuel Castalleda. A Report on Philippine Land Tenure Problems and Recommended Solutions Thereof (Manila: Land Tenure Administration. 1960) pp. 24-25.

13 Harold Koone and Lewis Glccc:k. “Land Reform in the Philippines,” AID Spring R (June 1970), p. 76.

14 Castalleda, op. cit., p. 4.

15 Don Ferry, “The Constitutional and Social Aspects of Land Reform.” in Gerardo Sicat, ed., The Philippine Economy in the 1960s (Quezon City: U.P., 1964) p. 128.

16 Diana E. Sabater, “Congress and Land Reform in the Philippines,” unpublished MS. Honolulu, 1977, p. 10, based on a research of the Congressional Record.

17 See Koone and Glccc:k, op. cit., p. 70. Though his goal was not achieved, be did win in tenant-dominated Central Luzon.

18 Exccutive Order No. 7S. March 19, 1964.

19 The Philippine Land Reform Program: A Country Stlltement (Diliman, Q.C.: Land Authority, 1966), p. 33.

20 Benjamin Gozon, “Land Reform: Tool in Fight Against Poverty” Manila Times, Aug. 2, 1965.

21 Sabaler, op. cit., p. 85.

22 Hernan V. Gonzales 11, “Big Job on Small Budget,” Manila Times, March 23, 1972.

23 Edward Kiunisala. “Land Reform at Last,” Philippine Free Press, August 28. 1971, p. 2.

24 Manila Times, August 31. 1970.

25 Edward Kiunisala, “Lip Service to Land Reform.” Philippine Free Press, September 12, 1970.

26 MT, May 20, 1971.

27 Manila Times, August 3, 1971.

28 MT, August 4, 1971.

29 MT, August 8, 1971.

30 MT, August 10, 1971.

31 MT, August 24, 1971.

32 Philippine Daily Express, September 22, 1973.

33 ST, October 21, 1980, p. 10.

34 Rolf Hanisch. “Decision-Making Process and Problems of Implementation of the Land Reform in the Philippines,” Asia Quarterly, (1978. no. I).

35 Hanisch, op cit., pp. 21.22.

36 see Germelino Bautista, Philippine Rural Anti-Poverty Programs (Quezon City: Institute of Philippine Culture, Atenco de Manila University, 1978), pp. 27-28.

37 See Presidential Budget Message. FYI975, p. 8A; Philippine Development, August IS, 1979. pp. 13.16; and ST, Seplember 2, 1980, p. 2. Agrarian reform seemed to get priority, instead, when announcing reversion of appropriations to the general fund. See reversion order for P.157 million in June ID7, an which P6S, million came from DAR. (Presidential letter of Instructions No. S48.)

38 ST October 19, 1980.

39 statement of Frederick Schieck, Acting Assistant Administrator, Bureau of Asia, AID, March 31, 1981.

40 alondie Po, Land Reform (Unpublished MS, 1978).

41 See Jim Richardson, “Does Grass-roots Action Lead to Agrarian Reform?”, Philippine Sociological Review, Vol. 20(1-2), 1972, pp. I44-4S.

42 ibid., p. 149.

43 See Wurfel, “Elites of Wealth and Elites of Power, The Changing Dynamic: A Philippine’ Case Study,” in SE Asian Affairs, 1979 (Singapore: ISEAS, 1979), 233-45.

44 Hung-chao Tai, Land Reform and Politics: A Comparative Analysis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p. 56.

45 ibid., p. 90ff.

46 ibid., p. 128.

47 ibid., p.441.

48 Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 383.

49 William Overholt, “Land Reform in the Philippines,” Asian Survey, XVI: 5 (May 1976), p. 449.

Categories Philippines, Agrarian policy