The Political Consequences of Land Reform in Southeast Asia

By David Wurfel, University of Windsor. Paper delivered at Annual Meeting of the Canadian Society for Asian Studies Fredericton, New Brunswick, May 1977

For the student of political and economic development the importance of land reform has long been apparent. Where absentee owners control a large portion of farm land, reform is essential for economic growth, transferring ownership to the cultivator who is more inclined to increase the land’s productivity, and encouraging new capital investment in industry. Land reform has also been recognized as a necessary pre­requisite to democratic political development in an agrarian society, since gross inequalities, especially of one type of wealth, make wide partici­pation in political decision-making very difficult indeed. And aside from these and other ways in which land reform contributes to development goals, for those of us committed to egalitarian values it is a valid end in itself, removing landlord controls from the life of the tenant culti­vator and giving him a greater opportunity to determine his own destiny. Land reform is also attractive to particular types of political elites, especially those who feel themselves lacking in legitimacy, as does any authoritarian leader who has replaced an elected government. Such authoritarian regimes — and the Philippines is only the most recent in SE Asia – attempt to justify the displacement of democratic processes by the announcement of social reform. The leader seeks mass support among the peasantry in this way, simultaneously undermining the political strength of the rural elite, which may be unfriendly to him. Legitimacy is sought to enhance regime stability.

Not only are certain authoritarian leaders attracted to land reform for the political functions that it can serve, but many advocates of such reform among Western scholars and technicians argue that authoritarian regimes are a requirement for the thorough implementation of land reform.

Occupation Japan, and Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan—not to mention socialist states—are cited in support of this proposition. It is said that only the determination of a strong leader, capable of brushing aside legal and bureaucratic obstacles posed by the landed elite and their friends can decide on a bold program and bring plans to fruition. Such authoritarian regimes are valued by these observers for their maintenance of stability. Ironically, however, in the two SE Asian societies to which Western scholars have had the greatest research access, South Vietnam before 1975 and the Philippines, there seems to be evidence that land reform – far from creating stability — has been capable of, or is actually, weakening the very regimes that sponsored it.

In Vietnam there was an abortive attempt at land reform, under American sponsorship, soon after Ngo Dinh Diem came to power in 1955. The retention limit was high, 100 has.1 and the distribution to tenants slow—after six years (1962) only a little more than half of the land actually expropriated had been handed over to the tillers. Throughout the early 1960s Saigon’s control over the countryside contracted while influential US advisors debated the pros and cons of land reform, and the Saigon government did nothing. Economists saw other types of rural development as more effective in accomplishing a rapid increase in production, while one political scientist, Edward Mitchell of the Rand Corporation, produced a study concluding that the GVN had more effective control in areas dominated by landlords anyway! (While this study suffered from statistical error and did little to explain the reasons for the correlations that were supposedly established, it provided a hint for future analysis.) Nevertheless, while a number of American students of the subject warned of the danger of President Thieu alienating his remaining support among the landlords, the US backed a sweeping land reform decreed by Thieu in 1970. All tenanted land below 5 has. was expropriated and given at no cost to the cultivators, while landowners were compensated with 20% cash. The administrative procedures were simpler and more decentralized than in the 1956 legislation, so that implementation was fairly rapid—given the circumstances. Though there were certainly other, more powerful, reasons for Thieu’s downfall, it is noteworthy that his regime collapsed within a few years of attempting such a drastic reform.

The Philippine case is more interesting because its conclusion is not yet known, and more useful in contributing to the refinement of general propositions about the political consequences of land reform since agrarian policies are more salient within the complex strategy and tactics of regime maintenance than was true in Vietnam. The hypothesis which I have formulated on the basis of my research on the Philippine case, and which seems to be corraborated by findings elsewhere too – including my own limited observations in Thailand – is that land reform pursued by a conservative authoritarian regime within the context of great social inequality will tend to contribute to long term political instability.

(Neither the Taiwanese nor Japanese case are really exceptions. In Taiwan the regime has been for many years after land reform more nearly totali­ tarian than authoritarian, exercising very firm control through an extra­ ordinary efficient police/intelligence network and a tightly-organized single party. In Japan, on the other hand, though the land reform was pushed by occupation authorities and the initial decision was made by Americans, its implementation was accomplished in the context of electoral democracy; furthermore, the extremes of agrarian inequality in Japan did not begin to approach those in a country like the Philippines.)

In order to understand the context of our analysis, it is best to begin with a description of recent Philippine experience. The verbal evidence for the salience of land reform in present policy is overwhelming. Said the President on the first anniversary of the Presidential Decree No. 27 “for the emancipation of the tiller of the soil from bondage”: “The land reform is the only gauge for the success or failure of the New Society: if land reform fails, there is no New Society”. The decree, penned in October 1972, one month after the declaration of martial law, provided for the expropriation of all tenanted rice and corn land held by owners with more than 7 has. Owners were to be compensated by the Land Bank with 10% cash and 90% Land Bank bonds, while farmer beneficiaries were to repay the Bank over 15 years at 6% interest. At the same time share tenancy on rice and corn lands was outlawed, with all tenants declared fixed rent lessees. (On the fourth anniversary of PD 27 share tenancy was abolished in other crops as well.) About a half-million tenants are supposed to be beneficiaries of land transfer, or only about 1/3 of all rice and corn tenants according to estimates released before 1972.

The first step in the implementation of land reform is the issuance of a Certificate of Land Transfer, which is nothing more than a preliminary indicator to tenants of a right to the land, and can be withdrawn without prior notice. As of April 1977 the Department of Agrarian Reform claimed2 to have issued CLTs to 234,658 tenants. But based on its own admission earlier that less than half of CLTs “issued” had actually been received by the farmer, one could hardly expect the real 1977 figure to be above 125,000, or only 1/4 of the announced goal, far slower than the role of implementation in Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. The second step in land transfer, the compensation of the owner by the Land Bank and the commencement of amortization payments to that Bank by the cultivator is, however, the first point at which the landlord-tenant relationship is broken, and thus the only true measure of the accomplishment of reform. This step, which has so far cost the Land Bank P457.8 million, has benefited less than 15% of the claimed recipients of CLTs, or about 7% of the announced goal. At the 1976 rate it will take the Land Bank nearly 33 years to compen­sate all landlords supposed to be covered by the reform and to begin collecting amortization payments from cultivator beneficiaries. In fairness, however, it should be remembered that the pace of reform under martial law is much faster than previous Filipino efforts of this kind.

The reasons for something less than “deliberate speed” are inadequate budget—be1ying the President’s verbal commitment to land reform — administrative confusion, and dogged landlord opposition, manifested in the intimidation of tenants, non-cooperation with government information gathering, and out­ right violation of the law. (No landlords have yet been prosecuted.) All this is consequence of reform by a conservative regime. Tenants are not the only ones suffering from distortions in the original program, however. Land Bank bonds now have a cash market value of only about 50% of the superficial amount, so that many smaller landlords who are pressed for cash must accept much below the agreed compensation.

Two important government programs since martial law which have been designed in part, as corra1aries to land transfer are the promotion of cooperatives and the expansion of rural credit. Tenants often pay as much as 100% interest on loans from private moneylenders, so that “Masagana 99”, a credit program for rice farmers to allow them to purchase hybrid seeds, fertilizers and insecticides, launched in 1973, was timely.

Releases were made primarily through the field offices of the government’s Philippine National Bank, and through privately-owned Rural Banks. Nearly P3 billion has been loaned to farmers so far, and almost all secured only by the standing crop, without the pledge of land or animal. In the first year or two of the program, with a rapid increase in rice production the only apparent consideration, there was such government pressure for the quick release of funds that anomalies inevitably appeared. Thousands of non-farmers with political influence obtained loans; many rice farmers sold their subsidized fertilizer to large sugar planters, who were not entitled to the subsidy. And, most serious, the mood of “government handout” so infected the credit releases than a very substantial portion of farmer-recipients paid no attention to the restrictions on the use of credit, often making consumer rather than production expenditures. These causes, plus some bad weather, produced a declining repayment record; by early 1976 arrears were nearly 1/3 of all releases, or more than P700 million. In October 1976 President Marcos himself reported that arrearages threatened the very existence of nearly one hundred rural banks.

The measures taken in the last two years to avoid arrears and force repayment have had the affect of cutting back on the amount of releases per crop season, reducing the number of farmer beneficiaries, and leaving many of them in a worse economic situation than they were before the program began. Increased production was, in fact, achieved by many thousands, but fertilizer usage already began to decline in 1975, dropping more sharply in 1976. The military have taken on an increasing role in the loan collection process.

While government credit was designed to replace landlords, no longer willing to loan to their emancipated tenants, the new cooperative structure was supposed to guarantee payment of amortizations by land reform beneficiaries. All recipients of CLTs are required to join the village level Samahang Nayon (SN), the building block in the elaborate cooperative structure which is to include marketing coops and cooperative rural banks, each covering several towns. So far, however, only 1 CRB and about a dozen Agricultural Marketing Cooperatives (AMCs) are functioning. Since the primary purpose of the SN is to accumulate savings—and more than P50 million has been saved by approxi­mately 15,000 SNs with 700,000 members—to be utilized by the larger coops, and they are not allowed to engage in cooperative credit or marketing themselves, the fact that in most provinces there are neither CRB or AMCs means that most SN members are receiving no demonstrable benefit for their dues. A majority of SN are, in fact, moribund, but members are not allowed to withdraw their savings. Initial membership drives were often based on false promises; now disillusioned members are more skeptical than ever of government programs.

Two other government policies, though not conceptually linked to land reform, have an important impact on rural communities and thus must be understood before we try to analyze political trends among peasants. First is the promotion of corporate farming, both in export crops, e.g. sugar, bananas or pineapples, and in rice. Many illegal, as well as legal, methods have been used to displace cultivators from land desired for cor­porate farms. They vary from deceptive contracts, which provide short term cash payments and long-term indebtedness for the cultivator, if he happened to own his land, to the bold use of bulldozers under military guard to drive out homesteaders who had cleared the land they farmed and were in the process of acquiring legal rights. Since 1972 the corporate farming policy has probably displaced nearly as many cultivators from land which they owned or had rightful claim to as there have been farmer beneficiaries of the second stage of land reform, or more than 25,000 families.

Secondly, with the justification of martial law all elections have been halted, including those for the barrio (village) council and barrio captain, a move typical of new authoritarian regimes. Those elected in early 1972 have, in effect, had their term of office extended indefinitely. (Mayors, on the other hand, are now subject to appointment by the President.) Despite overwhelming evidence both before and after martial law on the importance of local elections to villagers3 there appears to be no move afoot to reinstitute them. There is probably fear that introduction of comparatively free elections at the village level (where they are hardest to control from the center) would cause an esca1a-­ tion of demands for elections in municipality, province and nation. Yet without village elections local leadership is becoming less and less responsive to the populace, a situation keenly resented by many articulate farmers. Since village leaders were often expected to be the intermediary between farmer and government, this means, in effect, a less responsive government generally. Though a lack of responsiveness to local problems is endemic in all governments, to have this exacerbated at the same time important new innovations in agrarian policy are disrupting rural communities is a coincidence with considerable destabilizing potential.

But how can we justify the sweeping statement that the net effect of these policies is to promote political instability, especially in view of the contrary finding by such a diligent and respected scholar as Bruce Russett.4 After having found a relatively high correlation between inequality of land ownership and incidence of violent death on the one hand, and between equality of land and the characteristics of “stable democracy” on the other, he concluded that “American policy in urging the governments of under-developed nations to undertake massive land reform programs seems essentially well-founded”—presumably in order to promote political stability. The inappropriateness and inaccuracy of the figures and categories used to make this correlation have been discussed elsewhere, but it must be emphasized at this point that he was essentially dealing with the end result of successful land reform—or with conditions which obviate its necessity—equality of distribution, not with the impace of the process-­ which is our focus here.

Samuel Huntington’s comments are more explicit and more appropriate, and thus more directly contradictory, to the hypothesis: “Land reform, it would appear, thus has a highly stabilizing effect on the political system. Like any reform, however, some violence may be necessary to produce the reform, and the reform itself may produce some violence… But in terms of political stability, the costs of land reform are minor and temporary, the gains fundamental and 1asting.”5

Here it should be remembered that we are arguing the consequences of land reform in one type of polity only: one with a conservative authoritarian regime within the context of great social inequality. Yet such regimes are to be found in large numbers, in Latin America as well as in SE Asia.

The well-known study by the Feierabends on levels of political stability at difference stages in the modernization process provides a different emphasis than does Huntington, and one more compatible with our hypothesis. They found that the faster the rate of change in the moderniza­tion process, the higher the level of political instability.6 The implementa­tion of land reform clearly speeds up the modernization process. “Instability”, which is often loosely used, will be defined here to include both the incidence of violent death from political activity and the number of violent and/or nonlega1 changes in political leadership.

In the first place, land reform must be considered in the context of patterns of patron-client relations. It has been argued by James Scott, Ben Kerkvliet, and others that agrarian unrest is primarily a consequence of a breakdown of the patron-client tie between landlord and tenant. Scott regards the crucial element of “breakdown” the, point at which “the security of subsistence income” is no longer assured.7 Kervliet has provided evidence of such a breakdown in Central Luzon preceding the Huk Rebellion there; At that point the landlord was trying to disintangle himself from the obligations associated with the patron’s role, which he regarded as uneconomic, an inevitable consequence of the commercialization of agriculture. In some other parts of the Philippines which were also near large cities and devoted to intensive rice cultivation, most notably the province of Iloilo, landlords in the 1940s were taking similar steps, helping to produce somewhat similar unrest. In most rice-growing areas of the country, however, patrons remained strong and did not generally avoid the desire of tenants for loans on easy terms. Nevertheless, new options opened to the tenant farmer. The electoral process generated a more specialized type of patron, who distributed patronage and ‘pork’ to attract clients. These political patrons, though at first usually landlords, were by the 1960s more often not. Thus insofar as the landlord-patron did decline in importance, the social consequences were greatly diluted by the appearance of this new type of local “lider” (as the word is spelled in Pilipino).

But in 1963 with the passage of the Land Reform Code by Congress, under the prodding of President Macapagal, share tenancy was legally abolished and all tenant farmers supposedly assumed the status of lessees on fixed rent. Administrative enforcement, however, was haphazard and few share tenants actually become lessees. This was partly because most landlords discouraged the transformation by cutting off loans to any tenant who requested a changeover, and also because share tenants, or kasama, were often afraid to undertake the additional risk of having to pay a fixed rent in bad years as well as good. Most share tenants in a sample survey in Nueva Ecija as late as 1971 preferred to remain in that status.8 Land transfer before 1972 moved at an even slower pace than did leasehold conversion, and since landlord sales to government were mostly vo1untary—usually by men of wealth who wanted to withdraw from rural leadership anyway—the rate of which patron-client relations were eroded was hardly accelerated by this policy.

Very ineffective reform is not, therefore, particularly destabilizing. Indirectly, however, land reform triggered a more rapid demotion of tenant to laborer by increasing landlord incentive to mechanize, one of the few legal grounds then available for ejecting the kasama. Active peasant organizations mobilized many of those who had already become disenchanted with their traditional patrons.

After 1972, however, agrarian policy itself became the primary solvent of the patron-client bond between landlord and tenant. This usually happened as a result of the frantic efforts of landlords to avoid land reform. Riceland was for instance, suddenly planted with sugar or tobacco or transformed into “urban subdivisions” to elude coverage, resulting in the ejecting of tenants; or landlords blandly denied that life-long kasama were actually tenants, insisting that they were merely 1aborers. Though it is very hard to quantify the extent of this evasion, it is probably that tens of thousands of tenants who had believed that their right to cultivate was secure were pushed off the land, or reduced to a more tenuous status. In both cases family subsistence was jeopardized, and any hope of land owner­ship was dashed.

In other patterns of landlord evasion the consequences were not so immediate. Proprietors broke up large holdings, on paper, and transferred registration into the names of relatives and offspring, so that no one holding would be above 7 has. If this landlord was simultaneously generous to his tenant, then the patron-client bond might remain unbroken, but if the client was aware of the illegal manoeuvre, the patron’s legitimacy was inevitably tarnished. Thousands of landlords were wise enough to exert pressure on or offer “special payments” to the Department of Agrarian Reform fieldmen who identified the landho1dings to be subdivided in the first place. Thereafter they were officially ignored by DAR. The expectations of their tenants had been frustrated. Those who neither re-registered their land avoided detection were faced with the necessity of negotiating a price with their kasama. This process was also fraught with considerable chicanery, on both sides, but with superior political and economic influence usually winning the day for the landlords. Most tenants beneficiaries inter­ viewed by the author believed that the price for their land had been set too high.

In these and myriad other ways, therefore, agrarian reform has become the major cause of rural class conflict. Because of the tight rein — enforced with periodic detention and torture — exercised by the military on peasant political behavior in the early years of martial law, and because these events took place in the context of rising rice prices and expanded agricultural credit — until 1975 — the conflict seldom burst forth in spontaneous violence, though it did drive some frustrated farmers to “the hills”.

The consequence of corporate farming was somewhat more violent, however. The physical removal of cultivators from fields they had hacked from the jungle usually triggered, firstly, efforts to obtain legal protection, often with the aid of Catholic clergymen. But if this failed, as it most commonly did, bulldozers were often met with bolos, in a futile defiant gesture before the family moved to live with relatives or trekked to make a new jungle clearing. The Maoist-led New People’s Army has gained strength most rapidly since 1972 in Mindanao, the stronghold of corporate farming.

To understand the local level of violent response so far we must remember that peasant adaptation to a subsistence crisis is, as James Scott points out, more likely to be for survival than for resistance. The first reaction of a “displaced” person who has only known security through attachment to a strong patron is to find another. Some religious leaders take on this role. Small fanatical sects, both of nationalist orientation and of American origin are experiencing phenomenal growth in the Philippines today. Catholic priests have also become more important to their parishoners, filling new social roles. Some Rizalians seem to be getting support from Marcos, while the more politically sophisticated Iglesia ni Kristo which learned to prosper from electoral politics, has become hostile to him. And whereas expanding local autonomy, with new prestige and influence for village leaders which helped quell agrarian unrest in the 1950s and 60s, has now been fundamentally altered, available, reliable local patrons are much more difficult to find. The results could be similar to those of a like move by Ngo Dinh Diem in the 1950s.

Movement to new land, preferably where one already has relatives, though long a typical escape from agrarian conflict, is no longer such an easy option. Not only is unoccupied arable land now very scarce, but much of what remains is in Muslim territory. Tens of thousands of Christian settlers have fled these battle areas in recent years, and very few new ones dare replace them.

Thus resistance is a more likely form of peasant adaption than at any time since the 1950s. Some revolutionary leaders seem to be acutely aware of the fact that they can best gain support by becoming a new kind of patron, the first step by which Jeffrey Race sees revolutionary organiza­tions creating their own authority.9 In one province, at least, the NPA offered loans to distraught debtors of the rural banks who were facing Constabulary harassment, or perhaps even imprisonment, for failure to pay their arrears. If the NPA has the funds, this would provide increasing opportunity for recruitment.

But the most immediate threat to stability, i.e. within the next few years, is probably not a peasant-based revolutionary movement, which requires dedicated and skillfu1 leadership —and Marcos has deterred most radical intellectuals from going to “the hills” either by imprisonment or cooptation—but landlord discontent. So far proprietors feel most aggrieved by land reform, and are consequently the rural group most hostile to the President. (Landlords, more aware than tenants of the burgeoning holdings of the Marcos family empire, feel that their sacrifices are most unfair.) Marcos is apparently aware of this hostility and thus has halted effective implementation of holdings below 24 has., despite announcements to the contrary. This only increases tenant frustrations: one cousin whose landlord has 50 has. is a beneficiary, while the cousin with a below-24 landlord gains very little indeed. Marcos is, in fact, something like a man stuck in the bend of a large pipe: he will hurt whether he moves forward or back. “Half a loaf” in land reform is certainly not better than none for its author.

Small landlords, who continue to fear that the Department of Agrarian Reform will expropriate all tenanted holdings, even those below 7 has., often express the view that the only assurance they could have that that would not happen would be the President’s removal from office. Since many army officers are also from small to medium landowning families, this discontent is not entirely without weapons. One should not underestimate, however the skills of Mr. Marcos in managing discontent; and these families, coming from his own social class, communicate with him much more effectively than tenants. Nevertheless, peasant unrest may persuade him to make, at least verbally, a further extension of land reform—as was done in a modest way last October. This could trigger some dramatic action by landlords and their friends.

And a military coup which sponsored a rollback of land reform-­ already possible, but not yet likely—would be the event most likely to stimulate widespread peasant revolt, whether one uses the analyses of Davies, Gurr or Scott.

Nevertheless, whether the frustrations engendered by an unfinished reform produce a regime change or not, it should now be clear from this case that they are likely to create other, lesser, manifestations of instability. And the character of agrarian policy in the Philippines is largely typical of conservative authoritarianism.

Research for this paper was made possible by a Research Grant from the Canada Council, 1975-76


1 Sources on Vietnam: Stuart Callison, The Land-to-the-tiller Program and Rural Resource Mobilization in the Mekon Delta of South Vietnam (Athens: Ohio Univ., CIS, 1974, SE Asia Series, No. 34). MacDonald Salter, “The Broadening Base of Land Reform in South Vietnam”, and other articles in Asian Survey, X:8 (August 1970); Edward J. Mitchell, “Inequality and Insurgency: A Statistical Study of South Vietnam”, Rand Corporation, June 1967, P-36l0; David Wurfel, “Agrarian Reform in the Republic of Vietnam”, Far Eastern Survey, June 1957; William Bredo et al., Land Reform in Vietnam, Stanford Research Institute, Menlo Park, Calif., 1968, five volumes.

2 Manila Journal, April 24-30, 1977, p.2.

3 See Buenaventura Villanueva, A Study of the Competence of Barrio Citizens to Conduct Barrio Government (U.P., Community Development Research Council, 1959); and U.P., College of Public Admin. Research Staff, “The Concerns of the Filipino People: An Analysis of the Results of the National Refendum of July 28, 1973”, (typescript).

4 See Russett, “Inequality and Instability: The Relation of Land Tenure to Politics”, World Politics 16:3 (April 1964) pp. 442-454.

5 Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 378.

6 Ivo and Rosalind Feierabend, “Aggresive Behaviors within Polities: 1948-1962, a Cross National Study”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, X: 3 (Sept. 1966), pp. 249-271.

7 See James Scott, Exploitation in Rural Class Relations: A Victim’s Perspecitve, SEADAG Papers 75-1, presented to seminar on “Peasants, Land Reform and Revolutionary Movements” held in Savannah, Georgia, June 1974; James Scott, “The Erosion of Patron Client Bonds and Social Change in Rural SE Asia”, Journal of Asian Studies XXXII: 1 (Nov. 1972), pp. 5-38; James Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (New Haven: Yale Univ.Press, 1976); also B.J. Kerkvliet, ed., Political Change in the Philippines: Studies of Local Politics Preceding Martial Law (Honolulu: Univ. Press of Hawaii, 1974), p. 8ff.

8 Ree Romana Pahilanga-de 10s Reyes and Frank Lynch, “Reluctant Rebels: Leasehold Converts in Nueva Ecija”, in Lynch, ed., View from the Paddy (IPC: 1972), p. 31.

9 “Towards Rebellion: an Exchange Theory of Revolution”, in John W. Lewis, ed., Peasant and Communist Revolution in Asia (Stanford Univ. Press, 1974), p. 171ff.

Categories Philippines, Agrarian policy