Toward an Alternative Land Reform Paradigm (review)

Review by David Wurfel in The Journal of Asian Studies; Nov 1991; 50, 4; pg. 989.
Toward an Alternative Land Reform Paradigm: A Philippine Perspective. By YUJIRO HAYAMI, MARIA AGNES R. QUISUMBING, and LOURDES S. ADRIANO. Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1990. xiv, 209 pp.

This is a carefully researched and obviously sincere attempt to find a way out of the terrible Philippine muddle, called -inappropriately — “agrarian reform.” In fact, it is the most serious effort toward this end yet published. But it is still a book by economists on a complex issue of political economy. While the authors introduce the concept of “political market,” drawn from writings on the economic theory of politics by Anthony Downs, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and Albert Breton, and the initial application of that theoretical framework to the Philippines seems plausible, the political analysis of the constraints on policy formation and implementation still suffers at times from an inadequate understanding of how the political system works. Political scientists will surely appreciate the attempt by sophisticated economists to grapple with the question of power, but the analysis of policy failure will have to be completed by more careful and consistent attention to political factors.

Hayami and his collaborators certainly have the broad parameters right: “In our view, the success of the land reform program in the Philippines … will depend on whether or not it has been designed with the political market reality in the country in mind” (p. 4). They go further with a bold, and probably valid, assessment: “Given the concentration of wealth and power in the landlord class on the one hand, and the ‘soft state’ … on the other, it was inevitable that reform efforts patterned after the experience of Japan and Taiwan would fail” (p. 2). A gloomy prediction, written before the beginning of implementation of the present legislation, has proven accurate: “If redistributive land reform were extended to the plantation sector while the same degree of bureaucratic control [meaning, ‘intervention’] continues, as in previous programs for rice and corn, the budgetary and manpower requirements will surely exceed the country’s capabilities” (p. 13).

The two main pillars of the “alternative paradigm” are a progressive land tax based on size of holding and a land ceiling, above which owners could not hold or purchase land. The first has been a part-in the initial stage — of every land reform proposal since 1954. But it is a provision that never survived the first draft of a presidential committee. It was so clearly anathema to landlord legislators that it was never presented to the Congress. If this “alternative paradigm” is designed as a proposal to the Aquino administration, then some “political market realities” have not been kept in mind. A land ceiling, which has, in fact, been on the law books since 1972, is precisely one of those provisions which a weak bureaucracy in the context of patronage politics cannot enforce.

Some critics would go so far as to claim that the authors’ preferred strategy does not amount to land reform at all. According to the authors, share tenancy is to be encouraged and all regulations governing the level of rents are to be removed. (Present law limits leasehold fixed rents to the equivalent of 25 percent of the harvest.) Plantations, after redistributing land to small farmers are to be allowed to lease it back in excess of the retention limit (p. 15). It is quite specifically a “land reform” for the middle class, not the landless: “In our suggested framework, much of the lands owned by big landlords will be purchased by the rural middle class rather than the landless” (p. 16).

Nowhere in the book is there any recognition that a proper goal of land reform should be to make the small farmer and farm worker less dependent, economically, socially, and politically, on local elites. In fact, the emphasis on expanding share tenancy, promoting contract farming, and the role of agribusiness would either increase that dependency or simply alter superficially its economic arrangements. The so-called “rural middle class” composes a goodly portion of the local elites and often has a relationship with the landless peasant or rural worker even less benign than that of the traditional hacendero. In any case, the rural middle class is expanding even without the policy instruments suggested by the authors. Whatever benefits there are for social equity and democracy — and there are some — the middle class can prosper under the present policy environment; it is the landless who most need support and protection through reform.

It is to the authors’ credit, however, that, while they fail to satisfy the careful political analyst or the proponents of “genuine agrarian reform,” neither do they offer much solace to landed opponents of reform, at least on some points. In the chapter entitled “Debunking Myths in Coconut and Sugar Sectors,” the authors conclude that there is no evidence of economies of scale and that small farms can be quite efficient. They also specifically reject the argument that sugar workers do not want to become farm owners. They do, however, endorse the fears of sugar millers that if hacienda workers became farmer-owners, they would plant less sugar. Even for “modern plantations” organized along agribusiness principles, the authors contend that ownership of large tracts of land is not required for efficient operations. What is required, they say, is close coordination between production and processing/ marketing to meet stringent quality specifications by overseas markets (p. 142). Nor do their comments on the corporate stock-sharing scheme in Republic Act 6657, the “Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law,” provide comfort to President Aquino’s brother, its author. Hayami and his coauthors conclude that it is neither fair nor practical as a substitute for land redistribution. Finally, they argue that, contrary to the views of most landlords, there is not enough unused cultivatable public land to provide a significant alternative to land reform.

In any case, while the “alternative paradigm” presented here is not a practical basis for real reform, this volume provides a wealth of socioeconomic data and analysis on hind and marketing arrangements in all major Philippine crops. In this respect, it is unequaled and will long be an essential reference for anyone studying agrarian policy. What is missing from this data, however, is the role of labor unions and peasant associations in protecting and promoting the interests of their members. In fact, if there is any source of optimism at all on the Philippine agrarian scene, it is that peasants and rural workers have become better organized in the last generation and, in the recent proliferation of nongovernmental organizations, have found more middle class allies. Of course, organizers still have a very long way to go, but it is only their success in forming a militant, but pragmatic, farmer/workers movement in the Philippine countryside that can alter fundamentally the make-up of the “political market” in the Philippines and thus increase the prospects of both enacting and implementing real land reform. It is regrettable that the authors of this volume have not commented on this point.

DAVID WURFEL University of Windsor

Categories Philippines, Agrarian policy