Lack of support for farmers drives abusive ‘aryendo’ system

Pia Ranada
In Hacienda Luisita, farmers with no means to make their lands productive are forced to lease out their land to new 'landlords'

JUST A BANNER? Luisita farmer Roger Amurao holds up a banner identifying the farmer-beneficiary awarded land through the government's agrarian reform program. All photos by Pia Ranada/Rappler

TARLAC, Philippines – Agrarian reform beneficiaries may have been rewarded their land on paper, but the reality on the ground tells a different story.

Cenon Puntilar has been a farmer in Hacienda Luisita since he was 18 years old. At the age of 71, the government finally gave him the piece of paper that officially recognizes him as owner of a 0.66-hectare piece of land.

The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) claims all Luisita farmers have been given their land titles and that as of May, 96% have been installed in their lands.

But a sunny day in June doesn’t find Puntilar in his fields reaping the benefits of his hard-earned soil.

How can he plant rice when he has no money to buy seeds, irrigate the land, and enrich it with fertilizer? With no way to make his land productive, he was forced to lease his land to an “aryendador” for a meager P7,000 a year for a 3-year period.

So though he holds the land title, he cannot set foot on his own land, much less harvest crops from it.

Nung pinakiusapan namin na kami nang magsasaka, eh kaso tapusin namin daw yung pagka-aryendo niya. Maghihintay ng dalawang taon pa bago kami makapagsaka,” he told Rappler.

(When we asked him if we could be the ones to farm the land, he said we should just finish the lease. We should wait two more years before we can farm.)

The ‘aryendo’ system

An aryendador is a moneyed individual who offers desperate farmers money for control of their land.

Puntilar estimates that there are 300 agrarian reform farmer-beneficiaries in his village of Pando who have leased out their land to a single aryendador. Because each of these farmers owns a 0.66 hectare of land awarded by the DAR, that one aryendador has control of roughly 300 hectares of land in Hacienda Luisita.

Often these aryendadors are powerful people: a congressman, barangay captains, a general.

The aryendo system is strictly under the table. The agreement between aryendador and farmer-beneficiary is not put on paper, making it hard to prove the abusive system even exists.

“Our chief legal cannot also take the necessary steps. We cannot file any case without hard evidence in our hands. We cannot get any single document to that effect na ito sinanla niya kay ganyan (that this farmer leased his land to this person),” Tarlac Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer Ileona Pangilinan told Rappler.

The aryendo system is made possible by the lack of support services, which the CARPER law says should be given to farmers.

“If it’s only land distribution without support services, that is only partial agrarian reform. Without support services, agrarian reform is sure to fail,” said Danny Carranza, secretary-general of land reform advocacy Katarungan (Kilusan Para Sa Repormang Agraryo at Katarungang Panlipunan).

In order to farm, farmers need tractors to prepare their land, irrigation canals, water pump, seeds and fertilizer – all of which require substantial investment.

This is why so many farmers are in debt.

“My 3 brothers and I already have a debt of P17,000. That’s only for clearing the land and buying a water pump for irrigation. We haven’t even started planting seeds. We probably need to borrow P50,000 more,” Roger Amurao, a 46-year-old Luisita farmer, said in Filipino.

Buried in debt

Amurao is part of the estimated 20% of farmer-beneficiaries brave enough to borrow money after being installed in their land by the DAR. Carranza says the remaining 80% are too scared to go even deeper into debt and surrender their land to aryendadors.

FIGHTING FOR HIS LAND. Roger Amurao's land is surrounded by land he claims are controlled by aryendadors

Most of the time, farmers borrow money from the aryendadors themselves and are expected to pay a hefty 20%-interest rate in 3 months. Unable to shell out the money, the farmers are forced to lease their land to the aryendandor to pay for their debt, completing the cruel cycle.

One way to tell if land is under an aryendador is if it is still planted with sugarcane.

“Only an aryendador would have enough capital to maintain sugarcane. Most farmer-beneficiaries prefer to plant rice because it is cheaper,” said Carranza, as we drive through hectares of land full of swaying stalks of sugarcane.

Puntilar says if he still had his land, he would plant rice.

“If you spend P1,000 planting sugarcane, you spend only P500 with palay. In one year of planting sugarcane, you’re lucky to harvest once. But with palay, you can harvest 3 or 4 times in a year,” he said.

That’s why aryendadors allegedly lease land for a minimum of 3 years – so they can be assured of a harvest.

Amurao says that if farmers had the means to make their land productive themselves, they would not be so desperate as to turn to aryendandors.

Kung bibigyan lang ng support services, aangat yung mga tao (If support services were provided, the people here would progress),” he said.

The same land earning them P7,000 a year under the aryendo system could be earning them P120,000 a year from rice farming, added Amurao.

“Land and support services should be given simultaneously. It’s the DAR’s job to prepare farmers for land tenureship,” added Carranza.

Without these services, agrarian reform would only succeed in turning over land from one kind of landlord to another, the aryendadors. (READ: Farmers: DAR keeping prime Hacienda Luisita lots)

Before a landmark Supreme Court decision awarding Luisita to farmers, this prime agricultural land was controlled by the powerful Cojuangco family. President Benigno Aquino III belongs to this clan through his mother, a former president, but divested his shares of the estate in 2010.

Still at the proposal stage

The DAR knows these gaps and is working hard to address them, Pangilinan assured Rappler.

BUMPY ROAD AHEAD. Roads through Hacienda Luisita are rutted and muddy, making it difficult for farmers to get around

They achieved a “breakthrough” last April when they registered 10 Agrarian Reform Beneficiary Organizations (ARBOs) with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

This gives them the legal personality to operate as a group. All interventions under CARPER, including support services, will be channelled through these organizations, she told Rappler.

Each ARBO has around 200 to 300 members and is organized according to geographic proximity of the farmers or their place of residence. Only farmer-beneficiaries belonging to an ARBO can receive support services.

Pangilinan admitted that urgently needed support services are taking a long time but she asked for patience.

Her office just finished conducting a needs assessment to determine what specific support services farmers need. They are now in the process of preparing project proposals to list down the common service facilities they will request from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

These facilities include a tractor and a set of farming implements (thresher, tiller, reaper, corn sheller) per barangay. Hacienda Luisita covers 10 barangays.

It may take until December to finish the proposals. They hope to distribute the common service facilities by the end of the year “barring problems in the release of funds,” she said.

In the meantime, starting mid-June, they will be distributing vegetable seeds to 15 farmers per ARBO to give them another source of income and food for their families.

Asked about the aryendo system, Pangilinan said it is “not prevalent” and that there are some 800 hectares certainly not under aryendadors.

But from now until December, who can be sure if those hectares can stay aryendo-free?

The roads through Hacienda Luisita remain heavily rutted and muddy, even as billion-peso road projects nearby bring development to other places.

Luisita farmers may have to wait a while longer until the same development can reach them. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.