74 bishops to Aquino: Don't let land reform die

MANILA, Philippines – Don't let agrarian reform in the Philippines "die a quiet death," appealed 81 Roman Catholic church leaders to President Benigno Aquino III and lawmakers.

In a two-page letter to Aquino, the religious leaders, led by Catholic Bishops' of the Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) President Archbishop Socrates Villegas, appealed for the approval of two critical land reform bills: House Bill 4296 and House Bill 4375.

The letter was signed by 15 archbishops, 59 bishops, and 7 church administrators, according to a CBCP news report. (SEE LIST: Farmer or landlord?: Whose side is your bishop on?)

HB 4296 renews the ability of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to put more agricultural lands under agrarian reform – an ability that was put on hold when that aspect of CARPER expired last June 2014.

“Not extending CARP and ensuring the gains of the program is tantamount to disenfranchising at least a million farmers of their right to own the land they till, equitably share in the fruits of their labor, and find a path out of poverty,” the prelates stressed.

HB 4375, meanwhile, creates an independent Agrarian Reform Commission to evaluate the "actual" accomplishment of CARPER and investigate possible violations in the implementation of the law.

Pending status

The Senate has passed its version of CARPER extension bill HB 4296, but the Lower House has not despite Aquino certifying the bill as urgent 9 months ago.

HB 4375 is still pending in the Lower House and lacks a counterpart bill from the Senate. The Catholic Church leaders believe this bill should also be certified as urgent.

As of August 2014, more than 700,000 hectares of agricultural land are yet to be awarded to farmer-beneficiaries, according to DAR data.

Even the 1 million to 1.5 million hectares DAR claimed to have distributed “are not under the control of farmer-beneficiaries and are suspect as evasions of the law," said the church leaders.

Some so-called distributed lands are under collective certificate of land ownership awards (CLOAs), long-term leaseback agreements, voluntary land transfers or voluntary offers to sell which mean farmer-beneficiaries are not enjoying true ownership of the land, they said. (READ: Lack of support for farmers drives abusive 'aryendo' system)

“Unless these transactions are voided and the land distributed to legitimate farmer-beneficiaries, the landowners and the DAR personnel complicit in the evasions will be rewarded for defying the law,” they added. 

Justice for farmers

Passing the bills are necessary for Aquino's fulfillment of his "social contract" with Filipino people, said the church leaders.

Their non-passage would signify the "country’s failure to break up the unjust concentration of land ownership in a few and thereby not achieve inclusive growth."

Aquino has promised to distribute all agricultural lands to smallholder farmers during his term. Groups have accused him, however, of blocking the "genuine" distribution of Hacienda Luisita, which had been controlled by his family, the powerful Cojuangco clan since the 1950s.

But a Supreme Court decision ordered the distribution of the land to farmers since it concluded the hacienda had been purchased by the family using government money.

The DAR maintains that parcels of the controversial sugar plantation have been awarded to "qualified" farmer-beneficiaries. – Pia Ranada/Rappler.com