Land Reform Is Essential to Democracy in Philippines

<i> Roy L. Prosterman, a professor of law at the University of Washington, has advised on land-reform programs in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. </i>

Last Oct. 21, the 13th anniversary of President Ferdinand E. Marcos’ land-reform program, two young Filipinos were killed by police in a melee during a protest march in Manila. The demonstration, by farmers and others, highlighted one of the most central but ignored problems in Philippine society: the almost feudal distribution of farm land.

Having made eight extended visits to the Philippines between 1972 and 1975 at the invitation of the Marcos government, as an unpaid, independent adviser on land reform, I am aware of both how fundamental the land problem is and how little has been done to solve it. In March, 1975, I publicly criticized the government’s failure to carry out the reform announced 2 1/2 years earlier, and warned of the consequences. I was quickly denounced in the tightly controlled Manila press.

American media coverage of the Philippines focuses far more on urban grievances than on the grievances of the rural poor, and far more on the political process than on the underlying economic and social problems. Yet 63% of Filipinos still live in the countryside, and 2 1/2 million rural families--divided about equally between tenant farmers and agricultural laborers--make their living predominantly through cultivating land owned by other people. America’s Clark and Subic military bases and the capital city of Manila are virtually surrounded by villages where such families comprise the vast majority of the population and of the electorate. Indeed, the proportion of such non-landowning families in the total Philippine population, 25% to 30%, is one of the highest found anywhere; it is not much different from the percentages that existed in pre-revolutionary Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba or Nicaragua.

The Philippine tenant farmers and laborers share the same problems--intense poverty and low productivity; Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan all produce at least twice as much rice per acre. And both landless groups have provided essential recruits and support for the communist New People’s Army.

Marcos at least pretended awareness of the centrality and explosive potential of the issue, once publicly stating (as he repeated in my presence), “The land reform program is the only gauge for success or failure of the New Society. If land reform fails, there is no New Society.”


President Ramon Magsaysay in the 1950s almost ended the earlier Hukbalahap rebellion by making credible promises of land for the landless, but he died before he could carry out most of those promises. Over time, further reform promises were made: first, and much less credibly, in loophole-ridden legislation in the years preceding Marcos’ September, 1972, declaration of martial law, then in Marcos’ own October, 1972, “Emancipation of the Tillers” decree.

That decree, though it dealt only with tenancy and not with plantation laborers, briefly held out the promise of major land redistribution. But Marcos’ landlord cronies talked him out of any serious implementation. A 1978 report by the Rand Corp. and U.S. Agency for International Development, issued close to the program’s wind-up, showed that fewer than one out of 20 tenants ultimately benefited. And laborers were not benefited at all.

Where does such a history of failure leave us? It remains doubtful that today’s election will be fair, and it is unlikely that Marcos will change his established course. Ultimately, a freely elected government may succeed to power. But if such a regime fails to carry out land reform--and diligence is far from assured, given the pre-1972 record--it could well collapse, Kerensky-like, before the peasant revolutionaries. Only land, and not ballots alone, will assuage the rural grievances; true democracy in the Philippines requires both.

At least there is now a new, non-military option. Last August, with Reagan Administration support, a broad bipartisan coalition in Congress passed new foreign-aid legislation that gives an American President extensive power to support land reform in Third World countries. If and when Marcos is replaced by a fairly elected government, this power could be quickly invoked to earmark a major part of U.S. aid to support land reform exclusively; it would require a lot less than the $1.3 billion projected for future construction at Clark and Subic.

Just possibly, if they will focus on it in time, the Filipino and American democrats can seize such a moment to act decisively on the land problem.