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From prison to sharecropping to tending agrarian reform

When President Ferdinand Marcos proclaimed martial law in 1972, a newspaperman, Manuel B. Rotea Sr., was put in a stockade for six months. Now, in an odd turn of events, he is back in Manila as secretary-general of a new government-sanctioned organizatoin, the Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association.

Mr. Rotea, a short, wiry individual with a quick sense of humor, says he does not resent his imprisonment. "It was sort of a 'security picnic,'" he says. "We had fried chicken on Saturdays, ice cream on Sundays, movies every other day. I used to say if I did not miss my family, I would prefer to stay here."

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When released, he and his family moved to the island of Leyte. He was concerned that the government "might change its mond" and arrest him again. There he took up sharecropping on a coconut farm, looking after some 500 palm trees on about two hectares of land. "You have to survive," he explained.

With martial law, the Marcos government was able to start actual implementation of agrarian reform. Mr. Rotea noted that landowners, some with their own private armies, had previously resisted the breakup of their estates, and were successful. Nor would the national legislature vote the necessary funds for financing land reform.

"If you started organizing the farmers, you could end up six feet under," Mr. Rotea recalled. "Policemen sometimes drove union leaders out of town. It was Marlborough country."

But the Marcos government gradually brought law and order to the countryside and began reform of the feudal land system. Much of the land had never been even surveyed. Mr. Rotea became a leaseholder, paying rent rather than giving some 30 percent of the coconut crop to the landlord.

By October, the Ministry of Land Reform expects to have completed "Operaton Land TRansfer," turning over ownership of soe 730,000 hectares (1.8 million acres) of rice and corn lands to about 400,000 former tenant farmers.

The Philippine land reform generally gets high marks from foreign observers. Last year a US State Department report to Congress said, "The land reform program has been the single most effective program of its kind in the Philippines. . . ." A US Agency for International Development official said the program has been "very beneficial and achieved a good measure of success." A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization adviser noted that the Philippine reform "has been implemented smoothly, without any social upheaval and without any drop in production."

In most countries, land reform has meant a drop in farm output. But the Philippines apparently prevented that difficulty by its cautious and careful methods, by the availability at the right time of new "miracle" varieties of rice and of better corn varieties, by making financial, legal, and agricultural extension services available to the former tenant farmers, and by requiring membership in rural cooperatives.

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Mr. Rotea recalled that when he began organizing farmers on Leyte, he went through "a lot of trouble." He was arrested three times by local police. Two "goons" with guns arrived at his house once, but he was not at home.

"Fortunately," he says, "my members are tough, too."

The Ministry of Agrarian Reform began encouraging the farmers to organize into associations in 1978. By today, some 300,000 belong to the Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association, which was formally organized at a convention on Oct. 21, 1979.

Mr. Rotea was elected the top paid official and, as he notes, has been able to use his education again. He has a bachelor of arts degree. For instance, he has appared in court of behalf of some 10 farmers, winning eight cases and a ninth on appeal. Often there are disputes as to whether a farmer is a tenant farmer or a hired hand. As a tenant, he can either acquire the land he farms or become a leaseholder in the case of a small landowner. As a day farm laborer, he has no such rights.

"I have an average better than most lawyers," Mr. Rotea boasts. "But I know my agrarian law."

Mr. Rotea predicts that his organization will have 1 milliion members by year-end, though, he adds, some farmers are still afraid of joining. "Numbers are power," he says. "If we unite all farmers, then we may be a factor in politics."

The farm leader sees his association as a "pressure group" pushing for higher price supports and other benefits for farmers. "The farmers do not get much," he maintains.

This goal may be somewhat more ambitious than the government envisages. The articles of incorporation of the association say it should "work as an effective partner of the government in nation-building for the promotion of social justice to ensure the dignity, welfare, and security of agrarian reform beneficiaries."

Whatever, Mr. Rotea was last spring appointed to the government's highest agricultural policymaking body.

Mr. Rotea is concerned that should President Marcos eventually end martial law, as he has promised, the landlords might erode some of the benefits small farmers have received from land reform.

"We would like to be ready when that comes," he said. "Small farmers are very often the victims of power politics."

Further, he speaks of "plugging loopholes in the land reform law."

Though the transfer of land titles for tenant farmers on rice and corn land should be complete this fall, it will be 15 years before they all have finished paying for their property. The maximum size of the land transfer has been 1.5 hectares. The new owners cannot subdivide their land or turn it over to anyone other than an heir. If there is no heir who wants to be a farmer, it must be turned over to the government for resale to some other qualified small farmer.

Landowners with 7 hectares or less of rice or corn land can retain ownership (1 hectare equals about 2.5 acres). But they must lease hte land to a tenant -- not sharecrop. As of last May, some 626,385 leases covered 711,019 hectares. The leases protect tenants from harassment, ejection and excessive rents.

Some foreign land reform experts argued that there should be "zero retention" of farmland by absentee landlords. One US government expert thought it would have been better to reduce land retention to hree hectares as in Japan and Taiwan. But President Marcos decided that the middle class -- professionals, civil servants, teachers, shopkeepers, and others -- bought small pieces of property as an investment and should be allowed to retain ownership.

The former large landowners receive compensation in a variety of ways. For instance, they can receive cash payment of 10 percent of the value of the land and the balance in 25-year tax-free 6 percent bonds issued by the government's Land Bank. Or they can have a full guarantee on the payments by the tenant farmers of 15 equal annual amortizations.

The value of the land was set at 2.5 times the average value of the harvest in three normal crop years prior to Oct. 21, 1972. Establishing that value has frequently been difficult. So far, more than 5,000 landowners have been compensated by the Land Bank.

Another aspect of land reform has been the distribution of public agricultural land to "deserving landless families," or to Muslim rebels who give up their fight for independence in Mindanao. So far more than 50,000 families have been resettled in 44 projects.

Mr. Rotea himself hopes to qualify for 3 to 6 hectares of land in Tarlac, a small settlement area. Then, he notes, he would for the first time own land himself.

The government estimates it has 1.5 million hectares of land suitable for resettlement of 500,000 families. But since these projects involve the provision of such infrastructure as irrigation systems, farm roads and bridges, warehouses, community centers, school buildings, and so on, plus considerable other help to the individual formerly landless farmer to get him established, the program is costly. It is expected to take years to complete.

The Ministry of Agrarian Reform is now turning more of its efforts to extending the leasehold system to "plantation" crops, such as coconuts, tobacco, sugar, coffee, bananas, cacao, and pineapple.Some 1 million farmers are involved in coconuts, the most important of these crops. But only a small proportion are regarded as tenants.

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