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Aquino shifts to high gear on land reform. She worries farmers won't get good deal after Congress begins

With democracy only halfway restored in the Philippines, the temptation to be both lawmaker and President has overcome President Corazon Aquino. But so far she has been tempted on only one pressing issue: land reform. As she announced in a press conference yesterday, Mrs. Aquino plans to move ahead on the land issue before a new Congress begins work in July - despite her efforts to avoid being like deposed President Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled by presidential decree.

``If we wait for the new Congress to enact these [land reform] legislations, than perhaps it would not be as effective and as relevant as how we would like it to be,'' Aquino said at a press conference yesterday.

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Aquino is concerned that the nation's vast number of landless peasants and tenant farmers will not get a good deal on land distribution and pricing from Congress, which will be elected May 11 under a Constitution ratified by voters Feb. 2.

The President and her advisers are eager to undercut the popularity of a communist insurgency, which uses the Maoist slogan ``land to the tillers.'' The communists have used the lack of government land reform as a prime recruitment tactic among the 70 percent of Filipinos living in rural areas.

The communists and other leftists also point out that past congresses wrote weak land-reform laws, reflecting more the interests of the landed elite. In some of its consolidated areas, the Communist Party has carried out some land reform.

In addition, a leftist peasant group known as KMP (Movement of Philippine Farmers) has helped highlight Aquino's relative inaction on land reform since she took power from Marcos a year ago. At least 12 KMP demonstrators were killed Jan. 22 when they tried to storm the presidential palace in a protest for ``genuine'' land reform.

When asked if she would enact other laws besides land reform, Aquino responded: ``Only where the matter is of the utmost urgency.''

Aquino also signed a presidential proclamation yesterday that would help fund the land-reform program. These funds, estimated at $1.2 billion, would come from the sale of factories and other assets that were funded with questionable government-backed loans under Marcos and are now considered bankrupt or useless.

This money, Aquino said, would put ``bad money'' toward a ``good use.''

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The scope of Aquino's land-reform program is so vast, ranging from 10-acre rice plots to giant coconut plantations, that her government is seeking at least $500 million from foreign donors to complete it. Finance Secretary Jaime Ongpin, who is in New York negotiating new terms for the nation's foreign debt, plans to seek additional funds from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and Western countries in coming months.

But the Aquino government, aware that donors may be reluctant to back the idea, are searching for new funding sources within the Philippines. One French senator on a visit to Manila this week suggested why foreign donors may raise an eyebrow or two: ``Why should we give money to Filipino landowners who, in most cases, are richer than most of the people in my country?''

The issue of money rests primarily on how much the government will pay landowners for their land. The new Constitution calls for ``just compensation,'' and the charter's drafters indicated that this meant fair market value.

A multi-department government group, including the Department of Agrarian Reform, has suggested that owners be given the fair market value for their land, but that the government reduce the price of the land when it is sold to peasants. This would call for massive subsidies, either from new taxes or foreign loans.

``The officials of the different departments involved in the agrarian program have set definite prices for irrigated and nonirrgated lands,'' Aquino said. ``But we will also consult with other sectors, meaning the landowners and the farmers themselves so that we can get a fair assessment of the value of these lands.''

Aquino did move late last year to address the notorious land problem on Negros, an island almost wholly dependent on sugar which has suffered widespread malnutrition among sugar workers as world sugar prices slumped in recent years. The highly indebted Negros plantation owners are being encouraged to swap their debt for land which will then be distributed to the landless either in direct ownership or through government-controlled plantations growing new crops.

Aquino said the nation's biggest estates - those over 250 acres - would be the first lands to be redistributed. Even so, government officials admit there is hardly enough land to distribute among the 30 to 35 percent landless in a rapidly growing population of 57 million. The government is in a race to increase agricultural wealth that will help capitalize new industries and thus create jobs for underemployeed farm workers.

One public sore point for Aquino is her family's own 15,000-acre sugar farm in the province of Tarlac. She refused yesterday to make this plantation a model for other land owners in breaking up their land. Rather, the Hacienda Luisita, as it is called, will be treated as any other land holding.

``Whatever laws and rules will be enacted, I say that nobody is above the law, and that includes me. So whatever rules are promulgated, we will abide. While Hacienda Luisita is sugar land, it is not representative of all sugar land in the Philippines. It could be a model, and then again, it could not. So I leave it to the experts to recommend to me what should be done with Hacienda Luisita,'' Aquino said.

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