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Land reform in the Philippines: a rocky road ahead . . .

WITH the democratic election of Corazon Aquino as President of the Philippines and the establishment of the new Constitution and Congress, a significant political transition has been accomplished. Friends of the Philippines, however, should not relax. Difficult days undoubtedly lie ahead. The political transition returned the Philippines, in a sense, to the pre-Marcos social organization. Mrs. Aquino and many of her supporters come from the structure of oligarchical families that have ruled the islands since the Spanish days. The American colonial presence put a democratic face on that structure but basically did not change it. Aquino is now, through proposals for land reform, seeking to make changes and has passed this major responsibility to a new and untried Congress. Their task will be hard.

David Steinberg, in his book ``The Philippines, a Singular and a Plural Place,'' (Westview Press, 1982), comments: ``The malignancy of tenancy has proved hard to solve. Population growth, a long life expectancy, fragmentation of ownership through inheritance, rural usury, an increase in absentee landlordism, the collapse of the traditional landlord-tenant relationship in favor of impersonal economic obligations, and a growing peasant awareness of economic inequalities because of education, political agitation, and the media have combined to make land reform one of the sensitive issues for Philippine society.''

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Ferdinand Marcos, ironically, by systematically seeking to destroy the political power of major families, weakened the structure more than any previous leader. Mr. Marcos also made some effort at land redistribution. The benefits, however, flowed to the Marcoses and their friends, not to a wider and fairer distribution of wealth.

The Asia Society's book ``Crisis in the Philippines,'' (Princeton University Press, 1986) cites statistics suggesting that income distribution worsened during the Marcos period; in 1979, the richest 10 percent of households received 42 percent of total income. According to this source, at the end of 1983, 73 percent of households in the rural areas of the country had incomes below the poverty line. Aquino inherited a country that was not only economically depressed and deep in debt but also under serious economic and social pressures in the rural areas.

Press reports from Manila tell of a growing realization among many key Filipinos that land reform is essential. In large part this realization is driven by a recognition that the peasant rebellions that have marked Philippine history started in the rural areas.

Mr. Steinberg comments, ``It was soon obvious that the US land policy had failed to redress the inequalities of the Philippine land system. Loss of land through foreclosure increased throughout the twentieth century and spawned an ugly fissure in the social fabric. The tenant rebellions of the Sakdalistas and the Hukbalahap provide grim evidence of this missed opportunity.''

The latest movement, the Marxist New People's Army, first operated in the old Hukbalahap area, the home territory of the Aquino family.

Effective land reform in a feudal society faces enormous obstacles because it strikes at the heart of power and wealth in the system. Valid economic arguments do exist against the drastic dismantling of large estates in favor of small holdings.

Banks and credit institutions demand large guarantees to support untried independent farmers. Planting cycles may be disturbed, crops reduced, and income decreased at the very moment more revenue is needed. Landlords will dig in and resist; in the Philippines some, at least, are likely to resist with armed force. Radical peasant leaders will oppose gradual and realistic plans, and will demand more-extreme expropriations and greater compensation for themselves. Ambitious political figures in the new Philippine Congress may be tempted to exploit rather than resolve differences.

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The United States played a significant role in the political transition. Filipinos look to Washington to help through this next transition with substantial economic aid and encouragement. At a time when the US Congress faces deficit problems, a general disillusionment with foreign aid, and some concern about the future course of the Aquino government, that aid may not be forthcoming in the quantities the Filipinos desire. A lack of adequate response from the US will add to Aquino's problems.

The US continues to have much at stake in its relations with Manila. Americans can take pride in the help rendered to restore democracy in the Philippines. That task, however, pales in contrast to the complexities Aquino and the new government face in restructuring an ancient and traditional order into an equitable and productive society.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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