Arthur Neame works with the Socio-Pastoral Council. This article was published in the December 8, 2008 edition of the Business World, pages S/14 to S1/5. It is part of a larger work, Agrarian Reform and Rural Development –Mapping the Terrain, which he wrote for Evangelischer Entwicklungsdienst e.V. You can download the paper here .

Agrarian Reform (AR) proponents are competing for a constituency that is shrinking in relative size – not least because of increasing urbanization.

With this shrinking rural constituency, AR supporters may face  an uphill battle in asserting the need for effective and pro-poor rural development as the demographic changes in the country start to impact on the political dynamic. In any case, the last two successful and “popular” EDSA People Power uprisings have all emanated from political forces assembled in metropolitan Manila and have relied on mobilization, not only of the urban middle-class but also of the urban poor. Similarly, the so-called “EDSA Tres” attack on Malacañang was widely believed to portray a sense of betrayal felt among the many urban poor dwellers that formed the bulk of participants in the attack.  So it would seem  that at the tactical level, national politicians and the national administration are likely to see the political imperative of responding to unrest and complaints from urban centers far more quickly than the more dispersed and increasingly numerically disadvantaged rural poor.

Nevertheless, the fact of urbanization does not deny the strategic value of addressing rural poverty, since increases in urban population are still largely driven by rural-to- urban migration by those attempting to escape rural poverty. In other words a strategic response to urban poverty must depend on an effective response to rural poverty.

The demands of constituency-building

It is thus vital for AR proponents not to lose sight of the need to develop influential national constituencies. This seems to be emerging within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, for example.

However, neither the church nor the NGOs and similar advocates, have done much to develop the urban and middle-class support that might influence legislators to consider AR more seriously. One exception to this would be the mobilization of upper and middle-class students around the cause of the Sumilao farmers. But this campaign appears to have been fairly restricted to the Sumilao farmers, with their march from Bukidnon to Malacañang.

Such specific cases can be useful illustrations of the issues to a wider public, and undoubtedly a number of students have been made aware of the general issues surrounding agrarian reform as a result of the Sumilao campaign. But it appears that the caution with which AR advocates are treating one another means that opportunities for the development of a more significant voice from farmers and a sympathetic public may have been missed.

The necessity for a reconfiguration of interests

In fact, the Sumilao farmer’s march from Bukidnon to Manila could quite possibly have gathered numbers of both farmers and supporters on the way and have led to something reminiscent of the Thai farmers’ marches by the Assembly of the Rural Poor and its predecessors, that effectively forced the Thaksin government to attempt development of a new consensus between the rural poor and the emerging Thai global business. To date this new alliance, although subject to contest from an economically disadvantaged military and a vocal middle-class stung by Thaksin’s sweetheart deals with global interests, still holds sway in Thailand, despite last year’s coup

In order to accomplish a similarly purposeful reconfiguration in the Philippines, however, it will be vital to reinvigorate and ally with disaffected middle-class white collar workers and students. And they must be persuaded that it is in their strategic interest to concern themselves with rural poverty. It will also be necessary to convince both an urban public and DAR itself that addressing rural poverty will also mean tackling vested interests with large rural land-holdings and to ensure priority is given to private agricultural lands. This feat may prove a long shot, given that even during the height of support for Agrarian Reform between 1986 and 1988 (Cory Aquino presidency) and during the period of the most significant AR accomplishment from 1992 to 1998 (Fidel Ramos presidency), DAR was unable to achieve this goal.

However, what the Ramos period does appear to show is that an electorally weak presidency may feel the necessity to build broad-based coalitions of support that go beyond the traditional elite and enable the rural poor to gain some concessions. Unfortunately the Arroyo administration, though consistently challenged as regards its legitimacy, ignores the need for such support. Instead, it has used its powers of patronage, especially with regard to the House of Representatives and local governments, in combination with assertion of its military and police powers to try and achieve stability. At this point it would appear to have gained the upper hand, largely because of the inability of the opposition elite to provide any convincing inducements to the poor to form effective alliances with them. At the same time, the lack of a visibly widespread public consisting not only of the poor themselves, but also working together with a broadly supportive urban constituency of the middle-class means that the traditional elites are  not induced to make significant and lasting offers of compromise that will affect the interests of a significant proportion of their membership.

The Church as a starting point

It would appear to be a priority, therefore,  to attempt to redevelop a constituency similar to that of the late 1980s. The current position of the Catholic bishops regarding agrarian reform may well be a useful starting point, following their Second National Rural Congress in 2008 and a similar one 40 years ago. In addition to gaining church endorsement of the extension of CARP funding it may also be possible to ask for church assistance in overcoming DAR’s apparent “divide and rule” approach at the provincial levels, following the reported breakdown of provincial agrarian reform task forces on the ground. It may be good to involve church leaders since supportive bishops could use their diocesan structures to track progress from the national level . Similarly The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines ( CBCP) may be involved in the on-going work being conducted by a number of NGOs concerning government accession to various proposed trade agreements with China and Japan, which pose environmental and food security questions as well as being of questionable value to small-scale rural producers.

It is then possible to combine this sort of diocesan-level involvement by the bishops and church people with continued and determined work by NGOs in, for example, educational establishments. Such an approach may offer the chance to build a broad-based public constituency around a pro-poor rural development policy and its implementation. However, this will take some urgent, high-profile and widespread initiatives.