Friday, May 29, 2009

Time to Become Accountable

When I, together with some other bishops and members of the urban poor, joined the farmers who went on huger strike in December, 2008, I prayed fervently not so much for strength of body but for elasticity of patience and continuous belief in good faith. It was heart-rending for me to see how everyday the farmers would fight against weakness and call on the congresspersons to give them their due, in so few but sincere words. I fought hard as well, trying not to hate the men and women legislators who would continue to disregard the farmers and pass by them in a hurry to get to their Christmas parties…to enjoy their bounty. Every time I felt discouraged I would close my eyes and assure myself that justice would come, maybe during the six-month period the legislators afforded themselves to study and introduce “perfecting amendments” to the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

It has been more than five months since that day Congress issued that Joint Resolution which to me was a promise made by them to do their job, albeit a little belatedly. But my experience in sessions at the House of Representatives tells me that the people’s representatives have no intention of enacting the CARPER bill. There are but seven session days left and yet they have discussed the bill only once, with several members obviously delaying the bill’s passage and proposing amendments that will water down the program. The House leadership claims that they are merely waiting for the Senate to pass their own version but there is no such luxury of waiting, no luxury of being political lazy and insincerity. Sadly, not only those who are known to be landowners are opposing the bill, even some of those who claim to fight for human rights seem to go out of their way to block this essential social legislative measure.  

Time is running out on us, not just on Congress but on all of us who fail to help protect the farmers’ right to be emancipated from their bondage to the soil. We should all work hard and fast towards ensuring that the widespread hopelessness of our farmers will be arrested and will no longer be aggravated. Then, disregard of the farmers’ welfare was met with tranquil and non-violent means of protest. Then and now, our legislators continuously show arrogance and greed which shall later on be met no longer with impunity but justice. Meanwhile, our farmers are back again, united for one purpose: to ask this government for redress, to ask our leaders to treat them reasonably and fairly so they would respond responsibly and soberly as well. Our farmers are telling us NOW is the time to act with definite steps toward social justice. They are telling us that the government’s maybes will no longer suffice in answering their calls. Because all of us, especially those who wield power, will be made accountable for both the wrongdoings we commit and the duties we omit to do. 

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Protecting Whose Agenda?

I recently visited the lobby of the House of Representatives session hall. I immediately noticed the newly renovated walls bearing pictures of significant events in Congress’s history. Among those pictures pertaining to the present Congress was a photo of a booklet with the following words printed on its cover:

“Sustaining the Growth, Spreading the Benefits:
A Legislative Reform Agenda for the House of the People.” – House Speaker Prospero Nograles

This made me ponder for a while. Amidst all the seemingly unsound and doubtful legislative proposals and policies cropping up in Congress these days, I could not help but wonder. Whose growth are our national leaders trying to sustain? Are the laws churned out by this body upon which we, as a people, have entrusted our wisdom really for the benefit of the Filipino? There is one House measure which has piqued my concern at the moment. I came across this House Resolution (HR) No. 737 which, essentially, proposes to grant ownership of Philippine land to foreigners.

Under the proposal, alienable lands of the public domain—which are agricultural lands- with a maximum area of one thousand hectares, can now be leased to foreign corporations for a maximum of fifty years. And disturbingly, ownership, not just lease, of agricultural lands measuring up to twenty-five hectares is granted to foreign corporations. This proposal seeks to change the proviso in the 1987 Constitution which restricts ownership of Philippine lands to Filipinos and Filipino corporations.

Under Section 2, Article XII of the 1987 Constitution, the ownership-in-trust of natural resources is vested with the State and the State may sell, lease, or otherwise alienate the rights to these resources through contracts to Filipinos and Filipino corporations only. Thus, foreign individuals or corporations are clearly excluded.

Under HR 737, the State will do away entirely with the restriction on foreign ownership. The proponents of this Resolution seek to amend the constitution and open our land to foreigners, with the haste and neglect unbecoming of any honorable national leader.

This Resolution is actually another try to resuscitate the failed Cha-Cha attempt by the solons. It becomes apparent that, despite the claim of limiting amendments only to economic provisions (foreign ownership of lands) which will help gear up development, productivity, and efficiency in the country, this pursuit for Charter Change may become a vehicle for other unwanted changes in government. A vehicle highly vulnerable to derailment. This Resolution, dangerous in itself substantially, may also usher in procedural irregularities in amending the Constitution. There is a danger, real as it is grave, that this measure could be used to influence answers to questions of good governance and accountability.

I tried hard to weigh the possible benefits of this Resolution for the Filipino people vis-à-vis the obvious dangers that would come with it. Assuming that HR 737 is indeed merely an economic proposal, would foreign ownership of lands really result in economic development of the country? And if it will, will this economic development trickle down to the people who have remained poor even during times when ownership of land access to land and other natural resources were ensured to Filipinos only?

I shudder at the thought of unfair competition for land between Filipinos, citizens of this country who have made land productive, and foreign entities with nothing but abundant financial resource to offer. I am jolted by the terrible scenario of Filipinos becoming squatters in our own land. I remember that God told us that the earth and all its bounty is for us to share, maybe this measure is not bad after all. But then I realize that the Filipinos who have been gifted with stewardship of this country have not even had their rightful share and yet they will have to give way to those who have the might and wealth to take part of more than they need. Surely, it must not have been God’s intention to encourage excesses when there are those who lack not only as regards land but also dignity.

As it is, the Government already has designated millions of hectares of our lands for the benefit of foreign corporations, without consideration for the farmers, indigenous peoples, and other members of the communities affected by these government exploration and biofuel contracts.

I believe that the Constitutional restriction on foreign ownership of land obviously involves a national security issue. I have been informed that there is no cap to the total area allowable for foreign ownership. If this is true, there might come a time that we will run out of agricultural lands which serve as food sources. And even if these lands continue to be used for food production, there is also a risk that most of the produce of our lands will be exported and yet we will no longer have a say on the matter. This will be an attack not only on our food security but also to our integrity as a people as well.

With the threat of enabling foreign corporations and associations to hold, acquire, and be granted the right to possess, own, utilize and develop land in our country, what will be left for the Filipinos? As we all know, the agrarian reform program is still underway, and thousands of farmers still await emancipation from the land they have tilled for generations. Over one million hectares of land await distribution. Our government cannot feed its own people, and yet we open up all our resources for non-Filipinos, as if without regard for our own people whom it is supposed to serve.

It is said that only fifteen million hectares of alienable and disposable agriculture lands are available to answer for the food security of Filipinos. HR 737 does not help improve this situation. HR 737 poses grave danger to our national security and sustainability. It is also unjust, considering that there are millions of Filipino peasants still not owning the lands their families have tilled for decades. It is unjust that our resources should be used primarily for the benefit of foreigners, and not those who do not have a stake in domestic development and peace.

As I take in the implications and consequences of this measure, I find myself challenged and hopeful at the same time. Though I am saddened by the apparent prioritization of this bill by the House of Representatives, I feel challenged as a Filipino to help protect the rights of my fellow Filipinos, here and in the countryside, who remain landless. I am challenged to continue pushing for laws which will protect the rights of the marginalized Filipino, laws such as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension (CARPER) with Reforms. I feel challenged but I remain hopeful and vigilant. I am hopeful because I see that there are still those leaders in government who work with us, their constituency, to make sure that the government works for national interest instead of the interest of the privilege few.

Together with people from the peasant sector, among others, I remain vigilant and urge Congress to fast track the enactment of socially just bills such as the CARPER bill and call on them to disapprove oppressive and unfair bills like House Resolution No. 737. I am hopeful that amidst underhanded efforts to go against the wisdom of the Constitution, to further deprive the marginalized Filipinos of their basic rights, and to evade laws on accountability, we Filipinos will prevail if we work together and fight with the guidance of our righteous God.

I also find comfort in the pockets of brilliance and statesmanship found in the history of Philippine Congress. I am praying fervently that our national leaders will, true to their promise, Sustain the Growth and Spread the Benefits for the Filipino people. I urge every Filipino to act with vigilance in ensuring that government agenda will reflect that of the people, in calling for accountability in governance and in seeking the just distribution of Philippine land and natural resources.#

+Broderick S. Pabillo
Auxiliary Bishop
Archdiocese of Manila