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Does the emperor have no clothes?

While in Jakarta for the ASEAN meeting, the President Aquino announced that the government plans to make available 1.5 million hectares of agricultural lands to be leased to 560,000 Metro Manila informal settlers. (Inquirer, 5/9/11) The news item drew reactions ranging from surprise to disbelief. Evidently it was a serious proposition. But the absurdity of the idea made me wonder if it should be taken seriously.

After reading it the first time, I wondered whether the news report was accurate and how an idea like this could pass the scrutiny of Cabinet members who understood well the situation of urban informal settlers and rural farmers. Maybe they were not part of the discussions. Or perhaps it is really hard to tell the emperor that he has no clothes.

According to the report, the idea behind the plan was to help boost the government’s drive for food self-sufficiency. Explaining further, the President was quoted as saying “There is a problem on one side. There is also an opportunity. So what is the opportunity? The Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have made an inventory. We can give each of those 560,000 families two hectares each.” The President then reportedly described the package to be offered to the resettlers. “The terms are that a house would be provided for you. You’d have to plant crops, you’d take care of them, and the earnings would all be yours.” Could the President have been misquoted or misinterpreted?

For days after the news report came out, no official from Malacañang came forward to say there had been a misrepresentation of the President’s words. It looks as though the report was accurate. There is indeed such a plan. But it seems the discussion was limited to a few government officials. When a plan as big and important as this is announced, the presumption is that complete staff work had been undertaken and all concerned agencies had been consulted. One wonders what staff work and consultations actually went into the crafting of the plan to make the President confident enough of its merits to make it public. Whoever it was who came up with the idea was setting up the President for a major embarrassment.

The announcement has stirred much interest. People are asking questions. Was the land inventory verified on the ground as to physical availability and suitability for supporting a farm-based livelihood? Have the DA and DENR verified that the 1.5 million hectares of land in their inventory are available for leasing to interested parties, that there are no tenure claims on some of them (such as ancestral domain claims), that there are no occupants who are actually using these lands, albeit without legal permission? Evicting these occupants and users would entail conflicts which surely the government would not want to instigate. Have the cost implications and financing sources been studied?

If indeed there are these lands available for agricultural use, why have these lands not been offered first to the thousands of landless farmers and farm workers who have been clamoring for land but have not received any under the government’s agrarian reform program because they are unqualified, there is not enough land in their areas, or the land distribution process is simply slow. These lands could be leased to them. Shouldn’t they be the priority and aren’t they better candidates to help in the government’s food sufficiency program? Obviously these farmers have the necessary skills to make these lands productive unlike the urban poor many of whom would not know the first thing about farming. Not only would the lands be used productively but the landless farmers now given land use rights would be less inclined to move to the cities to become informal settlers there.

Given the government’s poor track record in providing agricultural support services to beneficiaries of the comprehensive agrarian reform program, how did the administration imagine it could do a better job at assisting urban informal settlers now turned farmers in making these lands productive? It simply defies reason. If it has the capacity to provide this kind of assistance to informal settlers shouldn’t the government start with improving the irrigation facilities and farm-to-market roads in the agrarian reform communities and lands already distributed to farmers to help the latter increase their yields? It seems to me a wiser use of government resources.

The proposition looks absurd from every conceivable angle. It only makes sense if the government is making a promise it does not intend to keep.

For the urban poor groups that have been engaging the administration and the President himself in a series of policy dialogues over solutions to their unresolved tenure problems, the announcement hit them even harder. In all the discussions they have had with the President, they have consistently put forward proposals that favored on-site development, in-city or near-city resettlement. They know that their proposals are not easy to accept which is why they labored to gather data, consulted experts for technical advice and patiently discussed their proposals with various government officials. The plan to resettle Metro Manila’s informal settlers not just to the urban periphery but to the hinterlands is so contrary to the policy direction they have been working out with government. According to the report, agencies involved in the plan, including the National Anti-Poverty Commission, are still drawing up the program to implement the plan. The first thing they should do is ask themselves whether they can tell the emperor whether he has clothes on or not.

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