Outweighing Communism: The Role of the Military in Land Reform
By Col Ernest John Jadloc, Philippine Army
In 1952, U.S. officials approved the establishment of an international anticommunist movement for rural reconstruction in the Philippines. Central to this project was the issue of land reform. After a perceived success of development programs and subsequent surrender of the Hukbalahap insurgents, the U.S. abandoned its commitment to land reform. However, land reform and its security implications have not been forgotten and are at work today.
Land reform is a challenging program particularly in remote areas threatened by communist insurgents. In 2015, farmer beneficiaries monitored by FIAN International in Hacienda Matias in Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon, Philippines finally harvest their crops peacefully. Another observer from the Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution said that it was the most impressive showcase of land reform of the administration. There are other detailed publications about the Hacienda Matias land reform journey. As the Army Battalion Commander on the ground, I can say that the Armed Forces has a significant role in land distribution and the success of the land reform program contributes to military counter-insurgency campaign. In this article I will discuss the military contribution to the program. My analysis will start from the security situation with regards to land reform, then explore the complexity of the problem, and finally explain the contribution of the military to its resolution.
Bondoc Peninsula, Quezon, Philippines is composed of vast haciendas owned by few families. It is a serious issue that for many years has agitated the local people to join the communist armed struggle. This part of the country is considered as the first laboratory of communism in the Philippines. The insurgents call it ina ng mga larangan (mother of all guerilla fronts), and balon ng pulang mandirigma (well of red fighters). When I assumed command of the 74th Infantry (Unbeatable) Battalion in April 2015, land reform efforts in Hacienda Matias were one of the major concerns. Land reform in Bondoc Peninsula was literally deadly. A 2003, fact-finding report from FIAN International reads:
…since 1996 the families in San Vicente had filed various petitions for inclusion in the CARP but had so far not been recognized as beneficiaries. Since then, they are facing systematic harassments; for instance, ambush, verbal threats, firing at a farmer’s house, burning down a farmer’s house and even frustrated murder. Up to today three peasants have been brutally murdered. The last murder happened in October 2003. The actors responsible for the harassments and killings are goons of landlords and members of the New People Army (NPA).
Hacienda Matias is located in the municipality of San Francisco. This town including its neighboring municipalities had experienced harassments from communist insurgents. In December 2009, the Municipal Police Station of San Narciso was raided. All policemen were disarmed. In October 2010, policemen from San Andres municipality incurred casualties from an ambush. On May 10, 2015, a few weeks after I assumed command, we had our first firefight with the communist insurgents in Catanauan, two municipalities away from San Francisco. The rebels withdrew leaving two of their dead comrades with firearms. There were no casualties on our side. That same week, there was a land distribution ceremony to Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARB) in Hacienda Matias.
The land reform journey of Hacienda Matias has its own stories. In a typical land reform program, all farmers wanted to have their own piece of land and the legal process does not take a decade to finish. But Hacienda Matias is different. At that time in 2015, the ongoing legal battle has been running for ten years. Aside from court hearings, there were two complicated issues. First, there were locals who said that the Matias property was originally a ranch. In obedience to the government’s campaign for dual agricultural products, the ranch was planted with coconuts. Now the government was subjecting the property to land reform because it appears to be agricultural land. The Matias Family who owns the land felt betrayed. The second story was about various groups of farmers. One group applied to be Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARB) while another group did not. I call the latter group as internal non-ARB. These farmers have been in the hacienda for a long period of time. The status quo provides them a more secured income hence they did not apply to be an ARB. But there was a third group of farmers that emerged. I call them external ARB. According to land reform program, any able-bodied person willing to farm can apply to be an ARB. They need not be from the locality. And it came to pass that these external farmers were granted land. The coverage of their land titles includes the homes and plantation of the internal non-ARB farmers.
“Installation” is the official ceremony of handing over the land to the beneficiaries. On May 15, 2015, the first batch of ARB were installed in their respective lands. The landless finally had their own land. After a momentous celebration of handshakes and patting of backs, the key personalities of the event started their seven hours drive to their main offices in Metro Manila. Only three were left in the area—the farmers, the land, and the Philippine Army. A new tension had just begun. The newly installed external ARB farmers and the occupying internal non-ARB farmers came face-to-face with each other. There were stories that they threatened each other with bolos and farming tools. Eventually, home court advantage prevailed. The external ARB backed off.
The external ARBs need to be installed again. During the planning phase spearheaded by the Department of Agrarian Reform, I requested that after the Installation of ARB, all concerned government agencies need to stay onsite in a sustained manner. A police force should stay at least one month to address arrests, investigation, and criminality. Civilian services from the Department of Justice, Social Welfare, Human Rights Commission and many others need to be extended this time. I also requested to build a simple onsite inter-agency action center. It will be a venue for coordination and delivery of various mandated government services as the situation arise. All of these requests were granted.
The Matias family and the internal non-ARB farmers were also an important part of the equation. For the Matias family, only their legal team attends meetings and dialogues. It was understandable because these sessions were sometimes full of emotions and heated arguments. By the help of some local leaders, I was able to meet the Matias brothers in person and listened to their sentiments. On the other hand, the internal non-ARB situation got more complex. I discovered that some of our civilian paramilitary forces from the locality known as CAA were in a dilemma. These CAAs help secure the area from communist insurgents so that the external ARBs will be installed in their new land. However, some CAAs have families and relatives aligned with the internal non-ARB group of farmers. It appears that the CAAs were like rendering service to a sheriff’s team that will evict the CAAs own families in order for the external ARBs to be installed.
The provisions of the law and the services of the government need to be explained more to all farmers especially the internal non-ARB group of farmers. I started an information and education campaign with the theme, Sa lupang agraryo, gobyerno lamang ang nagbibigay ng titulo (in agricultural lands, only the government grants land title). My first audience were the soldiers and CAA because they were my troops. The soldiers needed to know what was going on. On the other hand, the CAAs are the head of family and influencers of their clan that are aligned with the internal non-ARB group. I explained to them that according to the land reform program, its procedures continue even there are pending legal battle. Only the Supreme Court can temporarily restrain the program if needed. I continued to explain to the CAAs that the farmers from the locality are the priority land beneficiaries. However, some did not avail of the program. Meanwhile, there was another group of farmers not from the locality, but they applied to be land beneficiaries. Eventually this group was granted land titles because they were qualified. In this situation the local farmers who want to be land beneficiaries have two options. One, is to contest the granting of land to the external ARB. For sure the local farmers will win because they are supposed to be the priority according to the land reform program. But the local farmers have to be patient with the procedures. Second option is for local farmers to apply as an ARB in the other portions of the hacienda that were subject to land distribution. In both options, all government assistance were in place.
On July 2, 2015, the ARBs were installed again. This time it was successful. Everything worked as planned. The farmers indeed owned and farmed their land. For this accomplishment, the Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform gave us a plaque of recognition. Various news came out about the Hacienda Matias incident. If there is something that can be added to the narrative is that there was a certain degree of cooperation from the Matias Family and the internal non-ARB that contributed to the overall success of ARB Installation. Unlike in the past events where a lot of agitated people crowded the entrance of the hacienda, this time there was no resistance when the gate was removed. Moreover, there were no more life-threatening confrontations among farmers especially in isolated areas of the farmland.
Our information and education campaign continued. With the permission of the ARB, I recorded a video of their personal testimonies as a means of educating other communities. Their success story penetrated the hinterlands of Bondoc Peninsula telling the landless that it is possible to have their own land apart from armed struggle. Months went by and more farmers applied in the land reform program.
As we worked to build more partnership with the farmers, another call of duty came in. My battalion left Bondoc Peninsula.
In August 2016, we arrived in Basilan Province and immediately joined the intense combat operations against the ISIS-inspired Abu Sayyaf Group. In June 2018, after my stint as battalion commander, I received an award during the 30th Anniversary of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program in Quezon Province. The event showcased various agricultural products from land reform beneficiaries such as buko (young coconut), fruits, vegetables, delicacies, and fruit preserves that were commercially available in shopping centers. They were literally sweet fruits of public service.
Land reform is the duty of the government. The Hacienda Matias story is a testament that the landless can have their own land apart from armed struggle. Implementing this program in areas threatened by communist insurgents requires sustained availability of government services. An onsite inter-agency action center is ideal to cater this need. Information and education initiatives should be in a reaching out mediation manner to all concerned parties, particularly those who have negative impressions about the program. In all of these efforts, the responsibility of the Armed Forces is to ensure that communist insurgents unable to disrupt the collaborative works of the farmers and the civilian government agencies.
 Daniel Immerwahr, Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015).
 FIAN International, “Parallel Report on the Occasion of the Review of the Philippines Combined 5th and 6th Periodic Reports to the UN CESCR at the 59th Session,” September 2016, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CESCR/Shared%20Documents/PHL/INT_CESCR_CSS_PHL_24993_E.pdf.
 Danilo Carranza, “Agrarian Reform and the Difficult Road to Peace in the Philippine Countryside,” NOREF Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution, accessed May 22, 2021, https://noref.no/Publications/Regions/The-Philippines/Agrarian-reform-and-the-difficult-road-to-peace-in-the-Philippine-countryside.
 Maps adapted from https://www.touropia.com/regions-in-the-philippines-map/ and https://images.app.goo.gl/zZvYz5yaowreGBsq8.
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 “Cops in Quezon Police Station Relieved Over NPA Raid,” GMA News Online, accessed May 22, 2021, https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/179863/news/regions/cops-in-quezon-police-station-relieved-over-npa-raid/.
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 CAA means CAFGU (Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Unit) Active Auxiliary. They are paramilitary forces from the locality. Their firearms, training and daily subsistence are provided by the government for their part time duty as force multiplier of the regular force.
 SOLCOM AFP, “DAR Secretary Recognizes SOLCOM,” SOLCOM FB page, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/SouthernLuzonCommandAFP/posts/1605185343074866.
 2ID, PA, “2ID and 74th IB Receive Awards from DAR,” 2ID FB page, accessed May 23, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/junglefighterdivision/posts/2520556618169978.