Land Reform in the Philippines: a detailed history lesson on the failure of land reform and its effect on a nation’s development

“Land Reform in the Philippines” (Asianometry, 17 October 2022)

For most of its existence as an independent nation since 1946, the Philippines has suffered from unequal distribution of land with the bulk of the nation’s land being owned by a small landowning elite – who also happen to make up most of the Philippines’ political elite. The problem stems back to the time the islands that make up the Philippines were colonised by the Spanish in the 1500s who introduced a feudalistic landowning / landholding system in which the Spanish colonial elites owned the land and controlled it through a class of administrative clergy and bureaucrats known as the Principalia. The Principalia became the foundation of the landowning elite and the Filipino people ended up as tenant farmers. (Before the Spanish arrived in the mid-1500s, land in the Philippines had been owned and managed communally.) Over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, the Filipino people revolted 100 times against their European overlords, finally succeeding in overthrowing Spanish rule in 1898 – only to come under United States rule.

Like the Spanish, the Americans were a distant colonial power who relied on intermediaries to rule on their behalf and they did this through elections that chose administrators. Unfortunately for the majority of Filipinos, kept poor and uneducated, those who could vote were usually the very landowning elite minority who voted their own into power as administrators. The result was that any legislative attempts at land reform that did not preserve the power of the landowning elites failed. Most such reform attempts concentrated on improving the lives of tenant farmers but the bills usually contained loopholes that allowed landowning elites and foreign corporations to circumvent any responsibilities imposed on them once the bills became law. While other nations in the neighbourhood of the Philippines – China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan come to mind – were able in one way or another to enact land reform (even if this was the result of socialist / Communist revolutions that overthrew old landowning elites), the Philippines was never able to bring about significant land reform even after gaining independence in July 1946. All too often, the politicians filling seats in the nation’s political legislative institutions came from and were allied to the landowning families and other elites that had long held political power during the country’s colonial period.

The documentary traces in considerable detail attempts by successive Philippines governments from the 1950s onward to ease or improve the lot of tenant farmers, or to make land ownership easier for small farmers, without actually forcing the landed elites to give up land and the power associated with land ownership. Emphasis is put on how the country’s failure to carry out land reform is related to its continued economic and industrial stagnation even as the Philippines’ neighbours bypass the island nation in economic development, progress and prosperity. What the video fails to address though is the extent to which the landowning elites in the Philippines are supported by the US and other Western governments – without that external support, perhaps groups and political parties supported by the bulk of the Filipino people for their land reform agendas would be able to gain political power and have the authority (and the military back-up) to force the elites and corporations (local and foreign) to give up land so it can be redistributed to farmers. At the same time, farmers need government and communal support to afford technology and to build up knowledge and skills needed to grow enough food for themselves, their families and their communities, and to be able to gain the resources needed to reinvest in their farms and lands, so that they are not forced to go into debt or to sell their lands and end up as tenants again.

The video serves as a detailed introduction into the problem of land reform failure and how that has affected the Philippines’ progress as a nation since independence was gained in 1946. The Philippines serves as an example of what happens to countries when land reform is not carried out in the way it should – such countries remain poor, weak and unstable due to the stresses and other problems that social inequality imposes on their societies.