Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Landless in our own land

Philippine President Noynoy Aquino recently signed two major land lease agreements with China and Japan. China would lease from the Philippines 1.2 million hectares of land for agricultural production, and Japanese corporations, one million hectares for bio-fuel production.

A rice farmer in Davao del Sur, Agriculturist Finesa Cosico cites a host of reasons
 for the drop  in output. Photo courtesy of  Karlos Manlupig/ Click image
to view "Agrofuels & Food Prices"
These lease agreements were signed before Congress approved a resolution by both houses to sit as a bicameral constituent assembly to amend the economic provisions of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which specifically limit foreign investments to 40 per cent. Proponents of charter change have argued that this restrictive foreign equity requirement is a major stumbling block in attracting foreign investments in the Philippines.

President Aquino, however, insists that charter change is not a priority of his administration. Rightly so, because there is no actual need to amend the economic provisions of the Constitution to ease the flow of foreign investments in the country. The so-called restrictive economic provisions have already been watered down and weakened by one legislation after another, all of which favour the foreign investors.

Preferential rights to foreign investors

One of these laws that gives preferential rights to foreign investors is Republic Act No. 7652, The Investor’s Lease Act, which grants to foreign investors the privilege of leasing private lands for a period of fifty (50) years, which may be renewed for another twenty‐five (25) years. An effective lease of 75 years is almost like owning the land for a lifetime and foreign investors can do as much as anything with the land they lease.

Next to Indonesia, the Philippines is the most popular country for land-grabbing deals in the Asia-Pacific region. According to an Oxfam study, some 1.37 million hectares of agricultural land were leased during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. President Noynoy Aquino has already doubled this number with the recent lease agreements he signed with China and Japan.

Foreign ownership of agricultural lands in the Philippines is not exactly a new phenomenon. As early as the 1900s, large banana and pineapple plantations were operated by large American multinational companies. Foreign agribusiness firms have long expanded into production of palm oil, rubber and other similar industrial crops.

Over the past few years, there has been a big surge in the demand by foreign investors for agricultural land, not only in the Philippines, but also in many countries of Africa, Asia and South America as well. Large-scale foreign investments in land, typically in the range of thousands to hundreds of thousands of hectares, are being driven by demand for agro-fuel production, and more recently—outsourced food production, in the case of the oil-producing states in the Arabian Gulf and heavy populated countries like China and India.

The agricultural land investment deals brokered by former President Gloria Arroyo covered 1.37 million hectares for the production of agro-fuel stock, such as coconut, jathropa and oil palm for bio-diesel, and sugar, sweet sorghum, cassava, and molasses for bio-ethanol.

Foreigners outsourcing food and agro-fuel production

Foreign investors have been targeting vast tracts of agricultural land in developing countries like the Philippines to produce agro-fuels. The Philippines, for one, offers a huge comparative advantage due to low labour and land costs. Blending of traditional transport fuels such as gasoline with bio-diesel and bio-ethanol, particularly for countries dependent on oil imports, has driven up the demand for agro-fuel production, thus building up the race for the world’s farmlands.

Adding to the growing demand for land in developing countries is the perennial food crisis, which is now exacerbated by the world financial crisis as well. To avoid shortages, soaring food prices and export restrictions ushered in by the 2008 food crisis, countries like China, India and those in the oil-rich Arabian Gulf, are purchasing or leasing lands through sovereign wealth funds in order to outsource their own food production for their own populations.

But leasing our agricultural lands to foreign corporations for either agro-fuel production or their food supply has disastrous consequences on our country’s own food security and to Filipino farmers.

For Chinese and Japanese: ‘Eat rice as much as you can’

The Philippines is the world’s largest rice importer in 2010, yet it is also the 8th largest rice producer in the world. Rice production has been declining in the last two years and there is a strong probability that the Philippines will have to import rice again from other countries. It is a nasty cycle of under production and importation, but the government continues to open up its farmlands to foreign investors so they can satisfy their demand for agro-fuels or stock-up for future food shortages.

As usual, the government will conveniently blame climate change and the vulnerability of our agricultural sector to both drought and rainfall for the failure to meet rice production target for this year. One Philippine senator also blamed rice hoarders and smugglers for distorting rice inventories.

Solita Monsod, U.P. economics professor and former secretary of the National Economic and Development Authority, even wrote in her column in one of the daily newspapers that the Philippines would never achieve rice self-sufficiency, i.e., no imports, if Filipinos do not reduce their appetite for eating rice and replace it with other root crops. Why do the Japanese and Chinese eat as much rice they can and not worry about a rice shortage in the future? Even Filipinos in the diaspora still continue to eat rice despite the availability of pasta, bread or other foodstuff, or even when their palates have learned to adapt to the Western diet.

Problematic policies of the government with regard to agrarian reform and food security are at the core of the country’s failure to be rice self-sufficient. Conversion of farmlands for residential, commercial and other industrial purposes continue unabated. President Noynoy Aquino continues to implement the agricultural policies of his predecessor in leasing lands to foreign governments and corporations to meet their agro-fuel demands and production of high-value cash crops for export.

Land-grabbing leaves nothing for Filipino farmers

Leasing of Philippine agricultural lands to foreign governments and corporations is tantamount to an act of land grabbing and it leaves Filipino farmers nothing. Those who might happen to be living on these lands are not given the opportunity to even have a say on the appropriation of their lands.
"Massive production of biofuels is a crime against humanity because of its impact
on global  food prices," says UN Special Rapporteur for the Right to Food. Click
 on image to view "The Right to Food: Corporate, Foreign Government Land Grab
Causing Hunger  in Poor Countries:"
This is the recurring problem that besets leasing of lands to foreign investors at present. Farmers and smallholders are being ignored. The failure to engage these farmers before signing deals has already led to the collapse of two high profile “land grab” negotiations—between Korean firm Daewoo Logistics and Madagascar, and the Chinese and Philippine governments. The government of Madagascar fell as a result of a popular uprising against the Korean deal.

Did President Noynoy Aquino consult with the farmers and smallholders before he signed the land lease agreements with China and Japan?

“Land is not a commodity: you don’t just take it away from people and give them something else—it’s not exchangeable like that,” says a spokesperson for GRAIN, an international NGO campaigning against land grabbing.

“It has much deeper meaning for people…you don’t turn a farmer into a farm worker and say it’s the same thing,” the GRAIN spokesperson adds.

And with the current momentum towards charter change, giving foreigners virtual ownership of agricultural lands will give them full control of how to use these lands. Whether it’s for agro-fuel production or to ensure their own stock file of food, this will displace the country’s rice self-sufficiency aspiration and its program of genuine land reform for the small farmers.

Large-scale land investments endanger food security of host nations

According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, many large-scale land investments by foreign governments and corporations are not meeting the goal of ensuring equitable and sustainable food security. In fact, these foreign investments may be further jeopardizing the rights of host populations.

The UN Report recommends that the rights of communities affected by large-scale land investments must take centre stage. Their rights over resources must be respected and the development of policies to address their needs must be made a priority.

If the proponents of charter change are allowed to have their say, “Filipinos will be landless in their own land. Kawawa naman tayo,” writes Neal H. Cruz of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

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