Of Rice and Bullets: The Story of Land Reform in the Philippines

Farmers are experiencing a crisis today, and it’s important that we understand why.

The Philippines is an agricultural nation. More specifically, it is a semi-feudal, semi-colonial society where power is concentrated in foreign business and landlords. A history of colonialism, Cold War politics, and decades of mismanagement have left us with a country in a cycle of exploitation on all sides.

None are more exploited than our nation’s farmers. At least 75 percent of all Filipinos work in agriculture, yet nine out of every 10 farmers do not own their own land. Farmers earn the least yet contribute the greatest in society. There are too many stories of farmers losing—and fighting for—their own land.

One of the most important things we have to talk about, in politics or in any other discourse, has to be land reform. Farmers are experiencing a crisis today, and it’s important that we understand, at the very least, the basics of it.

The Spanish and Land Distribution

Long story short, feudalism first became institutionalized in the Philippines upon the arrival of the Spanish. The Spaniards divided the archipelago into easily manageable estates and awarded the land to trusted officials, local elites, and the Church through the encomienda and eventually, the hacienda systems.

This arrangement had far-reaching effects. It enabled a select class to rise to positions of power, which led to the dominance of Spanish culture and politics over Philippine affairs. Until now, vestiges of Spanish culture seep into Filipino life through language, religion, and customs, and some of the nation’s most powerful can trace their origins to the Spanish colonial era.


In 1896, the Katipunan tried to change this system through revolution, waging an anti-colonial and anti-feudal war for the nation. Aguinaldo’s ascendance and American invasion sadly ended any dreams of ending feudalism.

The Americans saw the hacienda system as beneficial to them and left it largely intact. They encouraged landlords to maintain their power and engage in business, handing out land titles to formalize their claims. Landlords, in turn, passed legislation like the Tenancy Act, which transformed the landlord-farmer relationship from a paternalistic one to a business relationship.

Today, this semi-feudal relationship still exists. Most farmers are actually farmworkers, who earn less than minimum wage for a few days’ work. Farmers have no say in dictating the price of their harvests, and agricultural products are planted for export instead of for consumption.

Ferdinand Marcos and Presidential Decree 27

On October 21, 1972, exactly one month after the declaration of Martial Law, Ferdinand Marcos signed Presidential Decree 27, which ostensibly aimed to “emancipate tenants from the bondage of the soil.”

Marcos’ true intention with PD 27 was to “nip the communists in the bud.” At the time, peasant unrest was at an all-time high. In 1969, farmers in Central Luzon took up arms and formed the New People’s Army. Marcos foresaw that the NPA, though small and scattered, could eventually threaten his rule.

To pacify the peasants, he enacted PD 27. The decree, however, proved itself to be essentially worthless. One of its key provisions was that land used to farm cash crops (sugar, coconut, etc.) were exempt from land reform. This was both an effort to stimulate the export-oriented economy and protect Marcos cronies like Danding Cojuangco and Juan Ponce Enrile from land reform. Ultimately, PD 27 and the then-newly created Department of Agrarian Reform failed to live up to any promise.

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Cory Cojuangco-Aquino and CARP

When Marcos was eventually toppled by the EDSA Revolution, Cory Aquino replaced him as President. Aquino envisioned land reform as the centerpiece of her social agenda; something that thousands of farmers took to heart as they marched on Mendiola on January 1987.

The peaceful march, however, turned violent as police opened fire on the farmers calling for land reform. Instead of soil, they received bullets. Twelve farmers died while 19 more were injured in the Mendiola Massacre.

The aftermath galvanized the Aquino administration to railroad legislation on agrarian reform. Presidential Proclamation 131 and Executive Order 229 outlined Aquino’s land reform program, paving the way for Republic Act 6657 or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law.

This was the birth of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, which aimed to put an end to the land reform question. Aquino’s class origins, however, prevailed when CARP showed its glaring flaws, chief of which was the provision that allows haciendas to restructure themselves as corporations and give shares, known as the stock distribution option.

This is important to note, considering that Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino had a large stake in Hacienda Luisita, a 6,453-hectare estate in Tarlac owned by the Cojuangco clan. Equally important was that Luisita availed the stock distribution option, becoming Haciendia Luisita, Inc.

Genuine Agrarian Reform

Since then, the fight for land reform has moved slowly. The Department of Agrarian Reform still does its best to mandate the distribution of land to farmers, but landlords and companies still fight DAR every step of the way. Farmers, meanwhile, continue to suffer under the yoke of feudalism.


There are solutions, however. Lawmakers have been trying to push House Bill 555, or the Genuine Agrarian Reform Program, which will address the problems of CARP. Legislation moves slow, however, and GARB still remains a House Bill in Congress. 

Outside of Congress, the now-stalled peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front hinge on the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Socio-Economic Reforms (CASER), key to which is agrarian reform and land distribution.

In some cases, farmers and farmers’ organizations have united to utilize land left unused by the landowner, but this isn’t a substantive solution. Farmers have already stated that, if the government does nothing, they could have a peasant uprising on their hands. And given the current situation, who could blame them?

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About The Author
Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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