The Explainer: Social Justice

That was a scene from episode 15 of the documentary series, “The Cold War.” It shows actual footage of land reform, Chinese style. Replicating these scenes, here at home, remains a dream for some, a nightmare, for others.

The plight of the Sumilao Farmers has sparked debate and controversy. Once again, the concept of land for the landless, versus property rights, is being furiously discussed.

But there’s a danger we’re focusing on the letter, and not spirit, of the law. We need to ask ourselves, why does our government have a program, such as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, or CARP, at all? Why have we, as a people, committed to transferring property from some of our citizens, so that it can belong to others?

In other words, what is Social Justice, and what does a commitment to it entail?

So tonight is Social Justice night on The Explainer.

I’m Manolo Quezon.


I. Quid pro quo or confiscation?


THE days when there was wilderness to claim, and the chance to carve out enormous properties for yourself,  in a land not yet full of people, are long past. As we’ve become more crowded, so too have we begun to question the justice of a few having much more land while millions more have no property whatsoever.


This is not a theoretical question. It is a question, literally, of life and death. And it is a question that has taken its toll, in terms of life and treasure, in lands devoted to agriculture.


This painting by Fernando Amorsolo from the Ayala Museum represents our idealized view of our farmers.


It is a view encouraged by generations identifying not only with such images, but romantic notions put forward by songs. Such as “Planting Rice is Never Fun.” Let’s listen to it, now, courtesy of the Mabuhay Singers:


Planting rice is never fun,

Bent from one ’till the set of sun.

Cannot stand and cannot sit,

cannot rest for a little bit.

Planting rice is no fun,

Bent from one ’till the set of sun.

Cannot stand and cannot sit,

cannot rest for a little bit.


This editorial cartoon from 1939, is closer to the truth, and in fact, says it all. It’s from the Philippines Free Press. Landlords and Tenants, locked in a furious struggle.


The interests of the people who toil on the land, is often diametrically opposed to those who own that land. Yet time and again, there have been those who’ve tried to find a middle path, between outright confiscation of the lands of the wealthy, and making it impossible for the poor to own farms.


This is a difficult thing to undertake. But it must be attempted. As an ideal, social justice is not just relevant, it is essential.


Rizal’s family famously had problems as tenants of the friars.


Andres Bonifacio had no love of the landed class, and envisioned a society with, what we would call today, a preferential option for the poor.


Yet we know Bonifacio quickly lost control of the revolution. The haves, accustomed to power, wielded power.


In the revolution, the American historian Glenn May argued that in some cases, tenants followed the lead of their patrons; the hacendero became a general and he was followed his kasamas, who became the foot soldiers of the revolutionary army.


And this gives us an insight into the bloody history of peasant rebellions. The old notion, the essence of feudalism, was a web of mutual obligations between landowners and their tenants.


In his classic book, The Huk Rebellion, Benedict Kerkviliet says the problem arose when the traditional expectations in the landlord-tenant relationship, stopped being met.


Pat, would you like to read?


To the modern landlords, their relationship to their tenants was a business proposition –the peasants were laborers who would be employed as long as they helped turn land into profits.


But this wasn’t enough for the peasantry. Pat?


The peasantry, meanwhile, wanted traditional patronage more than ever, lest they succumb not only to such usual hazards as poor harvests and sickness, but also [because] “Progress” had not brought even modest economic gains to the peasantry, while at the same time severing numerous ties with their landlords that peasants wanted to retain and to which they felt entitled. The traditional landlord-tenant relationship included far more than a simple exchange of labor for money, so peasants wanted to keep it. They wanted the landed elites to acknowledge those ties and the obligations entailed. The stage was thus set for a confict…

-Benedict Kerkvliet, The Huk Rebellion


Governments saw that conflict coming.


William Howard Taft negotiated with the Vatican for the purchase of friar estates, the cause of misery for Rizal’s family and many others. He was able to purchase 166,000 hectares of friar landholdings to be distributed to about 60,000 tenants: but the bulk of these estates went to American firms, businessmen, and landlords.


The Sakdal rebellion in 1934 led to a fact-finding report and identified the seriousness agrarian reform. It was with this situation in mind, that our 1935 Constitution enshrined Social Justice as a governing principle of our state, which has been retained in every subsequent constitution.


Former governor-general Francis Burton Harrison, engaged as an adviser to the new Commonwealth government, was frustrated when he proposed the breaking up of estates, on the Irish model, to create a new class of small holders. The cabinet and the national assembly, populated on the whole by people who owned haciendas, firmly opposed it.


Instead, the most that the government would do, was to authorize the purchase of some haciendas, for resale to farmers; and the passage of laws that said landlords and tenants should share the products of the land equally; penalizing usury, which landlords used to keep their tenants imprisoned in debt.


Faced with this problem, an American Communist, Sol Auerbach related that a thwarted Quezon,


was engaged in solving the problem in his own way -by putting the fear of the masses into the hearts of wealthy land barons. ‘I tell them [Quezon said], if you know what’s good for you better improve the conditions of your tenants. You do not have enough sons for the army, so we must conscript our soldiers from the poor. we put guns in their hands and teach them how to use them. If you are not careful they will use those guns against you. If you want to save what you have, give them ten percent of it or they will take it all.

Sol Aerbach, in his memoirs, 1936


But from Quezon onwards, our presidents, who saw that landlords wouldn’t relinquish their lands, preferred to settle agrarian problems by encouraging settlement in Mindanao.


To this strategy we owe, for example, Gen. Santos City, named after Paulino Santos who was sent to take the lead in the prewar settlement of Mindanao.


This, however, caused problems when, by the 1960s, Christian settlers had grown so numerous, that they began to engage in land-grabbing from Muslims. But that’s another story.


The Roxas and Quirino administrations continued the policy of purchasing some estates, encouraging a fairer division of harvests, and migration to Mindanao. They also pursued anti-insurgency to crush the Hukbalahap rebellion concentrated in Central Luzon.


Ramon Magsaysay reformed the armed forces, finally crushed the Huks, but also pursued resettlement as the most convenient solution.


To his credit, Diosdado Macapagal lost a lot of political capital by confronting Congress, repeatedly calling it to special session to tackle land reform. He helped destroy himself politically, by doing so.


Ferdinand Marcos pursued one of the most successful land reform efforts, but his concentration was on rice and corn lands.


President Aquino was urged by reformers, to use her post-Edsa revolutionary powers, to decree land reform. She preferred to wait until the 1987 Constitution came into effect, and Congress could tackle the issue. The result is the CARP we have today.


At first, CARP seemed to have an impact: From 1987-1992 a total of 898,420 landless tenants and farm workers became legitimate recipients of either land titles or free patents and support services.


Under Aquino, 2.6 million hectares or 33.3 percent of the total CARP scope of 7.8 million hectares was redistributed.


Under Ramos, 4.7 million hectares or 60 percent of the scope ended up redistributed.Under Estrada, From July 1998 to September 2000, the total number of beneficiaries of CARP was 182,762.


Now I won’t go into achievements since then, for a practical reason. The impact of the redistribution hasn’t been as fully studied, as these earlier redistributions.


In “Impact of Agrarian Reform on Poverty”  a paper written in 2002 by Celia M. Reyes for the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, the author concludes by answering the vital questions of land reform. The question is, does it really benefit the benificaries?




The results show that agrarian reform has had a positive impact on farmer beneficiaries.  It has led to higher real per capita incomes and reduced poverty incidence between 1990 and 2000. Compared to non-ARBs, ARBs tend to have higher incomes and lower poverty incidence. They also tend to fare better in terms of the other indicators of well-being.  ARB households have higher access to safe water, and sanitation facilities.  Members of ARB households tend to have higher educational attainment than members of non-ARB households. 

Celia M. Reyes, “Impact of Agrarian Reform on Poverty”


Thing is, not everyone remains convinced that the redistribution of land should continue to be a priority; or that Social Justice remains relevant in today’s globalized economy.


When we return, we’ll ask a member of the 1987 Constitution Commission, to walk us through the intentions of the framers of our constitution, when it comes to Social Justice and Land Reform.


II. Social contracts


[The Cold War –Vietnam 3:43-4:15 (people in fields to “had fled South…”]


THAT was a scene from episode 11 of the documentary series, “The Cold War,” again showing actual footage of land reform –Vietnamese style.


Now let’s take a look, briefly, on the principle that gives life to programs such as agrarian reform.


Social justice was defined by the late Jose P. Laurel when he was a Justice of the Supreme Court. In the decision to the celebrated Calalang vs. Williams  case, Laurel defined Social Justice as follows. Pat?


Humanization of laws and the equalization of the social and economic forces by the state so that justice, in its rational and objectively secular conception may at least be approximated.

-Jose P. Laurel, Calalang vs. Williams


Decades later, another brilliant lawyer and statesman, Jose W. Diokno,provided an updated definition of Social Justice in his essay “A Filipino concept of justice” published in Solidarity magazine in 1983.


Mahar Mangahas, in his column, focused on it. I’d like to share it with you, too.


Diokno wrote, and I quote,


“Social justice, for us Filipinos, means a coherent, intelligible system of law, made known to us, enacted by a legitimate government freely chosen by us, and enforced fairly and equitably by a courageous, honest, impartial, and competent police force, legal profession and judiciary.”


All these institutions, he said, had to do the following:


• Respects our rights and our freedoms both as individuals and as a people;


• Repair the injustices that society has inflicted on the poor by eliminating poverty as rapidly as our resources and our ingenuity permit;


• Develop a self-directed and self-sustaining economy that distributes its benefits to meet, at first, the basic material needs of all, then to provide an improving standard of living for all, but particularly for the lower income groups, with time enough and space to allow them to take part in and enjoy our culture;


• Change our institutions and structures, our ways of doing things and relating to each other, so that whatever inequalities remain are not caused by those institutions or structures, unless inequality is needed temporarily to favor the least favored and its cost is borne by the most favored; and


• Adopt means and processes that are capable of attaining those objectives.


Diokno’s thinking was obviously shared by drafters of our constitution.


Our Constitution says, in Article II, Section 10: The State shall promote social justice in all phases of national development.


And in the same article, Section 21: The State shall promote comprehensive rural development and agrarian reform.


So at this point, let me invite someone who helped draft that constitution, Christian Monsod.


My view


IF you will allow me to quote Quezon, he said, “Social Justice is far more beneficial when applied as a matter of sentiment, and not of law.” Magsaysay put it more simply when he said, “he who has less in life should have more in law.” The Catholic Church calls this the Preferential Option for the Poor.

As time goes by, the words that keep the spirit of social justice alive, are remembered and repeated to younger generations. As generations grow and multiply, so do the number of hearts and minds that have taken on social justice as a creed, grow and multiply. And as time goes by, so does the need for leaders to pay proper homage to social justice. After a certain point, rhetoric -perhaps reduced to empty repetition of inspiring dreams by then- must give way to action. Action from officials, regardless of how they feel about social justice. Social justice becomes a duty. And finally, a reality.



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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