From the Ground Up: Multi-Level Accountability Politics in Land Reform in the Philippines

Date: December 2017
Authors: Francis Isaac, Danilo Carranza, Joy Aceron
Publication type: Working Paper
Published by: Accountability Research Center, G-Watch and RIGHTS

In 1988, the Philippines enacted a land redistribution policy known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). After almost three decades of implementation, an estimated 13 percent of the land targeted for redistribution remains in the hands of powerful landlords. This paper investigates the contestation involved in the implementation of agrarian reform through the lens of multi-level accountability politics.

The Philippines’ longstanding campaign for agrarian reform has been led mainly by peasant organizations with deep links to the democracy movement. Following the transition from martial law to electoral politics in 1986, a broad coalition was able to secure the legislation of meaningful agrarian reform. Yet landlord power and impunity have managed to slow reform implementation. For decades, the peasant movement has struggled to push the government to implement its own laws, which involves direct conflict with landlords and their allies in government. In contrast to much of the research literature on accountability initiatives, which focuses on public goods and service provision, this study addresses the more openly contested process of implementing redistributive reform.

The case of the Peasant Movement of Bondoc Peninsula (Kilusang Magbubukid ng Bondoc Peninsula, KMBP) sheds light on the contest over implementing land reform in the Philippines. This study narrates the struggle of KMBP through the lens of vertical integration—how campaigns target different levels of governance (village, municipality, national, etc.) to achieve meaningful change. Using vertical integration, the paper uses a new mapping tool to identify the wide variety of actions taken by KMBP and its partners, the level of governance they have targeted, and the level of intensity in which they were pursued.

The Bondoc peasant movement worked to persuade the government to carry out its own land reform commitments, leading to the transfer of 10,000 hectares of land from some of the biggest landlords in the area to 3,800 tillers. This study shows how peasant organizations built their campaign from the ground up, starting around particular villages and landholdings and then building coalitions operating at the municipal, district, and national levels. This has allowed peasants to exert pressure on different levels of government, at times aided by national-level civil society organizations and media coverage.

In a novel approach, the paper also maps the similarly vertically integrated efforts of anti-accountability forces— those with a vested interest in blocking reform. Owners of large landholdings have responded with harassment, physical violence, vote buying and political maneuvering to undermine reform implementation. The conventional approach to the study of accountability initiatives either leaves out the opposition or treats it as a mere residual category. The approach developed here, by analyzing the opposition through a multi-level lens, brings the anti-accountability forces and their strategies into the framework. This mapping of anti-accountability forces reveals their power to be also vertically integrated. Landlord resistance to policy implementation has been especially intense at the village and municipal levels, but they have also undertaken lobbying at the national level. Their coalition-building strategy even includes unlikely alliances with Maoist rebels, when their interests align.

In addition to spotlighting the central role of peasant mobilization in promoting redistributive policy implementation, this paper’s broader takeaway emphasizes the relevance of analyzing accountability initiatives through mapping the varied repertoires of both pro- and anti-accountability forces.

Francis Isaac

Francis Isaac is a researcher at Government Watch (G-Watch), writing on Philippine elections, social movements, human rights, and agrarian reform. He is also involved with various non-government organizations and citizen-led reform campaigns in the Philippines. Francis is currently working towards his masters in International Studies in De La Salle University in Manila.

Danilo Carranza

Danilo Carranza is the National Coordinator of the Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Services, or RIGHTS Network. He has written various publications while organizing citizen action on agrarian reform and land rights campaigns, making him a pioneer of action research in Philippine civil society.

Joy Aceron

Joy Aceron is the Convenor-Director of G-Watch and a Research Fellow at the Accountability Research Center (ARC). A graduate of the University of the Philippines with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public policy, Joy has 15 years of experience in citizen monitoring, citizenship education, and civil society-government engagement. She has published works on civil society participation, political reform, and vertically integrated citizen-led reform campaigns.