Undercover land rush

Author: Ben Kritz
Source: The Manila Times
Published: 28 June 2022

LAND use is a touchy subject in any country, and particularly so here in the Philippines. The seemingly endless struggle to produce enough food for a steadily expanding population is constantly handicapped by strong competition for control of the land needed to grow it.

The proposition is deceptively simple: in order to achieve "food security," whatever detailed form that might take, the Philippines needs to start with fully utilizing its lands for which the best use is actually agriculture and then, maximizing those lands' output to minimize the necessity of sourcing food supplies from elsewhere. In spite of the existence of an enormous bureaucracy, comprising an alphabet soup of agencies that are supposed to work together toward that objective, it remains elusive.

The reason for that is likewise simple. Land that is suitable for agriculture is suitable for a lot of other uses, too, and in spite of there being a complex web of administrative and regulatory responsibility across several levels of government, there is nothing that remotely resembles a coherent plan or even broadly applicable general standards. As a consequence, land that could be or ought to be devoted to agriculture is rather easily swallowed up for other purposes, often ones that do not necessarily provide any other benefits to the country.

The election of the son of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. to his dad's old job has heightened concerns that land-grabbing will increase, although to be fair, there is no tangible reason — at least not yet — to suppose that will be the case. Whether Marcos Jr.'s decision to head the Department of Agriculture himself will help or hurt the situation is likewise unknowable at this point. As the move was the political equivalent of a Jollibee manager taking over the french fry station because he couldn't talk anyone into filling in for someone who called in sick, some pessimism is understandable, but a wait-and-see attitude is more reasonable. Who knows, he might be really good at cooking fries.

Addressing the problem of land use and harmful land conversion cannot even begin without a clear picture of the scope and scale of the problem, and that seems to be knowledge the Philippines does not have yet, at least not in a useful amount. Fortunately, there is some information about this, thanks to the work of an organization called the Land Matrix Initiative (LMI), an international think-tank that tracks large-scale land acquisitions (LSLA) worldwide. LMI recently released its reports for 2022; an overall global report, with individual country reports for most countries with a large agricultural sector, including the Philippines.

LSLAs are defined as acquisitions of land — whether through outright purchase, lease, licensing, or concession — of either 200 hectares or more, or double the nation's median land holding size, whichever figure is smaller. The data excludes land acquired for mining, for reasons that are not made clear, but may be supposed that mining land acquisition tends to be more publicly transparent, and primarily (but not always) involves lands that are not designated as potential agricultural lands.

The situation here is, to put it kindly, rather alarming, not just for what the LMI report says, but for what it isn't able to say. Among all Asian countries, even including giants such as India and China, the Philippines has the fifth-highest number of LSLA deals since 2000, a total of 87 involving a bit more than 300,000 hectares. More worryingly, there were (as of 2021) a total of about 3.2 million hectares under negotiation, representing about 58 percent of the Philippines' 5.6 million hectares of arable land. The report drily notes that this "might have grave implications for [the Philippines'] food self-sufficiency capacity."

In terms of who is investing in Philippine lands, foreign investors slightly outnumber domestic investors, and their acquisitions tend to be larger. Some identified examples include various parcels totaling 19,000 hectares by UK's Bronzeoak, primarily for energy projects; about 50,000 hectares by Chinese enterprises, for purposes that are not entirely clear; 14,000 hectares by Japan's Sumitomo Group, presumably for the production of ethanol; and a couple of Korean projects, although the largest one, totaling about 11,000 hectares and intended for renewable energy, has since been abandoned.

Of already concluded land deals, 99 percent of the involved land area involves ethanol and biofuel production. Again, mastering understatement, the report notes, "This may have adverse environmental and food security impacts."

These findings are already cause for concern, but LMI goes to some lengths to emphasize its limitations, thus making it clear that the problem may be much bigger than it appears. Its reports rely primarily on publicly disclosed data from government sources, supplemented with data provided by the public. Here in the Philippines, the atmosphere of secrecy surrounding land deals severely limits how much detail can be provided. Information on the status of about 35 percent of land deals — what they are intended for, and what stage of development they are currently in — is simply not available. Likewise, about 80 percent of contracted projects do not have information about their terms, i.e., whether they are purchase, lease, or concession agreements.

Closing this vast information gap should be considered a critical priority. We can only hope that doing so won't reveal what many fear is already happening, that a stealthy land rush is ongoing in the Philippines, and has been for years.


The original article can be found here.

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