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Farming Intensification and Diversification in the Philippines: The Case of the Pampanga Estuary

Camille de Lataillade, Alexandre Dumontier, Nicolas Grondard et Marc Dufumier
p. 281-297

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  • 1 The Philippines, which had reached cereal self-sufficiency in the mid-1970s, currently imports near (...)

1Agriculture is the leading export sector in the Philippines. However, with slightly less than 40% of the total active population, it barely provides, including fishing, 20% of the gross national product. Within Southeast Asia, the Philippines is the country in which arable land is the most unequally distributed. Sugar and copra oil exports are still produced on very vast capitalist holdings with salaried employees or small non-owner farmers. On the other hand, cereal (rice and corn) is grown on many tiny family farms which, although concentrated on the most fertile alluvial land, now no longer manage to meet all the national needs.1 Due to the meager surface areas at their disposal, farmers can no longer ensure full employment of their workforce on their farms and many of their family members have to look for temporary wage-earning jobs outside the farm (Medina 1992).

2Unable to remain competitive, many indebted peasant families have been forced to sell their land, permanently abandon farming and migrate towards major cities. The Philippines has hence become one of the most urbanized countries in the region. Manila now has a population of over 2 million, of which a very high number live in conditions of extreme precariousness in the heart of sinister slums. Industry and services have not developed enough to absorb the massive rural exodus and as a result, many young households have left in search of work abroad, in the Middle Eastern oil countries or in capitals of the “newly industrialized countries” of Southeast Asia (Singapore, Kuala Lumpur). At present, there are over two million Filipino emigrants. However the latter live in especially harsh conditions, risking expulsion as soon as economic and financial crises arise like the one suffered by Malaysia and Thailand between 1997 and 1999.

  • 2 Districts of Guagua, Lubao and Santa Rita. Conducted upon the request of the CIRAD (French Agricult (...)

3The farm communities on the most heavily populated alluvial plains are frequently considered as the main party responsible for the cereal deficit from which the country now suffers. Nonetheless, should those farm communities actually be labeled archaic or considered stuck in routine, and therefore incapable of increasing their farm production rapidly? That is anything but sure. Research conducted in 1999 in three districts of the Pampanga estuary (central Luzon island plain)2, the findings of which are presented in this article, tends to show quite the opposite. Not far from the Pinatubo volcano, farmers residing in that estuary have indeed managed, for the most part, to intensify and modify their farming systems several times in function of changes on the national market. To such an extent that now, that very densely populated region (1200 inhabitants per sq. km) not only produces rice in high enough quantities to meet the needs of its growing population but also supplies Manila and the neighboring urban markets with vegetables, fruit and various livestock products. Fish farming has just recently started developing rapidly there.

Rice Farming Tradition and Sugar Plantation Expansion

  • 3 It is in fact more like a frog-handlebar type plow (ard), but the plowshare of which is topped by a (...)

4Rice growing in paddies has been an established practice for a very long time now in the valley bottoms of the central plain on Luzon island. The first Spanish settlers discovered fields already set up in flat-bottomed compartments and surrounded by small dykes, in the middle of which rainwater could be momentarily stored. Even before the 16th century, farmers worked their rice fields using light plows with only one handlebar3, each one pulled by a single buffalo. Plowing was finished off by harrowing several times, designed to make the soil muddy and rake up the most poorly buried weeds. Sown very densely within small nurseries, rice seedlings were then transplanted in the mud, in the heart of the rice fields, so that they could develop with their roots in the water, without having to fear competition from too many weeds. Dependent on rainfall alone, the water level in the rice fields could nevertheless not be totally controlled. Only rice fields located near tributary streams could in fact benefit from complementary irrigation, owing to diversion canals and dams, often small in size. For the most part lined up on natural levees or spread out on the least easily floodable ancient alluvial terraces, villages almost all had small orchard-gardens near their homes. Due to the prosperity of farming, the central Luzon plain had already become a major population center, even before the arrival of the first Europeans.

5Like in Mexico and South America, it was not long before the Spanish set up a system of encomiendas in the Philippines, through which the colonial authorities required the farmers to pay an annual tribute tax in cash or kind, with the complicity of the local chiefs (datus). As early as the 17th century, they allowed the chiefs to take ownership of land planted with rice fields and then have them farmed by sharecroppers. Sharecropping or casamajan contracts specified that landowners had to advance the seeds required for the production as well as the rice needed by the peasant families for their own subsistence; in exchange for which the harvest had to be divided equally among the landowners and the sharecroppers, once the seed loans and their interest had been deducted from the harvests.

  • 4 A variety of sugar cane, Pampanga purple, was already grown in Pampanga valley, long before the arr (...)

6The Spanish introduced corn and sweet potato crops, originating from Mexico and Central America, and also urged the Filipinos to extend their areas farmed in sugar cane onto emerged alluvial terraces.4 With direct access to the Bay of Manila and the presence of many merchants of Chinese origin, Pampanga province was soon exposed to international trade. However brown sugar exports to Europe did not really take on importance until the Europeans experienced a rise in their buying power, following the industrial revolution, and increased their consumption of sweetened products. When the Spanish Crown decided to put an end to all restrictions on foreign trade and made Manila a free trade market, they continued to increase. Such was also the case upon the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 when the use of steamboats made European-bound transportation even faster and less expensive.

7Areas farmed in sugar cane were extended by progressively clearing forest areas, up until then jointly owned, located on ancient alluvial terraces with deep, well-drained soil, whereas the lower zones, with waterlogged soil, continued being reserved for rice growing alone. The new clearing, done directly by the farmers, but under the control of the traditional local notables, made it possible to steadily enlarge the notables’ land estates. Extension of areas devoted to sugar cane was all the easier since the work calendars for the two crops are complementary. Rice requires a lot of work for manual transplanting, in the rainy season, at a time when sugar cane only requires weeding. Sugar cane requires manual labor especially during the dry season, for harvesting with machetes. The farming community should therefore have benefited from additional cash income without having to endanger its food production. Yet, often indebted to merchants and obliged to share half of their harvests with the landed bourgeoisie, farmers were far from being the first beneficiaries of the soar in sugar production.

8In fact, merchants and landowners were the ones who benefited the most from the development of the agro-export economy and, for that reason, were able to invest in their children’s education. Once those two social categories began mixing, an intellectual elite of ilustrados progressively emerged, which became the mouthpiece for Philippine nationalism. That intelligentsia allied with the North American troops to evict the Spanish authorities but did not manage to gain independence immediately. As is common knowledge, the Philippines became a colony of the United States, from 1898 to 1946. United States investors rapidly set up major sugar refineries with steamrollers and centrifugal machines, including two in Pampanga province. Those new firms quickly benefited from export quotas for refined sugar, at guaranteed prices, from the North American government. In turn, they were able to grant sugar cane delivery quotas to the various landowners located in the vicinity of their refineries. The contracts stipulated that the refineries had the right to keep 40% of the sugar extracted, with the remaining 60% divided into equal shares between the owners and their sharecroppers.

9At the time of the country’s rise to independence, in 1946, there were already substantial inequalities in the distribution of land ownership in the Philippines. The concentration of farmland in the hands of a minority of landowners and companies essentially resulted from two different processes:

  • The setting up of major, most often monastic, colonial plantations, in regions from which the initial occupants were very soon brutally expulsed;

  • The progressive accumulation of farmable plots in the hands of notables and usurious merchants who, having made cash loans to small farmers, were then able to seize their land when it became impossible for the farmers to reimburse the loans.

10The first process was a “Latin-American” type process: a colonial oligarchy brutally took over vast surfaces by expulsing the native farm community from the land that it had previously occupied. As such the first major sugar estates were set up in the Visayan islands and the south of Luzon island, at the time of the Spanish colonization. The major sugar cane operations kept on expanding throughout the period of North American presence, following the modernization and enlargement of sugar refineries. For the most part, they were farmed by owners; but many of them were split up into small plots of a few hectares, and handed over to sharecroppers. The sugar cane planters were almost all forced to periodically recruit seasonal wage-earning laborers from the neighboring islands. As for the island of Mindanao, it was “colonized” later, with the setting up of major North American companies which were given huge surface areas of fairly uncleared land, considered up until then as public property. It was not long before the import and settlement of laborers from other islands caused serious conflicts with the native populations (Ledesma 1992).

  • 5 Musa textilis.

11The second mechanism of land concentration, quite common in Southeast Asia, especially occurred in the earliest and most heavily populated floodable rice-growing plains, such as the ones that prevailed on Luzon island. But it also occurred widely on emerged land in regions where farmers traditionally grew coconut trees, for the production of copra and abaca5 or “Manila hemp”, for the production of rope, on farms that were still family run (Owen 1998). The dependence of small farmers on usurious merchants prevailed especially in the provinces where the farm owners had mortgaged their land to obtain loans from the merchants. Unable to reimburse the loans on time, farmers often ended up having to hand over the surfaces which they had previously owned.

12Once independence was obtained, many Philippine farmers often only had plots of land under five hectares per family. However the land concentration movement then only worsened, under the influence of the same mechanisms, in the initial years following independence. Already heavily populated and almost totally cleared, the central Luzon plain was very harshly affected by the major world economic crisis in the 1930s. Many farmers, unable to keep possession of their harnessed equipment and draft buffaloes, ended up forced to work as simple farm laborers, during peak work periods only (McLennan 1998). At first, the merchants and usurers who had progressively managed to take over the land previously held by the farming community did not personally make use of the farm areas that had entered into their possession. They almost always handed it over to landless farmers (for tenant farming or sharecropping); and the latter had to work the plots under the dependence of the absentee landowners. At the end of the 1960s, slightly over half of the farmland was cultivated in that way, in unstable conditions, by nearly three million peasant families (Cunnington 1989).

Fig. 1: Economic Results for the Main Cropping or Animal Raising Systems (1999)

Animal raising or cropping systems

Gross added value per hectare

Maximum surface area per worker

Two annual rice cycles

58,000 pesos

3 hectares

Three annual rice cycles

80,000 pesos

3 hectares

Tomatoes and bitter squash

113,000 + 175,000 pesos

0.30 hectare

Tomatoes and sweet squash

113,000 + 230,000 pesos

0.30 hectare

Arabian Jasmine

2,000,000 pesos

0.05 hectare


1,000,000 pesos

0.20 hectare

Fish ponds

440,000 pesos

1 hectare

Source: De Lataillade et al. (2002)

Social Tension, Agrarian Reform and the “Green Revolution”

13The social injustice and poverty that resulted from that situation in the rural zones of the central Luzon plain very soon led farmers to rise up against the land oligarchy. Pampanga province experienced an initial farmer uprising, even before independence, in 1931, at the time of the great international economic crisis. However the most famous rebellion was certainly the one that occurred between 1946 and 1950; led by communist party leaders, the Hukbahalap movement, which had already opposed the Japanese occupation and which then directly went after the absentee landlords criticized by farmers for handing over their land for very short periods only and in exchange of rents that were far too high (Fegan 1998). Concerned with “containing” the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia, the Americans then suggested carrying out an anti-insurrectionary agrarian reform; in addition, a few initial measures designed to make land tenure modes more secure succeeded, to a certain extent, to calm the rebellion as from the end of the 1940s.

14Along the same lines, the Embassy of the United States of America published the “Hardie report” in 1952 which recommended eliminating sharecropping in the Philippines, replacing it by forms of tenant farming with set rents, and redistributing land, over a threshold of 4 hectares, planted in rice and held by private individuals. An initial agrarian reform law was indeed passed in 1955, under the presidency of Ramón Magsaysay; however, due to the resistance from landowners, the latter set the ownership ceiling at 75 hectares and excluded land designated for animal raising, sugar cane, coconut trees, fruit trees and many other perennial crops from its scope of application. As a result, the total surface area concerned by that reform did not end up surpassing 20,000 hectares in 6 years, in a few pilot zones of the central plain (Haymani et al. 1990).

15Elected president of the Republic in 1965, with the support of the land oligarchy, Ferdinand Marcos was himself not a big partisan of agrarian reform. However, as farmer discontent regarding landowners was growing nonstop, Congress had to take the initiative to pass a new land law, in 1971, so as to decrease the maximum ceiling of ownership to only 7 hectares and systematically replace sharecropping and contracts with a share in the produce by the payment of a set rent. All the landowners ended up obliged to sell their surplus areas and moreover had to work the remaining 7 hectares directly themselves or rent them in exchange of payment of a set rent, not indexed on the yields obtained. Farmers could no longer be expulsed from one year to the next and their land tenures could even become inheritable. Nevertheless, only the land sown in rice or corn was concerned by the law, with the exclusion of cash crops. Land planted in sugar cane could therefore avoid expropriation and continue being farmed by sharecroppers. In 1972, in face of the brutal interventions by the New People’s Army, the armed branch of the Communist Party, President Marcos was very soon forced to instigate martial law; however he also had to make the decision to speed up agrarian reform in the central Luzon plain, where farm community unrest was the most blatant. Undertaken for reasons of domestic security, the reform was only applied slowly, due to the bureaucratic red tape and fraudulent maneuvers committed by landowners. From 1972 to 1986, nevertheless, a fourth of the land concerned by the 1971 land law was redistributed, essentially in the central Luzon plain and specifically in Pampanga province.

  • 6 It had become harder and harder for farmers to resist the competition from the very large sugar can (...)

16Alongside those initial measures of agrarian reform, the governments of Ramón Magsaysay, Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos set up infrastructures designed to extend irrigation and drainage in the central plain. As such, as early as the 1950s, reservoirs were built across the Pampanga tributaries, and canals enabling the conveyance of irrigation water by simple gravity throughout the alluvial terraces, including the ones that had been especially devoted to the sugar cane crop up until then. A public institute, the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), was left in charge of the administration and maintenance of the primary and secondary canals, whereas the upkeep of the tertiary canals and the distribution of water to the plots were entrusted to producer associations set up for that purpose. Gravitational irrigation enabled many owners and farm operators to set up rice fields on land previously planted with sugar cane.6 The possibility of bringing water to those fields year round prompted farmers to carry out two annual crop cycles.

17Irrigation also contributed to substantially stabilizing rice yields by decreasing the frequency of very poor harvests. It is easily understandable that, in those conditions, it had become worthwhile for farmers to replace the payment of the former land imposition proportional to the harvest by the payment of a set rent. Sharecropping had previously offered the advantage of dividing up the risks inherent to possible droughts or floods between farmers and their landowners, as the land allowance was indeed very low when catastrophic harvests occurred. However the payment of a set rent turned out, on the other hand, much more favorable for intensifying crop systems, once those risks were eliminated by irrigation and drainage, since once the rent was paid, all the yield increases generated by the intensification could come back to the producers (Riedinger 1995).

  • 7 Based in Los Baños, on Luzon island, the IRRI is the main international center for agronomic resear (...)

18In order for farmers to acquire the new seeds selected by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)7 and purchase the manufactured input required for obtaining high yields, the Philippine government also set up a farm credit program with guaranteed interest rates and favored the setting up of supply cooperatives. Many peasant families from the Pampanga estuary which, due to the agrarian reform, could henceforth benefit from more secure land tenures, and easily had access to seasonal loans without having to depend on usurious merchants; they were very soon capable of conducting intensive rice growing systems inspired by the “green revolution”, with irrigation management, a higher number of annual crop cycles, use of high yield potential varieties, use of chemical fertilizers and various phytosanitary products (fungicides, insecticides, etc.).

  • 8 Unable to easily stay supplied in cane, one of the two sugar factories in the city of Pampanga had (...)
  • 9 That reconversion into rice fields was nevertheless slowed due to the fact that the land fell under (...)

19From then on, working for their own account without having to pay an excessive land allowance, the most secured families were able to clear enough income on their own to feed themselves and purchase new farm tools: small diesel threshers and cage-wheel motor cultivators. With pastureland having substantially decreased following the extension of farmed areas and the suppression of common pasture on stubble fields in the dry season, hand-driven motor tillers soon replaced animal traction and made it possible to prepare the soil much faster between the various crop cycles. Digging wells and purchasing small power-driven pumps also made it possible to irrigate land which, too remote or located in altitude, had not been able to make use of gravitational irrigation up until then. Those investments helped farmers reconvert new areas into rice fields formerly devoted to sugar cane8 and concentrate more on two annual rice crops (De Lataillade et al. 2002).9

20The “green revolution” made especially rapid achievements regarding yield increases per hectare. Those yields were actually more than doubled in less than 15 years and surpassed 4 tons of paddy per crop cycle in the Pampanga estuary and the other alluvial plains on Luzon island. To such an extent that the Philippines obtained rice self-sufficiency as early as 1977. The paradox is that those transformations occurred, for the most part, under Ferdinand Marcos’ presidency, a leader known for his authoritarian ways of governing the country after martial law was proclaimed in 1972. However, it must be acknowledged that it was indeed his agrarian reform and support programs for small farmers that made it possible to intensify rice growing systems in the Pampanga estuary. Carried out for essentially political reasons, the agrarian reform implemented under the dictator’s regime did indeed enable progressive multiplication of family trade farms managed by small holders, with very beneficial effects on agricultural development in the Luzon alluvial plains. However, not all peasant families benefited from the “green revolution” in the same way. Some of them who were unable to reimburse their loans had to abandon farming, look for wage-earning work and join the hordes of unemployed in the huge slums of Manila.

Growing Diversification of Farming Systems

21As from the end of the 1970s, farmers from the province of Pampanga had to face new economic and environmental conditions. First of all, the rise in the price of energy and nitrate fertilizers that followed the 1974 “oil crisis” contributed to increasing the costs related to running crop systems using motorization and chemicalization. Subjected to the imperatives of structural adjustment programs, Corazon Aquino’s government then had to stop subsidizing chemical fertilizers towards the end of the 1980s and as for her successor, he was forced to put an end to cereal import quotas, without being able to replace the latter by tariff protections. Quite obviously, the resulting price ratios were much less favorable for intensive rice farming. In 1981, the construction of a highway linking Manila to the west coast of the island, perpendicular to the central plain’s hydrographic network, had negative repercussions on the circulation of surface water in the Pampanga estuary. The eruption of the Pinatubo volcano, in 1991, and the untimely mud flows that resulted from it over the following years, worsened the situation even more, with the effect subjecting some valley bottoms to over six-month-long floods. However, faced with those adverse conditions, the well-off farming community found the means to diversify its cropping and animal rearing systems so as to take into account the new price ratios that had come into effect.

  • 10 A Philippine jitney bus converted from American army surplus jeep parts.

22Between 1972 and 1986 President Ferdinand Marcos’ authoritarian regime managed to ensure relative political stability, especially favorable to foreign investments and the creation of new refineries. However, industrial development hardly made it possible to create enough jobs to absorb the whole rural exodus; as a result, the slums continued growing in size all around the capital. All the same, the urban soar went hand in hand with the emergence of a middle class whose higher standard of living brought about an increased consumption of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. Subsequently, as far as loans and infrastructures were concerned, Corazon Aquino’s government did not hold back its support to the well-off farming community to give it access to the means needed for meeting that new demand in fresh or processed products; Manila traders then traveled to the surrounding countryside, and in particular to the Pampanga estuary, to pick up those goods in jeepneys.10

  • 11 Vigna radiata L.
  • 12 Over 40 days of actual work per hectare.

23In the three districts of Guagua, Lubao and Santa Rita, the farmers who had perfect water management early on, owing to supplemental pumping in the groundwater, first did their best to introduce a third annual crop season. The use of motor cultivators allowed them to make their rice fields muddy rapidly; on land that had been leveled much better, it was then possible to sow pregerminated rice seeds straight away and raise the level of water progressively afterwards in the rice fields, so as to avoid transplanting, a job that required substantial amounts of labor. The use of fast-ripening rice varieties (about one hundred days) allowed them to free up a long enough time slot to fit in a third rice cycle, or additional irrigated crops in the dry season, between February and June. At the outset, there were peanuts, corn and mung beans.11 Out of those three, the peanut crop was the one that could supply the highest added value per surface unit (45,000 pesos per hectare) but for which weeding, requiring substantial work,12 limited the maximum surface area per worker to only one hectare. Still more intensive and productive per surface unit were certain short-cycle market garden crops, such as tomatoes (with an added value of 113,000 pesos per cycle and per hectare) and sweet or bitter squash (between 175,000 and 230,000 pesos per cycle and per hectare). However, requiring substantial amounts of work and input, and subject to strong price variations, those new crops could only be grown on limited areas and only by farmers who personally had enough working capital without being forced to call on mortgage loans (ibid.).

24Another alternative was to reduce the stretches of land set aside for rice farming and devote the areas freed up to products with higher added value. It had become all the easier for farmers to reduce their areas sown in rice, without endangering their food supplies, since the rice yields per hectare had already more than doubled, further to the use of “green revolution” varieties. Small plots were therefore permanently converted in order to accommodate exclusively market garden rotations from then on, annually alternating a cycle of tomatoes and a season of squash. Requiring substantial work, the harvest of both those vegetables stretches over a two- to three-month period and limits the areas that can be used for that rotation to only 0.3 hectare per worker.

  • 13 Jasminium sambac (Arabian jasmine). Locally called sampaguitas, that species of jasmine is the nati (...)
  • 14 Averrhoha bilimbit.

25The orchard-gardens, previously planted in the immediate vicinity of the village homes and limited to meeting family needs alone, were progressively extended so that a growing share of the production could be sold. A few monospecific plantations of mango, guava and lemon trees were even set up exclusively for that purpose. Since the first harvest did not take place until six years later, farmers associated tomatoes and eggplant, in the initial years, to make use of the still shade-free areas. A few farmers also converted part of their rice fields into small shrub-covered plantations, for the production of scented flowers, such as Arabian jasmine13 and camias,14 intended for sale in necklaces or baguettes. Those plantations can also supply very high income per surface unit but require the use of large quantities of input, up to 740 units of nitrogen per hectare per year, and a lot of work for the daily gathering of the flowers (approximately three hours every morning).

  • 15 Tilapia nilotica.

26Since 1998, many farmers have readily transformed part of their rice fields into fish ponds for breeding tilapia,15 for which the urban market demand has risen nonstop. However the construction of such ponds requires large initial investments, just for excavating and dyking up the ponds, and substantial recurrent costs for pumping water. Such a changeover is therefore not within the reach of all farmers. On the other hand, ponds offer the advantage of beginning to produce rather fast, at the rate of five fish harvests (6 tilapia per sq. meter) every two years, and the quantity of food required for producing a kilo of fish is only 1.4 kilograms. That form of fish farming does not require a lot of labor and the maximum surface area in ponds per worker can be as much as one hectare.

27In addition to traditional farmyard animal raising, most farmers have each also set up one or two small landless animal units, with the purchase of feed from outside sources. Raising pigs for fattening, more or less directly associated with the raising of sows for breeding piglets is the main activity. Raising female laying ducks has also recently begun expanding; bought at the age of six months, ready to lay, the ducks are raised in groups of approximately 200 head, for three years, and fed on paddy seeds left on the ground at the time of harvesting and threshing in the rice fields. A few farmers also raise a small number of cows and grass-fed calves, on posts, along paths, in rice fields covered with stubble after the harvest, and on the sparse jointly-owned pastureland. The number of bovines is nonetheless limited due to the very low surface area in grassland. Raising female buffaloes for production of milk and buffalo calves also quite often encounters a shortage of pastureland, due to the fact that most of the former marshland has long since been dried up and transformed into rice fields.

28In the three districts of Guagua, Lubao and Santa Rita, most peasant families have managed to substantially diversify their farm activities over the past two decades; and many of them now simultaneously associate several cropping and animal raising systems on their farms. Among the most frequently encountered systems, the most noteworthy are: a single crop of rice in three annual crop cycles, a double rice season in alternation with a counter-season crop cycle, rotation of a single season of rice with a long-term market garden crop, exclusively market garden rotations, tree and shrub plantations, fish farming in ponds, small landless animal units, etc. However, as farmers have not all been able to access the same resources in land, water, labor and equipment, and for lack of all being able to work in similar social and economic conditions, they do not currently implement the same combinations of these various cropping and animal raising systems.

Social Differences within the Farming Community

29In the three districts studied, approximately four-fifths of the farms are family production units, on which there is practically no use of wage-earning labor. Those farms currently accommodate farming systems that are quite different from one another.

  • 16 About two tons per hectare instead of four.

30The poorest farmers are generally the ones whose surface area in rice fields is under one hectare and the ones whose surface area can reach two to three hectares but which are located in the floodable valley bottoms where they cannot completely control the water level. Those farmers have hardly been able to acquire power-driven production means (motor tillers and diesel pumps) and have proven incapable of diversifying their crop systems. They still prepare the land themselves using buffaloes and small harnessed tools or call on the services of labor and mudding up of fields done by better equipped neighbors. For lack of being able to dispose of capital circulating in large enough quantities, those farmers use relatively limited quantities of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides; and the result is yields per hectare that are two times lower than the average.16 Rice farming alone hardly allows the farmers to make an income over or equal to 55,000pesos, an amount below which it is not possible to meet the basic needs of the whole family and at the same time renew the equipment needed for production. Only families with one or several members who manage to work as wage-earning labor outside of the farm then succeed in keeping their farms. They stand for approximately 15% of the total number of farms (ibid.).

31Peasants whose income cleared on the farms allows them to both meet their family’s basic needs and regularly renew the operating capital manage about 65% of all production units. A wide range of farming systems are used on those farms:

  • Although their farms (approximately 15% of the total) each cover less than one hectare, some peasant families have succeeded in obtaining the resources needed, whether through inheritance or outside income, for acquiring diesel pumps and implementing very intensive and very lucrative farming systems per surface unit:

  • A few have created a pond covering their whole area and are exclusively concentrated on fish farming; they make an income ranging from 50,000 to 400,000pesos per worker.

  • Others have totally specialized their operations in flower shrub plantations (jasmine and camias); their incomes range from 50,000 to 100,000pesos per worker.

  • Still others continue rice farming, with two annual crop cycles, and associate landless pig raising, breeding-fattening, from 3 to 5 sows per farm; in that case, the rice is almost totally earmarked for family consumption while the pig production provides cash income; those families each manage to earn between 50,000 and 100,000 pesos, in all, involving a single worker only.

  • 40% of the farms cover between one and three hectares and have farming systems combining several cropping and animal raising systems. The families concerned generally each have a hand-driven motor tiller and a power-driven pump; they almost all associate two annual rice cycles with a third activity, requiring much more intensive work: counter-season peanuts or corn, market garden crops, fruit or floral trees, pig breeding-fattening, or fish farming ponds.

    • 17 In 1999, the nominal exchange rate was approximately 41 pesos for one US dollar.

    For very many of them (30% of all farms), the size of the third unit, limited by the quantity of available capital, is still much too small (one to five sows, 1000 to 5000 sq. meters of fish pond, 10 to 40 mango trees, etc.) to require more than one person working full time per farm. The incomes range from 100,000 to 400,000pesos17 per worker.

  • For the others (10% of all farms), the intensiveness of the crop system practiced (market gardens, floral trees) and the area devoted to it make it possible to provide full time employment for at least two family members. Income ranges between 150,000 and 300,000 pesos per family worker.

  • Some peasant families (10% of all farms) have more than three hectares each and manage to offer permanent employment to two of their workers without having to invest in the most work-intensive cropping systems. In addition to two rice crops a year, they associate a relatively large-size fish farming pond or a pig breeding unit. The income ranges from 150,000 to 600,000 pesos per family worker.

32Fifteen percent of the farms cover more than three hectares each and can be qualified as “entrepreneurial” farms, insofar as those in charge, who initially had the means to invest in work-intensive crop systems (horticulture), associated with the annual double rice crop, now have to make use of salaried workers, in addition to their own family workforce.

33Five percent of the farms can be qualified as “capitalist” farms insofar as they are owned by owners who do not directly work on the farms themselves and therefore exclusively make use of a wage-earning workforce (laborers and foremen). Most of them are farms specialized in a single crop or animal raising system: pig breeding from 50 to 100 sows, broiler production units with 10,000 to 20,000 head, fruit plantations with 100 to 200 trees.

34In comparison to many other regions in the Philippines, the situation of the farmers does not seem really dramatic in the Pampanga estuary. Despite the small size of their farms, most peasant families have been able to invest in the intensification and diversification of their farming systems, and now earn incomes that, while still modest, nonetheless allow them to provide for the family’s basic needs. Without a doubt, that is due to the proximity of the capital and the emergence therein of a middle class whose purchases in farm produce have diversified substantially. The situation also results from the rural credit programs implemented by the government and investments made by the public authorities in water management, in a region where the alluvial soil is very fertile. However, the important factor doubtlessly lies in the fact that the farmers were the ones who took advantage of conditions that were particularly favorable for farm diversification and intensification.

35By favoring the development of family farms whose land tenures were relatively secured, the agrarian reform undertaken in the 1970s undeniably had positive effects on the capacity of peasant families to integrate market trade and invest in the intensification and diversification of their crop and animal raising systems. The demonstration has therefore been made that, far from being a form of archaic, outdated production sentenced to the status quo, family trade farming can be evolutionary and highly efficient in economic terms.

The Acuteness of the “Agrarian Issue” in the Philippines

36Despite the advent of a more democratic regime in 1986, the idea according to which it would be worthwhile to give preference to promoting forms of peasant farming in the name of economic effectiveness and no longer only for reasons of social justice has yet to win acceptance in the Philippines. Although land redistribution has picked up relative speed since 1988, we are indeed forced to acknowledge that the agrarian reform still only marches forward to the beat of land conflicts: peasant occupations, police crackdowns, legal battles in court, etc.

37It is estimated that upon Corazon Aquino’s arrival to the presidency, less than 315,000 hectares had been redistributed to approximately 7% of the peasant families (Riedinger 1995). However, it was possible to observe how that agrarian reform and the protection of the domestic market regarding cereal imports had already managed to create conditions favorable to the implementation of very work- and input-intensive rice farming systems in the alluvial plains of Luzon island, with positive effects on the increase of productivity, the level of payment and the capacity of investment by peasants who benefited from it. The security the peasants benefited from on their land tenures, the lower impositions the farming community was subjected to and the possibility for the latter to have access to irrigation and farm loans very clearly enabled the rise in food and market produce on family farms (Pingali et al. 1995). However, by limiting redistribution only to land normally planted with rice or corn, and farmed by tenant farmers, and excluding large capitalist tree plantations, the agrarian reform law enacted by Ferdinand Marcos also sometimes prompted owners to evict their sharecroppers, in order to manage their land directly, going as far as setting up non-food producing crop systems, requiring little workforce and therefore often much more extensive: sugar cane, coconut trees, etc. (Hayami et al. 1990). Fairly discreet on Luzon island, that movement was much more obvious on the islands of Negros and Mindanao. The rise in cereal production was therefore not able to keep up with the increase in the demand for rice and corn induced by demographic growth and the rise in landless animal raising and the country had to once again call on cereal imports as from 1983, to meet the growing domestic needs.

  • 18 Certificates of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADC).

38Elected after the major public demonstrations directed against Ferdinand Marcos, President Corazon Aquino showed more attention regarding the farming community but soon ran up against opposition from major landowners. Unfortunately, it took a peasant massacre, at the end of a peaceful demonstration organized in January 1987, before a new bill for agrarian reform was submitted to parliament. Finally passed in June 1988, the new law (Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law) no longer only limited the reform to land planted with rice and corn, but henceforth also dealt with areas devoted to other crops, such as coconut trees and sugar cane. The pace and scope of land redistribution to the benefit of the poor farming community were therefore increased: nearly 4.8 million hectares were redistributed to some 2.8 million beneficiaries between 1987 and 1998, which represented slightly less than half of the initial goals but was not completely insignificant either (Asian Development Bank 1998). Presidents Estrada and Ramos have since tried to pursue the reform to a certain extent, with the financial support of international donors, but preferably granting collective land deeds to farm communities which consider that some forest zones were part of their ancestral domains (Arnold 2001).18 To such an extent that in 2002, it could be considered that out of the 8.1 million hectares planned in 1987, 5.2 million appeared to have been effectively redistributed to peasant families, including 2.57 million from estate or communal land jointly owned up until then (Guardian 2003).

39The problem is that in the Philippines there are still major plantations on which owners have only slightly intensified the farming systems and therefore only offer a limited number of jobs. All the provinces have indeed not benefited from the agrarian reform in the same way. The reform continues, in fact, to exclude vast agro-export plantations from the scope of redistribution. In order to avoid breaking them up, considered as harmful to their “modernization”, the law especially provides for distributing shares to farm workers and hence involving them in the farm’s profits. As a result, the agrarian reform actually remains very widely incomplete and many regions still suffer from the very high level of land concentration left over from colonization, from the penetration of major transnational companies and the hold exerted by usurious merchants on farmers who have been unable to reimburse their past debts.

40The major sugar cane haciendas have not yet all been concerned by the reform, far from it, and in particular in the Visayan islands where many sugar estates are still operated via sharecropping with peasants forced to give a percentage of their harvests to absentee owners. The major sugar cane planters must now take into account the competition caused by the arrival of corn syrup (or isoglucose) and artificial sweeteners on the international market; and without a doubt they will not succeed in making their capital investments profitable with more work-intensive cropping systems. As for the major coconut plantations, they are threatened by the recent authorization to grow, in the United States, transgenic rapeseed capable of supplying oil as rich in lauric acid as coconut oil and which, for that reason, has become perfectly useable in soap manufacturing (Kaosa-ard and Rerkasem 2000). How can these plantations where harvests are still done by hand resist competition from highly power-driven farms? Yet the issue is to know whether (or not) it will be worthwhile for the major plantation owners, subjected to this new competition, to reconvert their farming systems without the threat of expropriation due to the agrarian reform weighing them down.

41Major capitalist farms with salaried workers also prevail very widely at present on the islands of Negros and Mindanao. Plantations specialized in hevea, banana and pineapple crops for export still remain, for the most part, under direct control of transnational companies (Goodyear Tires, United Brands, Del Monte, Castle and Cooke…), which generally subcontract the actual production to national firms employing a more or less seasonal wage-earning workforce (Boyce 1993). The fact is that managers of major agro-export operations have only diversified their activities very slightly and still stick to extensive farming systems that generate few jobs, even when price trends are not favorable for them. As such, this accounts for the continuation of extensive bovine raising, for example, on huge land estates on Masbate island.

42The reasons given most frequently for not involving major land estates in agrarian reform concern the fear of undergoing a sharp drop in work productivity and the competitiveness of agro-industrial companies due to the disappearance of scale economies that would be caused, or so, it is said, by splitting up major estates. However, that means forgetting that the excessive specialization of plantations, the mechanization of many farm chores and the sometimes excessive use of phytosanitary products, are done to the detriment of permanent employment and farm intensification, often with negative effects on the ecological environment: soil erosion, chemical pollution, proliferation of insects resistant to pesticides, etc. (Tadem 1992).

43The tragedy is that these major capitalist operations with salaried workers still succeed in staying in place despite their extensive character. The added values per surface unit do indeed appear two times lower on major sugar cane and coconut plantations than on family farms devoted to those same crops in the southern provinces on Luzon island (Boyce 1993). For lack of an agrarian reform reaching out to the surface areas of those large extensive farms, many landless peasants have to give up farming and look for work in town, even before jobs have been created there in sufficient numbers. Many of them also have to resign themselves to going abroad.

Fig. 2: Evolution of Income per Worker Based on the Surface Area per Worker for Various Combinations of Crop and Livestock Systems

Fig. 2: Evolution of Income per Worker Based on the Surface Area per Worker for Various Combinations of Crop and Livestock Systems
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Arnold, M., 2001, “Devolution of control of common pool resources to local communities: experiences in forestry”, in Access to land. Rural poverty and public action, de Janvry et al. (ed), Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Asian Development Bank, 1998, ADB study urges rural development for the Philippines, ADB news on line, Manila.

Boyce, J. K., 1993, The political economy of growth and impoverishment in the Marcos Era, Manila: Ateneo de Manila & University Press.

Cunnington, J., 1989, Gaining ground, War on Want, London, United Kingdom.

De Lataillade, C., A. Dumontier, & N. Grondard, 2002, L’agriculture aux Philippines. La plaine centrale: histoire et perspectives, Paris: Les Indes savantes.

Fegan, B., 1998, “The social history of a Central Luzon Barrio”, in Philippine social history, A.McCoy & Jesus (eds), Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Guardian, E. A., 2003, “Impact of access to land on food security and poverty: the case of Philippine agrarian reform”, Land reform n° 2, FAO, Rome.

Haymani, Y., M.A. Quisumbing, & L.S. Adriano, 1990, Toward an alternative land reform paradigm. A Philippine perspective, Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Kaosa-ard, M. S., & B. Rerkasem, 2000, The growth and sustainability of agriculture in Asia, Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Ledesma, A. J., 1992, “Bukidnon: Mindanao’s heartland for agrarian reform,” Mindanao: Land of unfulfilled promise, M. Turner, R.J. May, & L.R. Turner (eds), Quezon City: New Day Publishers.

McLennan, M. S., 1998, “Changing human ecology on the central Luzon plain 1705 – 1939,” in Philippine Social History, A. Mc Coy & E.C. de Jesus (eds), Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press.

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1 The Philippines, which had reached cereal self-sufficiency in the mid-1970s, currently imports nearly 18% of the cereal consumed in the country.

2 Districts of Guagua, Lubao and Santa Rita. Conducted upon the request of the CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Center for International Cooperation), in collaboration with the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Resources Development (PCAMRD), that field research fell within the framework of an end-of-study training course organized by the educational and research unit “Agriculture comparée et développement agricole” at the French National Institute for Agronomy Paris-Grignon (INAP-G).

3 It is in fact more like a frog-handlebar type plow (ard), but the plowshare of which is topped by a wide moldboard making it possible to turn the arable layer of the soil over.

4 A variety of sugar cane, Pampanga purple, was already grown in Pampanga valley, long before the arrival of the Europeans, to keep China supplied in brown sugar.

5 Musa textilis.

6 It had become harder and harder for farmers to resist the competition from the very large sugar cane plantations on the islands of Visayan and Negros.

7 Based in Los Baños, on Luzon island, the IRRI is the main international center for agronomic research devoted to the rice crop.

8 Unable to easily stay supplied in cane, one of the two sugar factories in the city of Pampanga had to shut down in 1991.

9 That reconversion into rice fields was nevertheless slowed due to the fact that the land fell under the agrarian reform, obliging landowners to sell their surplus surface area and give up sharecropping on the 7 hectares remaining in their possession.

10 A Philippine jitney bus converted from American army surplus jeep parts.

11 Vigna radiata L.

12 Over 40 days of actual work per hectare.

13 Jasminium sambac (Arabian jasmine). Locally called sampaguitas, that species of jasmine is the national flower of the Philippines.

14 Averrhoha bilimbit.

15 Tilapia nilotica.

16 About two tons per hectare instead of four.

17 In 1999, the nominal exchange rate was approximately 41 pesos for one US dollar.

18 Certificates of Ancestral Domain Claims (CADC).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 2: Evolution of Income per Worker Based on the Surface Area per Worker for Various Combinations of Crop and Livestock Systems
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Référence papier

Camille de Lataillade, Alexandre Dumontier, Nicolas Grondard et Marc Dufumier, « Farming Intensification and Diversification in the Philippines: The Case of the Pampanga Estuary »Moussons, 9-10 | 2006, 281-297.

Référence électronique

Camille de Lataillade, Alexandre Dumontier, Nicolas Grondard et Marc Dufumier, « Farming Intensification and Diversification in the Philippines: The Case of the Pampanga Estuary »Moussons [En ligne], 9-10 | 2006, mis en ligne le 06 mai 2013, consulté le 29 novembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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