Part II: Reviewing Aquino’s “Social Contract” and performance
Read Part I: On job creation here
In 2009, the Forbes magazine reported that the 40 richest Filipinos had a combined wealth of $22.4 billion. Last year, the amount more than doubled to $47.43 billion, amid deteriorating poverty and joblessness. What explains such rapid accumulation of wealth? The short and simple answer is that government, including the incumbent Aquino administration, has been creating the most favorable policy environment for big business.
Indeed, Aquino’s apathy to the working class is matched only by his concern for big business. In fact, among the major commitments he made in his so-called Social Contract, creating favorable conditions for private business is the only promise that Aquino has been fulfilling.
In particular, the administration is creating a conducive environment and providing more profit-making opportunities for big business through further privatization of infrastructure, utilities, social services and other vital sectors, or what is called public-private partnership (PPP). Aquino has also aggressively promoted extractive industries including foreign-dominated, export-oriented mining and oil and gas exploration that create social, development and ecological issues.
Privatization and plunder
He has been calling it “daang matuwid” but Aquino’s good governance campaign is more about instituting reforms to reduce business costs and risks than going after big-time plunderers like Mrs. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. His campaign to oust Renato Corona as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (SC) was less about his supposed reform agenda but more about consolidating his control over the entire bureaucracy.
Executive hegemony over government branches that make policies (Congress) and review the legality of such policies (Judiciary) creates an even more favorable political environment to push for retrogressive economic programs that favor certain big local businesses and their foreign partners. They include those who are closely associated with the Cojuangco-Aquino clan and are taking advantage of government’s centerpiece program, the PPP, as well as new contracts in mining and oil and gas exploration, among others.
These big business interests are the same companies that have been expanding their economic empire by taking over, through PPP deals, infrastructure development in energy, telecommunications, transport, and water and storage in the past almost three decades. They include the Ayala family ($10.2 billion in investment commitments from 1984 to 2009); Lopez ($7.1 billion); Pangilinan ($5.3 billion); Razon ($3.2 billion); Aboitiz ($2.8 billion); Ang/Cojuangco of SMC ($2.6 billion); and Consunji ($1.1 billion).
Expectedly, they are the same families that are bagging PPP contracts under the current regime. The Ayalas and its Spanish partner, for instance, cornered the ₱1.9-billion Daang Hari – SLEx link road project. Meanwhile, the Ayala family is also competing with the Ang/Cojuangco group, Pangilinan and Consunji and their respective foreign partners for the ₱60-billion LRT Line 1 extension project. PPP projects oppress the poor not only through higher user fees. To give way to PPP projects, tens of thousands of urban poor families are also being displaced from their communities. (More on this in the next article)
Aside from infrastructure and utilities, another major source of massive profits for the local elite and foreign corporations is the wanton extraction and exploitation of the country’s natural wealth; in particular the vast domestic reserves of mineral and energy resources. Three of Aquino’s closest businessmen-allies are already dominating the energy sector with power firms associated with Cojuangco, Aboitiz and Lopez controlling more than half of the national generating capacity.
For sure, these families were able to increase their power portfolio even before Aquino became President. But under Aquino, they are enjoying even more opportunities for expansion as government implements the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) of 2001 even more aggressively. Aquino has made a strong pitch to fully implement the Epira in Mindanao, where Cojuangco and Aboitiz have pending coal-fired power plant projects and where private power operators are eyeing the privatization of the Agus-Pulangi hydropower complex.
Meanwhile, it is estimated that some 24% of approved mining applications have been clinched in the first two years of the Aquino administration. As such, it’s not a coincidence that Cojuangco’s SMC has been on a buying spree of mining firms in the past two years.
In 2011, it bought 10.1% stake in Australian firm Indophil Resources NL which owns 37.5% of Sagittarius Mines Inc. (the rest owned by Swiss firm Xstrata Copper), the operator of the estimated $5.9-billion Tampakan copper-gold project in South Cotabato – one of the world’s largest undeveloped sites. In 2010, SMC bought three coal mines in South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat previously owned by Daguma Agro Minerals, Inc., Bonanza Energy Resources, Inc. and Sultan Energy Mining and Development Corp.
But mining, while profitable, is also contentious and invites strong opposition from various sectors. Consistent with the deception of daang matuwid, Aquino recently issued Executive Order (EO) No. 79, which supposedly attends to concerns on environmental degradation and negligible economic benefits from mining.
While the EO imposes a mining ban on 78 areas designated as ecotourism sites (including Palawan, apparently to appease Gina Lopez and co.) and a moratorium on new mining deals until Congress passes a new law that will increase government’s mining revenues, it will not stop controversial and greatly destructive mining projects such as SMC’s Tampakan. More significantly, Aquino does not intend to reorient the industry and reverse its liberalization the Mining Act of 1995.
In his Social Contract, Aquino also promised to recognize farms and rural enterprises as vital to achieving food security and more equitable economic growth. In his PDP, he identified food security and increased rural incomes as among the major goals of government. Also, for agriculture to fulfill its role in reducing rural poverty and achieve food security in the long term, increased incomes, productivity and production shall be enhanced, according to the PDP.
While government boasts of improving rice and food production, even claiming that the country may become self-sufficient in rice by next year, agriculture officials also admit that domestic agriculture remains very dependent favorable weather. But what make domestic food production especially vulnerable to adverse weather events are the accumulated effects of decades of neoliberal restructuring such as trade liberalization, land use conversion, promotion of export crops, etc. which aggravate the basic problems of backward agricultural system (one report said Philippine agriculture is among the least mechanized in Southeast Asia) and landlessness among the direct food producers.
Alas, Aquino is not reversing these neoliberal policies much less implement genuine land reform. The dismantling of large haciendas for land distribution is not in Aquino’s agenda, which of course is not unexpected for someone who comes from one of the wealthiest and most influential landlord clans in the country. Last year, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) was able to distribute just 113,196 hectares out of the already small target of 200,000 hectares, or an accomplishment rate of below 57 percent.
DAR data also show that since taking over as President in July 2010, Aquino’s land acquisition and distribution (LAD) has averaged below 18,000 hectares a month – the second lowest among all post-Edsa administrations. As of yearend 2011, government still needs to acquire and distribute almost 962,000 hectares of land, which at its current LAD rate will be accomplished two to three years after the 2014 deadline set by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (Carper).
Such lackluster performance in LAD is indicative of how the landlord President is indifferent to the plight of landless farmers. The Aquino family’s Hacienda Luisita remains a contentious target for land distribution despite the Supreme Court (SC) ruling, which revoked the stock distribution option (SDO) and ordered the transfer of the sprawling sugar estate to the direct control of farmers and farmworkers.
Taking advantage of the basic flaws of Carper, the President himself is pushing for so-called “just compensation” that his family calculates at a staggering ₱10 billion – a further insult to the poor farmers who are the real owners of the hacienda.
Instead of land reform and consistent with its bias for big corporations, the Aquino administration has been promoting projects that result in further displacement of farmers such as the case of almost 700,000 hectares of agricultural lands that foreign firms from the US, Europe, Middle East and others control (or will control) through agribusiness deals. And as mentioned, the PPP and mining projects that also grab lands away from tillers.
Genuine land reform is indispensable if Aquino truly wants to increase rural income and reduce rural poverty like he stated in his Social Contract and PDP. As shown in previous studies, dismantling the land monopoly will generate an enormous amount of income and free up huge resources, in the process reducing poverty in the countryside where two out of three poor Filipinos live.