AQUINO, BISHOPS MEET AT PALACE ON OTHER ISSUES; FOI, LAND REFORM
MANILA, MARCH 11, 2013 (INQUIRER) By Philip C. Tubeza, TJ Burgonio - Avoiding the divisive reproductive health (RH) law and posters against pro-RH senatorial candidates, President Aquino and Catholic bishops met for more than four hours on Tuesday night to find common ground on other issues affecting the country, a Church official said Wednesday.
The President pushed the envelope and designated Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. (photo) as a “go-between” between the Palace and the bishops.
Monsignor Joselito Asis said the issues discussed were wide-ranging—the Freedom of Information Act, the delay in the distribution of agrarian reform lands, the killing of an Ati leader in Boracay, concerns about the automated elections, corruption in the administration, extrajudicial killings, poverty, mining and the total log ban.
However, the issue of political dynasties, which was raised in the pastoral letter, was not discussed, said Asis, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP).
He said the President called the meeting so that he and concerned Cabinet secretaries could explain the issues raised by the bishops in their scathing pastoral letter against the Aquino administration in January.
‘Friendly, very open’
The dialogue was “very positive and very open” with both sides agreeing that CBCP members could have “direct access” to the President and Cabinet members so that they could air their concerns, said Asis.
“[T]his process is very friendly, very open. It opens the door to further mutual cooperation and collaboration in the spirit of understanding and dialogue,” Asis said in an interview.
The Church delegation was led by CBCP president Archbishop Jose Palma, members of the CBCP permanent council and some other bishops.
Aquino was joined by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, Budget Secretary Butch Abad, Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman and Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes.
Over dinner of roasted asparagus soup, Caesar’s salad, paella, red snapper, beef salpicao, and “canonigo” with mango balls, the bishops made a PowerPoint presentation of the issues they raised in their pastoral letter, which the President and mainly Cabinet officials addressed point by point, the officials said.
For instance, businessmen’s proposal to buy illegally cut logs cropped up, and the President responded by saying that the government would convert them into desks and chairs, said Secretary Edwin Lacierda, presidential spokesman.
All throughout, Aquino took note of the environmental concerns raised by the bishops in their dioceses, Lacierda said.
Isues concerning the Aurora Pacific Economic Zone and Freeport Authority (Apeco) and precinct count optical scan or PCOS machines were also tackled, the officials said
Roxas also reported the drop in crime rate and increase of offenders relating to drugs in 2012, compared with previous years, Lacierda said.
“It was a very good discussion. The bishops were able to raise concerns,” he said.
Abad, for his part, responded to questions about good governance and corruption, acknowledging the need “to reorient the bureaucracy,” said Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson.
On the nonapproval by the House of Representatives of the freedom of information bill, Abad stressed the importance of crafting “a meaningful FOI bill,” Valte said.
Asis said the bishops wondered why the FOI bill was not certified as urgent. “(The President and Abad) explained that government agencies were still digitizing and encoding their data,” the monsignor said.
“They said some agencies were not yet finished upgrading their system…(The bishops) pointed out that the bill could be passed now to force the issue,” he said.
Asis said the bishops were concerned that while the FOI bill might have a chance of passing under the Aquino administration, it could be lost when a new President takes over in 2016.
“So, [the] bishops asked if it could be done now but they replied that they are laying down the groundwork for a well-meaning FOI,” Asis said.
THE SCATHING PASTORAL LETTER
MANILA TIMES COLUMN Published on 08 February 2013 Hits: 859 Written by RICARDO SALUDO
The call for urgent land reform falls on deaf ears
“I’m not sacred and I’m not a cow.” So said Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes on Wednesday in response to a scathing statement from Fr. Edu Gariguez, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines-National Secretariat for Social Action (CBCP-Nassa).
The priest had called the DAR chief an “untouchable sacred cow” whom the Aquino administration is loathe to remove despite mounting criticism.
Eighty Catholic prelates, including Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, signed a January 24 letter to President Benigno Aquino 3rd asking him to “revamp the current leadership of DAR.”
It is the strongest expression of Church concern about a government department in at least the past dozen years—indeed, the only one in that time to call for leadership change in a major agency.
“We are greatly alarmed,” the bishops told the President, “that barely one and a half years from the expiration of CARPER [the law extending the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program to 2014], the accomplishments of DAR have been dismal, to say the least, and many promises made to farmers in the June dialogue [with President Aquino] are not fulfilled.”
The letter then urged: “Mr. President, please take quick decisive action that CARPER be fully implemented, and revamp the current leadership of DAR, which underperformed these past 2 1/2 years. You are racing against time. We make this appeal with great urgency.”
Moreover, the January 28 CBCP Pastoral Statement said: “We call upon the government to be serious in implementing the asset reform laws that are in place in order to bring social justice such as CARPER for the farmers, UDHA for the urban poor, IPRA for the indigenous people and the FISHERIES CODE for the fisher folks.”
In their letter, the 80 bishops and archbishops further said: “We were elated when you heeded our call and met the farmers on June 14, 2012, and promised them a speedy implementation of the law. Our hopes were further bolstered when you forcefully stated in your SONA of July 2012 that you and your administration [are] committed to fulfill the CARPER law.”
Under the 2009 law, some 1.5 million hectares of privately owned lands should be distributed, with P150 billion budgeted over five years for the program. But DAR had been falling way short of its annual distribution targets, with 2011 distribution at just over half the goal and nearly a million hectares left to process till CARPER expires in July 2014.
That poor performance is way down from the 83% of target achieved in the Arroyo administration. It doesn’t help that the national budget has repeatedly failed to allocate the required P30 billion a year for DAR to implement CARPER.
At the June meeting, President Aquino agreed with farmers on a much-publicized roadmap for CARPER, including immediate approval of a proposed multi-sectoral mechanism to monitor and push land distribution and other agrarian programs. In addition, all lands for distribution measuring 10 hectares or more shall be issued Notices of Coverage by the end of last year, with NOCs for all other plots covered by CARPER out by July this year.
What makes the CBCP push doubly urgent is the low probability that Congress would extend CARPER further, as President Aquino himself admitted in the June meeting. Hence, all procedural work to distribute the lands should be done in the next 17 months, or else unprocessed agrarian claims cannot be pursued anymore.
DAR critics further worry that the agency would be stymied after June 2014 by the lack of budget and bureaucratic resources. From the CBCP letter, there has been minimal progress on these PNoy commitments.
So far, the Palace has expressed continued confidence in De los Reyes, prompting the “sacred cow” retort from Fr. Garage. His superior, CBCP-Nassa chairman Bishop Broderick Pabillo, also admonished in Filipino that President Aquino bears command responsibility, so if the Palace says that it continues to have confidence in De los Reyes, Malacañang will be to blame: “that means they are complicit with what’s happening.”
Secretary De los Reyes, for his part, maintained: “I’m doing my best along with the men and women of DAR.” Yesterday, a pro-Aquino daily trumpeted DAR’s distribution of 480 hectares. And if Aquino’s record of supporting his clique of close associates is any indication, there will be no change at the top of the land reform agency.
Nor is he likely to take action against a loyalist who has been careful about redistributing the Hacienda Luisita estate of the President’s Cojuangco family, despite the 2011 Supreme Court decision affirming the redistribution order issued by the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council under Arroyo.
“If the promise of the President [to implement CARPER] is not fulfilled, that means it’s [the Palace] that does not want it implemented,” said Bishop Pabillo.
Ricardo Saludo serves Bahay ng Diyos Foundation for church repair. He heads the Center for Strategy, Enterprise & Intelligence, publisher of The CenSEI Report on national and global issues ( firstname.lastname@example.org).
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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