In a deal with government funders 46 years ago, Don Jose Cojuangco pledged to distribute the land now occupied by Hacienda Luisita to tenant farmers. A former director of the Department of Agrarian Reform says a court order binds the Cojuangcos to do so.
By Dabet Castañeda
The Cojuangco family, owners of the embattled Hacienda Luisita, Inc. (HLI) and the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT), is legally bound to distribute the 4,000-hectare land to the sugar farm workers of the plantation, a former Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) director said. The 4,000 hectares are what is left of the 6,400-hectare plantation estate whose 2,400-ha portion is said to have been earmarked as “homelots” for the HLI’s “shareholders.”
The former DAR official, Jose Santos, is one of government lawyers who on April 18, 1980 assisted Solicitor General Estelito Mendoza in filing Civil Case No. 131654 at the Regional Trial Court (RTC) of Manila, Branch XLIII against the Tarlac Development Corporation (Tadeco), the former company name of HLI and CAT.
Santos, who is now retired, is known to his colleagues to be an expert in handling big land disputes during his tenure at the government’s agrarian agency then known as the Ministry of Agrarian Reform (MAR). He worked there as director of the Bureau of Agrarian Legal Assistance (BALA).
In an exclusive interview with Bulatlat last week, Santos said he is breaking his silence to shed light on what actually transpired since 1958 when the late Cojuangco patriarch, Don Jose, acquired the hacienda. He also recalled the conditions on why Don Jose Cojuangco was able to do so, and the court case which government won over the family that legally binds them to distribute land to the hacienda’s tillers.
Court records from the Manila RTC show that Don Jose was able to purchase Tadeco on March 31, 1958 using government funds from two agencies, the Central Bank of the Philippines (CBP) and the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS). The CBP, under Monetary Board Resolution No. 1240, granted a loan of US $2,128,480 to Don Jose on the condition that the latter would also buy the Hacienda Luisita sugar plantation. The patriarch’s original plan was to only purchase the sugar mill. As part of the condition, the hacienda is to be distributed to small farmers in line with the administration’s social justice program, Santos recalls.
But since the dollar loan was not enough to purchase both the sugar mill and the plantation, Don Jose again applied for a loan with the GSIS, court records show. The GSIS Board of Trustees, through Resolution No. 3202 approved the sum of P5.9 million in loan for the purchase of the 6,400-hectare Hacienda Luisita on the condition, among others, that the estate should be subdivided among tenants who shall pay the cost under “reasonable terms and conditions.“
In 1967, Conrado Estrella of the now defunct Land Authority inquired in writing with the Tadeco owner whether he has complied with the conditions set by the CBP and GSIS, citing in particular the distribution of the land among its tillers. Don Jose answered that when his group took over the hacienda, they found no tenants and that they had to begin operating the hacienda by hiring farm workers.
Ten years later, the CBP made a similar inquiry with the heirs of Don Jose, who by then had died. In March 1978, the Evening Post daily reported that about 100,000 residents of the 10 barrios comprising the hacienda filed a petition demanding the expropriation of the hacienda and its distribution to small farmers.
Consequently in May of the same year, MAR officials made their own inquiry into the case. Tadeco vice-president Demetria Cojuangco replied that the condition with regards the land distribution could not be enforced.
In 1980, Santos recalls, he assisted Solicitor General Mendoza in filing a case against the owners of Tadeco before the Manila RTC. Mendoza and Santos asked the RTC to compel Tadeco to honor its pledge in the 1958 loan deal with the CBP and GSIS and transfer the 6,400-hectare hacienda to the MAR who shall then subdivide, distribute and resell the land at cost to small farmers.
Again, Tadeco insisted the CBP and GSIS conditions could not be enforced first, because there were no tenants in the hacienda and, second, sugarcane plantations were not part of the scope of the government’s land reform program. To do so, Tadeco lawyers said, would be giving in to what could be seen as a “disguised confiscation of private property.”
The case dragged on for five years until Dec. 2, 1985 when Judge Bernardo Pardo of the Manila RTC Branch XLIII decided in favor of government. The Cojuangcos immediately appealed the decision before the Court of Appeals (CA).
Santos recalls that the RTC decision vindicated the sugar farm workers’ cause. Before the appeal could be heard at the CA, however, one of the Cojuangco’s heirs, Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino (widow of Marcos’ arch-rival Benigno Aquino), became president of the country on the crest of a popular uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship in February 1986.
But since the new president was one of the owners of the hacienda, Santos said he began to lose faith that the court decision would bear fruit. His fears were proven right when in 1986, President Cojuangco-Aquino appointed Sedfrey Ordoñez, the Cojuangco family’s own legal counsel in the Hacienda Luisita case, as solicitor general. As solicitor general, Santos added, Ordoñez was also to represent government that in the first place, originally filed the case for expropriation.