Luisita Workers Reject GMA Expressway; Press for Her Ouster

After stopping plantation and milling operations at Hacienda Luisita, cane workers and their families gear up for blocking the construction of one of President Macapagal-Arroyo’s flagship projects – a super expressway.

By Abner Bolos

The much-delayed Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway Project (SCTEP), one of the 10 flagship programs of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, may yet face its biggest hitch: the striking workers in Hacienda Luisita will not allow it to be built on the sugar plantation. Saying that the project is the final proof of the insensitivity of the Arroyo government to their plight, the cane workers demand instead that the president step down from power.

Rene Galang, president of the 5,000-strong United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU) said June 11 that the family of former President Cojuangco-Aquino, instead of implementing a court decision to distribute the land to the tillers, managed to hold on to the 6,000-ha. sugar plantation and profited immensely through land use conversion since the government implemented the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) 17 years ago.

In an interview with Bulatlat, Galang said the road project is “part of a systematic land-grabbing scheme by the Cojuangco-Aquino family, in collusion with the Arroyo government, to further deprive us of our legitimate rights.”

“This is the last straw,” he also said. “The Arroyo government clearly sided with the Cojuangco family in the labor dispute and was responsible for the death of at least 10 of our members and supporters. We cannot allow her to do anymore injustice on the poor hacienda people by constructing (the SCTEP) inside the hacienda. We demand that she step down from Malacañang,” Galang.

The government announced last April the start of the P27.5-billion road project which will connect the Subic Bay Freeport and Special Economic Zone in Zambales, Clark Special Economic Zone in Pampanga and the Luisita Industrial Park in Tarlac. The project will be funded through a 40-year loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC).

Once built, the SCTEP is touted to be the longest road network in the country covering some 94.5 kilometers. About 536 hectares stretching across the provinces of Zambales, Bataan, Pampanga and Tarlac will be used for the project, some 64 has. of which is located inside Hacienda Luisita.

Its proponent, the Base Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) said the project is a key component of the Central Luzon development plan, which includes the development of two former U.S. military installations, Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, into a major international airport and international port, respectively.

Controversial project

At the outset, the project has been marred with delays and controversies. When the loan agreement was signed between BCDA and JBIC on Sept. 14, 2001, the loan package was worth only P17.8 billion. On July 20, 2004 the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) asked the BCDA to conduct another bidding after the project cost ballooned to more than P27 billion.

NEDA Director General Romulo L.Neri said at that time that another bidding was necessary because the project was redesigned and also to “avoid legal problems, such as the Supreme Court nullifying the contract, like in the case of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal.”

On Aug. 16, 2004, Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez passed House Resolution No. 95 which called for an inquiry on alleged overpricing of the first phase of the SCTEP. Suarez said then that with the current price, construction cost is P310 million per kilometer for the four-lane highway but average cost for a similar project is only about P70 to P100 million.

Environmental concerns were also swept aside for the project to push through. In September 2004 the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) allowed the destruction of a virgin forest reserve at the Roosevelt Protected Landscape in Dinalupihan, Bataan to give way for the project.

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