Luisita Farm Brigades Till Land as They Await Distribution

As lawyers haggle over the legality of the revocation of the stock distribution option in Hacienda Luisita, the farm workers continue to reap benefits from tilling the land and earn money from the on-going sugar cane harvest.

By Abner Bolos

As lawyers haggle over the legality of the revocation of the stock distribution option in Hacienda Luisita, the farm workers continue to reap benefits from tilling the land and earn money from the on-going sugar cane harvest.

The United Luisita Workers’ Union (ULWU), the 5,000-strong farm workers’ union, said their members have more than doubled the 300 hectares they were able to cultivate at the height of the strike last year. The union has also received some P1.68 million ($32,000 at $1:P52.52) as proceeds of the harvested sugar cane.

Union leaders say the decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) to revoke the SDO on Dec. 20 last year “further tied down the hands of management from taking back control of the land” and encouraged union members to expand their farms.

The sugar mill in the 5,000-ha. sugar estate owned by the family of former President Corazon Aquino resumed operations when the 13-month long labor dispute ended last Dec. 8. But management was not yet able to operate the sugar plantation because of financial difficulties.

“There is no work for the farm workers after the strike ended,” ULWU president Rene Galang told Bulatlat. “Working on the land and the sugar cane harvest will allow us to survive and is a concrete step toward land ownership for the hacienda people.”

“Now that the strike is over our members have more time to till. We will monitor the legal case closely and will do what we can to prevent a reversal of the decision (to revoke the SDO) and realize land distribution,” Galang said.

Time to till

The farm workers started cultivating idle land in the plantation at the height of the strike last year.

Lito Bais, 41, leader of a collective farm in barangay (village) Asturias said that farm workers now earn about P5,000 to P10,000 ($95.20-190.40) per harvest from crops such as camote (sweet potato), corn and mongo. He said this is aside from weekly earnings of at least P500 ($9.50) from vegetable crops.

To expand production and plant rice (the country’s staple food), Bais said two work groups composed of 25 union members diverted water from the sugar mill’s ditch to irrigate a two-hectare collective farm planted to rice. He said they expect to harvest some 200 cavans (one cavan is equivalent to 50 kgs.) of rice next month.

Water for irrigation has become scarce in the current dry season. But union leaders say they will be able to buy and install pumps to tap underground water from the proceeds of the sugar cane harvest, as well as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides. The unions also plan to borrow or lease tractors to expand cultivation.

Farm workers said the hacienda soil is rich and can yield some 100 cavans of rice using only rain water and the barest of fertilizers and pesticides. One dayos (stretch or plot measuring about 50 sq. meters) can produce one sack of camote which sells from P500 to P600 ($9.50-11.42) per sack.

Maximo Sebastian, 56, ULWU member from barangay Asturias earned some P10,000 ($190.40) from 20 dayos of camote and P5,000 ($95.20) from his peanut harvest, a far cry from the meager wages they received before the strike, which was a mere P9.50 ($0.18) a week.

The union estimates that about 700 hectares has now been made productive in the 10 villages comprising the hacienda.

Sugar harvest

The agreement that ended the strike, aside from providing for the workers’ “major demands,” also gave the farm workers the right to harvest and get the proceeds from the sale of the estimated 60,000 tons of sugar cane left unharvested because of the strike.

Union members receive individual pay for tabas and karga (cutting and loading of sugar cane into trucks) while the union gets the proceeds from the sugar cane milled at the sugar mill.

Last week, ULWU received P1.5 million ($28,560) as payment for the sugar cane harvest that started in the second week of December. Earlier, the union also received P180,000 ($3,427) as proceeds from the sugar cane harvest. The money goes into the union’s coffers to be used to expand production and a portion will be shared among union members, according to union officials.

A union member receives P220 ($4.19) for cutting and loading a ton of sugar cane. Women who are unable to load cane into the trucks, are paid P170 ($3.23) for every ton of cane cut ready for loading. A farm worker can cut and load one to three tons of cane a day. Women cane cutters usually work for only half a day.

“Ang unyon ang namamahala sa pagtatabas ng tubo na dinadala sa central. Kumikita ang aming mga myembro at nakakapag-ipon ng pondo ang unyon mula sa bayad sa tubo. Napakalaki ang kaibahan ngayon kaysa noong sumasahod lang kami ng P9.50 ($0.18) kada araw sa parehong bigat ng trabaho” (The unions manage the harvesting of sugar cane that is delivered to the sugar mill. Our members get paid for the work and the union is able to collect and save the money paid for the harvest. There is a big difference now compared to the past when we were paid only P9.50 ($0.18) for the same amount of work), Joey Romero, member of the ULWU board of directors told Bulatlat.

The collective spirit is also evident in the way the cane is harvested. Union members in each village are grouped into work brigades of 10 to 15 farm workers per brigade. One group composed of 10 workers can cut and load 13 to 17 tons of cane per day. The pay for the total tonnage harvested by each group will then be divided among its members, according to union officers.

The union plans to manage the plantation until next year’s harvest season. Romero says this season’s harvest will produce the third ratoon of cane crop (a ratoon is the root and trunk part of a sugar cane that is left to grow again for the next season’s harvest). The third ratoon is known here to be the most profitable since it will produce more yield.

“Karaniwang mas makapal ang third ratoon kaysa sa mga nauna kaya inaasahan naming mas malaki ang ani sa susunod na tabasan. Aalagaan namin ito para mas mapakinabangan ng mga tao” (The third ratoon is usually thicker than earlier ratoons and we expect that the next harvest will be bigger. We will tend the cane so that the people can reap more benefits), Romero said.

Desperate measures

Meanwhile, union officials scoffed at the move by company lawyers to appeal the revocation of the SDO.

“The Cojuangco-Aquino family is desperate. The (SDO) revocation has further tied down the hands of management from taking back control of the land. There is really no way for them to reverse the decision except to resort to legal technicalities. The public knows that they misled and oppressed us by evading land distribution. That is the biggest truth and no amount of legality can reverse that,” Romero explained.

Last January 2, lawyers of the Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) filed a motion for reconsideration to the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) arguing that there was “no legal basis to cancel a fulfilled contract,” referring to the Memorandum of Agreement signed in 1989 that formalized the SDO. The company also argued that the PARC violated the Constitution and the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law when it revoked the SDO.

Both the Department of Agrarian Reform and HLI concede that only the Supreme Court can issue a final ruling on the revocation. Tarlac DAR chief Alfredo Reyes has issued a notice of coverage on four land titles of what supposedly remains of the original 6,453 has. comprising the hacienda.

The notice of coverage does not include the 500 has. converted to industrial use in 1996 and the 77 hectares sold by HLI to the Base Conversion Development Authority for the construction of a portion of the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway inside the hacienda.

In an earlier statement, ULWU has contended that the entire original land area of the plantation covering 6,435 has. should be the subject of land distribution. ULWU said that the Cojuangco family used its powerful clout during the time when one of its owners was president of the republic to unilaterally and illegally exclude some 2,000 has. from CARP coverage.

“The case can drag on and we are confident that our lawyers can rebut them every step of the way. Meanwhile, the people of Hacienda Luisita must enjoy the land’s bounty,” Romero said.

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