Landowners develop ranches to evade agrarian reform

(First of two parts)

So hogs are about to supplant farmers in Bukidnon? In Masbate, farm workers are losing their land to cattle.

BY DABET CASTAÑEDA
SPECIAL REPORT
Bulatlat
Vol. VIII, No. 9, April 6-12, 2008

TICAO ISLAND, Masbate— A shanty made of coconut fronds in Hacienda Espinosa here is home to 64-year-old widower Melchor Deinla. Hehas worked here for more than three decades that the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) named him one of the “pre-qualified agrarian reform beneficiaries” in the hacienda.

Deinla and his 136 fellow beneficiaries have been waiting to get their parcels of the 325-hectare coconut plantation since 1994. Ironically, they may soon find themselves homeless–and farm-less–if the landowner gets the DAR to exempt the property from the agrarian reform program.

The landowner–an heir of one of the richest and most influential political families in Masbate–told the DAR that Hacienda Espinosa is being used for livestock production and not agriculture. And if a 1990 Supreme Court decision would be followed, land devoted to livestock is considered non-agricultural and, therefore, not covered by agrarian reform.

It started the trend of big landowners in Masbate developing their agricultural lands into ranches to avoid agrarian reform coverage. It’s the reason for the province’s “Rodeo Country” tourism campaign.

“You see all those coconut trees here? My family planted all of them,” Deinla said in Tagalog. He and his family have lived and worked in the estate for more than 32 years on a hand-to-mouth existence. The old man says all earnings from copra go to the land owner. His family and other coconut farmers live off the corn and vegetables they plant in their backyard.

Notice of coverage

On May 27, 1994, Municipal Agrarian Reform Officer (MARO) Carlos Grande issued hacienda owner Nilda Espinosa-Martinez a notice of coverage, putting the estate under compulsory acquisition and land distribution.

Hacienda Espinosa is located in Sitio Tacdugan, Barangay Bagahanglad, in the town of San Jacinto in the eastern coast of Ticao Island. The hacienda is part of some 10,000 hectares owned by the Espinosa family in the province. The Espinosas, along with four other families, control around 26,000 hectares in Masbate.

Nilda Espinosa-Martinez is a sister of former Masbate congressman Emilio Espinosa Jr. and the mother of Cebu congressman Celestino Martinez.

Before the notice of coverage was issued, local DAR officials conducted investigations on the Espinosa property. In a report dated April 14, 1994, the MARO said “the issue whether said property is used for agricultural purposes or pasture [is] moot and academic. The said property is utilized for agricultural purposes beyond reasonable doubt.”

A separate investigation report signed by three municipal agrarian reform officers, seven DAR personnel, and Barangay Agrarian Reform Committee representatives stated that “the entire [325.2916 ha.] area is recommended for acquisition. The main crop is coconut…multi-cropping with rice, corn and pasture.” The report noted that the land is “fully planted to coconut” and that there were “4
0 cows and 30 carabaos” grazing in the plantation. Deinla said that it was common during that time for land owners in Ticao to have livestock in the plantations as a source of additional income, but the hacienda was never considered a ranch or a pasture land, even by the government.

Exclusion

But on May 4, 1994, barely three weeks after the notice of coverage was issued, Espinosa-Martinez filed a petition for the exclusion of the Espinosa property from coverage of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). Her basis for filing the petition was the 1990 Supreme Court decision in Luz Farms vs. The Secretary of Agrarian Reform (192 SCRA 51), which ruled that lands devoted to livestock production are not agricultural and, thus, are excluded from CARP coverage.

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