By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA — The year 2010 marked the end of nine years of the bloody struggle for land and justice of Filipino peasants under former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Their struggle, however, continues under a new administration, who promised to take the right path yet undermines, if not ignore, the peasants’ right to the land they till.
When Benigno Aquino III declared his bid for the presidency, peasant groups expressed their fear that no genuine agrarian reform would be implemented if Aquino won, considering the long-standing agrarian dispute in Hacienda Luisita, a 6,453 hectare land, which he co-owns. True enough, when he was elected, Aquino did not mention anything about agrarian reform in his Inaugural speech nor in his first State of the Nation Address, “as if there is no agrarian unrest in the country,” Antonio Flores of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas said.
Aquino has also opted to keep a ‘hands-off’ policy on the issue of Hacienda Luisita, when the peasants’ call for the distribution of the land intensified. But such ‘hands-off’ policy of the president, according to KMP secretary general Danilo Ramos, is already a political statement: that he is “unwilling to implement genuine agrarian reform” as it contradicts his own interest because he, himself, is a haciendero or a big landlord.
The Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) had already ordered the distribution of Hacienda Luisita in 2005. According to PARC, the Stock Distribution Option, a landless distribution scheme under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law that is being implemented in the hacienda for some 20 years now, is unconstitutional because it failed to improve the lives of farmer-beneficiaries. To stop the distribution of the land, the Cojuangco-Aquino family filed a temporary restraining order before the Supreme Court, which was granted the following year.
Later this year, however, the agrarian dispute at the Hacienda Luisita was in the limelight yet again when the Cojuangco-Aquino family and the farmer-beneficiaries were supposed to have arrived at a ‘compromise agreement’ just before the scheduled oral argument before the Supreme Court. Peasant leaders said the purported compromise agreement is just one of the tricks being used by the Cojuangco-Aquino family to keep Hacienda Luisita from being distributed to its real owners, the farmworkers.
The SC, during the second oral argument hearing, decided to form a mediation panel, which would supposedly come up with a “win-win” solution that would benefit both the Cojuangco-Aquino family and the farmer beneficiaries. But this was proven to be a failure when the Hacienda Luisita farmers, led by the Alyansa ng Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala), walked out of the third mediation meeting being presided over by the Supreme Court.
“There is no more sense in continuing the mediation process because there is no way that the farm workers would agree to retain the stock distribution option (SDO) in the hacienda. We would rather that the Supreme Court decide the case based on its merits,” United Luisita Workers’ Union acting president and Ambala vice chair Lito Bais said.
Luisita farmers have submitted on September 22 their memorandum, which according to their legal counsel Jobert Pahilga, would serve as their final stand on the more than half a century agrarian dispute. The High Court is yet to decide on the constitutionality of the SDO and the authority of the PARC to revoke its implementation in the hacienda, as of this writing.
More Haciendas Blocking Agrarian Reform
The struggle of the peasants of Hacienda Luisita is not an isolated case. In Negros Occidental, farm workers are not only confronted with a landless distribution scheme but are also pitted against a member of the same clan that has been denying the Hacienda Luisita farmers of their right to the land they have been tilling for generations.
Eduardo “Danding” Cojuanco Jr., Aquino’s uncle and once proclaimed by then president Joseph Estrada as the ‘godfather of land reform,’ started acquiring lands in Negros Occidental during the 1980s. This led to the displacement of peasants, most of whom have ancestors who cleared the land for planting during the 1900s to 1930s, the Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura said
In 1980, the Department of Agrarian Reform Provincial Office issued a notice that Hacienda Balatong was being covered under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform program. The 1,200-hectare Hacienda Balatong is one of the 11 haciendas that were bought by Cojuangco. The DAR national office, however, ordered a stay in the implementation of agrarian reform in the hacienda because the land was supposedly under sequestration proceedings before the Sandiganbayan. Documents pertaining to the hold order issued by the national office of DAR were later declared lost.
The Sandiganbayan, in 1986, ordered the implementation of CARP in the hacienda. But by then, peasant groups said, Cojuangco had already found a way to circumvent the agrarian reform law through the Voluntary Land Transfer / Direct Payment Scheme and the Joint Venture project, which he dubbed as a ‘corporative scheme.’ Under the VLT Agreement, the farmer-beneficiaries would have to pay directly to ECJ P350,000 per hectare of land, payable in ten years after a grace period of five years. When the Certificates of Land Ownership Agreement were to be distributed, in ceremonies attended by no less than then president Joseph Estrada and then DAR Sec. Horacio Morales, Cojuangco announced that he would be giving the land for free for as long as the farmer-beneficiaries would enter into a joint venture agreement.
Under the said agreement, Cojuangco’s agri-business corporation and the cooperative of the agrarian reform beneficiaries would form a joint venture corporation. Cojuangco would provide the support facilities and the capital needed to develop the land. The farmer-beneficiaries, on the other hand, would offer the use of the land in exchange for a 30 percent share in the corporation and four out of 12 seats in the Board of Directors. Pedro Bedayo, who purportedly represented the farmer-beneficiaries in the signing of the memorandum of agreement, was a farm manager of one of the haciendas.
When the final list of agrarian reform beneficiaries were drawn up, it excluded more than 3,000 farmers, among them were long-time occupant-tillers of the land. While the 1,206 names included in the list were not even qualified because they held managerial positions in Cojuangco’s company, the ECJ and Sons Agricultural Enterprises Inc.