By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
We began this column in August last year with two pieces that dwelt on the historical background of the protracted land dispute in Hacienda Luisita Inc. and the oral arguments before the Supreme Court over the stock distribution option (SDO) as a way of implementing agrarian reform.
How the SC would decide the case, I wrote then, would affect not only the lives of the farm workers’ families in HLI, but also millions of other Filipino peasants struggling to own the land they till. Also, the decision could either prove to be a defining moment for Chief Justice Corona and his associate justices, or reinforce lingering doubts about their political independence.
Last Tuesday, the SC ruled on the case. The ruling has evoked sharp criticisms from the media, from legislators, and church leaders. The farm workers and their supporters
vehemently protested and condemned it.
In brief, this is what went before.
The HLI management, controlled by the Cojuangco clan to which President Aquino belongs, brought the issue to the SC in 2005. The year before, striking sugar mill and farm workers had massed up at the hacienda’s gate and were bloodily dispersed by military and police forces. Six farm workers were killed, several others wounded. That incident became known as the Hacienda Luisita massacre.
The issue before the court was the SDO that HLI asked for, and was allowed by the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council in 1989 to implement, instead of redistributing the land to 6,296 farm worker beneficiaries (FWBs) under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program. Rather than a half-hectare of land, each farm worker was supposed to have been given 18,000 shares of stocks in HLI. All together, the FWB shares would have represented 33 percent of the firm’s total stocks.
It did not work. In 2005, 5,339 farm workers petitioned the Department of Agrarian Reform to revoke the SDO and distribute the land to them. They claimed that HLI had implemented the plan onerously and did not comply with certain obligations. After 16 years, the “beneficiaries” complained, the SDO had worsened, rather than improved, the quality of their lives.
Acting on the DAR’s endorsement of the petition, the PARC revoked its 1989 approval of the SDO and ordered redistribution of the land. Posthaste, HLI petitioned the SC to issue a restraining order on the DAR — which it got — and to set aside the PARC’s revocation of the SDO.
For five years the PARC order remained in limbo, until the SC heard the oral arguments of both sides in August last year. Meantime, some of the farm workers had begun to cultivate parts of the land, planting rice and harvesting the crops and growing vegetables in between crop seasons to generate income.
Last Tuesday the SC, voting 6-4, upheld the PARC revocation, in effect denying the HLI petition. In other words, HLI lost its case.
But wait. Although SC spokesman Midas Marquez told the media that 10 of the justices stood for revocation, they split on the implementation. Only four justices affirmed that the land must be distributed to the farm workers, since the SDO had been revoked.
On the other hand, the majority six want the DAR to again conduct a referendum among the original 6,296 FWBs for them to “choose whether they want to remain as HLI stockholders or not.” Logically one may ask: Since the SDO was revoked, on what legal ground could DAR call a referendum?
The six justices contend that what the PARC revoked was only its approval of the SDO, which they deemed as “an executive act,” but not the SDO Agreement as a “contract” between HLI and the FWBs. The hairsplitting was pointed out by one dissenting justice, who said that both SDO and SDOA, as its operating agreement, were covered by the PARC approval and subsequent revocation.
The six justices add that “the Court cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that in 1989, 93 percent of the FWBs agreed to the SDOA,” which they say was the basis for PARC in approving the SDO.
This argument favors HLI, hence it welcomed the ruling.
We have here a ruling wherein HLI lost but at the same time won. It failed to have the SDO revocation set aside, which is the main issue. But now it is given another chance to unduly influence or manipulate the referendum, as the farm workers claim the firm did in 1989 and in its own-supervised referendum last year on a supposed compromise agreement with alleged leaders of farm workers’ groups.
Verily, one critic dubs the ruling as “bigay sa kaliwa, bawi sa kanan.” A major daily in its editorial describes it as “a classic of confusion…with tragic consequences.” The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas condemns it as “the biggest betrayal of a lifetime, even worse than the Hacienda Luisita massacre… It will not end the more than a half-century-old agrarian conflict in HLI and would instead fuel agrarian unrest in the hacienda.”
One gathers from reading the majority decision that these justices decided mainly on legal points. They seem to have overlooked the essence of agrarian reform as an act of social justice.
Published in The Philippine Star