Hacienda Luisita — ‘Daang baluktot’

By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Streetwise | BusinessWorld

The saga of the more than half a century of struggle by the farm workers of the vast Hacienda Luisita to own and benefit from the piece of land they have been tilling has been shaped and, to a significant extent decided, by the political fortunes of its owners, the big landlord clan of the Cojuangco-Aquinos.

Historically, it is when the political figures in the clan are in the Opposition — Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr. versus the Dictator Ferdinand Marcos, followed by then former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino versus President Gloria Arroyo-that the farm workers have seen some real advance in government decisions pertaining to their demand for land.

On the other hand, it is when the Cojuangco-Aquinos are in control of the reins of government — Mrs. Cojuangco-Aquino became president in 1986 after the uprising that toppled Marcos and her son, Benigno Simeon Aquino III, became president in 2010 at the end of Mrs. Arroyo’s non-extendible term of office — that the land-owning clan has been able to frustrate, forestall and even torpedo decisions favorable to the farm workers.

Let us recall that in 1989, Hacienda Luisita owners availed of the “stock distribution option” (SDO) allowed in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) passed during Mrs. Aquino’s administration. Instead of distributing the agricultural lands of HL Inc. to the tillers, certificates of stock were given to them to signify that they had become “owners” of HLI entitling them to the profits the corporation would declare. (HLI never did but rather claimed continuing losses.) In return the farm workers were allowed to continue living and working on the land; their “man days” of toil on the hacienda, paid on the cheap, confirmed their legal claims of “ownership.”

But the exploitation and intense hardship brought about by the SDO swindle spurred the farm workers to organize. By December 2003, more than 5,000 of them under the Alyansa ng Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita (AMBALA) petitioned the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to junk the SDO and for the land to be distributed to them. In November 2004, the farm workers staged a strike together with mill workers of the Central Azucarera de Tarlac (the sugar mill in the hacienda also owned by the Cojuangco-Aquinos). On November 16 the strike was violently dispersed by the military,the police and the Cojuangco-Aquinos’ private army resulting in the killing of seven peasants and the wounding and arrests of hundreds of strikers and their supporters.

In December 2005 the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) under the direction of the Arroyo regime junked the SDO in HLI and ruled that the lands should be placed under CARP.

In April 2012, the Supreme Court, then presided over by Chief Justice Corona (a midnight appointee of Mrs. Arroyo) issued a final and executory resolution in the case Hacienda Luisita, Inc. versus PARC, et al. to revoke the SDO and for DAR to distribute 4,335 hectares of land plus those that it would find to be agricultural in use to 6,296 qualified farm worker beneficiaries (FWBs)*.

What followed after the initial shouts of rejoicing and guarded expectations of social justice finally coming to roost in Hacienda Luisita is a sharp reminder that legal victories can be quickly twisted and reversed by realpolitik; that is, the reality that the scion of the powerful Cojuangco-Aquino clan is now President of the country.

Utilizing levers at his disposal (not to mention the pork barrel funds of Congress) Mr. Aquino managed to have his political adversary, CJ Corona, impeached and replaced with his own appointee, CJ Sereno. In so doing he has secured the court of last resort for whatever legal maneuvers the HLI management deem necessary to blunt and subvert the Corona SC decision.

At the same time Mr. Aquino, through the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), has set up the FWBs for another great swindle despite the “final” SC ruling. In what constitutes blatant as well as sly maneuvering through DAR-HLI collusion, hundreds of hectares of high-value tracts of land have been excluded from distribution based on a questionable survey by FF Cruz, a private contractor hired by DAR, behind the backs and sans participation of the FWBs.

The DAR system of raffling out the particular parcels of land to individual FWBs was instituted despite the representations made by the FWBs’ organizations asking that collective CLOAs be issued to facilitate the collective farming and further development of adjoining lots. This is in light of the highly productive “bungkalan” campaign undertaken by the farm workers from 2005 onwards to get the utmost benefit from the lands still undistributed.

Through the raffle system, parcels of land were not assigned in accord with what the farm workers were already actually tilling; many FWBs got lots quite distant from their home lots such that they would be incurring unnecessary and burdensome costs to be able to work on their assigned farm lots.

This irrational system pits FWBs against each other and further undermines their unity and cooperation as they embark on making their farm lots productive and able to bring much-needed income for their families. Furthermore, the outcome favors the “block farming” arrangement that the HLI wants and the DAR abets; that is, for individual FWBs to agree that their 6,600 square meters of farm lot be aggregated with adjacent lots for sugar cane planting. “Block farming” ensures that the hacienda will continue to be a sugar plantation feeding raw materials to the highly profitable sugar mill owned by HLI.

To top it all, DAR is forcing FWBs to sign, under pain of disqualification, an Affidavit of Purchase and Farmer’s Undertaking (APFU). The AFPU states that the FWB will buy their assigned parcel of land from DAR and agrees to pay yearly amortization thereon for the next 30 years.

The DAR, as the AMBALA anticipated, has already valued the lands to be distributed at a much higher 70,000 per hectare (not the estimated 40,000 per hectare in 1989 when the SDO was implemented as ordered by the Corona SC). Land Bank is reported to have already paid HLI an initial amount of 286,930,000 for the 4,099 hectares.

What this means is that the peasant families who have already paid for the land several times over with their blood, sweat and tears are being entrapped into paying forced amortizations, this time to the government. DAR is invoking the bogus land reform law extended five years ago as the basis for this unconscionable demand on the FWBs.

In sum, the Cojuangco-Aquinos stand to regain — or rather, retain — Hacienda Luisita, on top of bagging a hefty profit from the whole sham distribution scheme as the destitute farmers are expected to default on their amortizations.

This is land reform at its hypocritical worst under a landlord President trumpeting his “matuwid na daan.”

*A qualified FWB is one who has worked in the hacienda since 1989 when the SDO was adopted and is therefore entitled to receive a parcel of land had land distribution been actually carried out.

Published in Business World
September 5, 2013

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