Farmworkers in the sugar estate are fighting back for justice and genuine agrarian reform.
By AMIHAN MABALAY
Hacienda Luisita, TARLAC CITY – Some 1,000 farmworkers – old and young, men and women – gathered under scorching heat here on April 24, and marched toward a garrisoned land that should have long been in the farm workers’ hands.
It is the enclosed compound of the Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC) in Balete village inside this sprawling estate, and the farm workers proceeded to demolish its walls and topple down its watch tower – a symbolic move that might well signal the start of the dissolution of the Cojuangco-Aquino’s land monopoly and the growing strength of organized peasantry calling for genuine agrarian reform.
The mass action was timed on the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision to distribute 4,916 hectares of the sugar estate – issued five years ago but still unimplemented, until last Monday. The farm workers were joined by workers, urban poor, students and other sectors as they asserted their historical, moral and legal right to take back what is rightfully theirs. Reclaiming the land that they had toiled over for decades required the demonstration of their strength in numbers.
Armed with courage and resolve to dismantle land monopoly, the farm workers brought mallets, a saw and a tractor, and successfully brought down a security watchtower and tore down the walls that kept them from tilling fertile land inside the RCBC compound.
Rudy Corpuz, secretary general of Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala) said that their action to dismantle the walls, which served as symbol of land-grabbing and reign of terror by the Cojuangco-Aquinos, is just and moral.
As the men took turns hammering the walls, the noise of a tractor’s engine drowned the chanting of people as it brought down another part of the wall. Ambala members, particularly the elderly shouted, “Kulang pa iyan sa ginawa ninyo sa amin (That will not suffice for all the oppression we endured).”
The farmers were not able to enter the land though, because the property was heavily secured. A steel fence served as double barrier, and live wires surrounded the perimeter. Inside what looked like a garrison was 500 policemen in full battle gear and armed private guards. A few agitated farmers would peek through the holes of the steel fence and shout at the police that they have no right to defend a property no longer owned by the Cojuangcos.
The RCBC compound walls farmers tore down are part of the three parcels of agricultural land, covering 500 hectares converted in 1996. On November 25, 2004, a few days after the massacre, HLI sold 184 hectares to RCBC. Some 200 hectares remain in possession of Luisita Land Corporation (LLC), formerly Luisita Realty Corporation (LRC). In 2012, AMBALA challenged the RCBC and HLI’s other successors-in-interest with a petition to revoke the said conversion order.
After 20 years since the issuance of the conversion order, RCBC and LLC failed to develop said property. On February 23 this year, DAR Secretary Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano revoked the conversion order, and ordered the immediate coverage and distribution lands under the existing land reform program.
“Pursuant to Section 65 of [Republic Act] 6657, as amended, the failure to fully implement the conversion plan within 5 years from the issuance of the DAR conversion order, or any violation of the conditions of the conversion order, in the event such failure or violation was due to the fault of the applicant, shall cause the land subject thereof to automatically be covered by CARP, subject to the right of retention,” the former peasant leader emphasized.
The right to reclaim
After the massacre in 2004, and even after the final and executory decision of the Supreme Court in 2012 to distribute the lands, the Cojuangcos continued to harass, intimidate and deceive the farmers. Time and again, farmers supported by people outside of the hacienda, launched bungkalan, or collective cultivation, and plant crops to sustain their livelihood. But hired goons and security guards burned their groups’ hut, bulldozed their growing crops, threatened and even killed their members.
After the Supreme Court decision, the Cojuangco-Aquinos launched Oplan April Spring, a plan to quell the farmers growing resistance. Balete village was transformed into a garrison. Balete was surrounded by concrete walls, barbed wire fences, elevated outposts guarded by armed security, a police detachment, and headquarters of a mechanized battalion where bulldozers and army tanks frequently roam around. On November 21, Ambala member Dennis Dela Cruz was found dead in the bungkalan project location in the said village.
Timeline on the 500 hectare converted landholding
August 14, 1996 – The Department of Agrarian Reform issued a land use conversion order for 500 hectares of land in Hacienda Luisita, under DARCO Conversion Order No. 030601074-764-(95), Series of 1996.
April 25, 2002 – Hacienda Luisita Incorporated (HLI) files Request for Extension of the Period of Development (under the Conversion Order)
November 25, 2004 – Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC) acquired 184.122 hectares from Hacienda Luisita Incorporated (HLI)
April 24, 2012 – The Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling favored the 2005 PARC decision to cancel the Stock Distribution Option in the 6,453 hectare sugar estate, and ordered the complete distribution of 4,335 hectares to farm workers as beneficiaries (out of the original 4,916 hectares from which 500 hectares was converted and 80.5 utilized for the construction of Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expresway (SCTEX)
2012 – AMBALA files petition for revocation of DARCO Conversion Order No. 030601074-764-(95), Series of 1996.
August 17, 2016 – Luisita Land Corporation (LLC) files request Request for Extension of the Period of Development
2013 – Tambiolo raffle of land distribution under DAR Secretary Virgilio Delos Reyes
2017 – Awarding of CLOA led by DAR Secretary Mariano to 111 farmers disqualified by previous administration for refusing to sign the Application to Purchase and Farmers’ Undertaking (APFU) document.
February 23, 2017 – DAR Secretary Mariano orders the following:
“Partial revocation” of DARCO Conversion Order No. 030601074-764-(95), Series of 1996, with respect to 500 hectare property owned by LRC and RCBC.
The pressing need for Genuine Agrarian Reform
The hard-won initial victories of the farm workers in Hacienda Luisita remains to be defended. Their struggle wages on until a genuine land reform program founded on the principle of free land distribution is realized. Current condition of agrarian reform beneficiaries in the sugar estate only highlights the failure of Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and previous programs.
In a recently concluded validation by DAR, it was revealed that around 4,000 or 83 percent of a total of 5,031 farm worker-beneficiaries were duped by ariendadors and local politicians to lease their lands, thus farmers are not in actual possession of the lands awarded to them.
Most of the beneficiaries – 46 percent – have leased, mortgaged or rented out their lands to financiers, aryendadors while 10 percent have sold their lots to third-party actual buyers. Only 1,034 or a mere 17 percent of farm workers are actually cultivating the land.
The biggest percentage of beneficiaries who leased their lots are in the villages of Mabilog, Pando and Motrico, while most of the beneficiaries who sold their lots are in Cutcut and Pando village. Bantog village has the largest number of actual cultivators.
The illicit leaseback or “aryendo” scheme has been in effect in the controversial sugar estate since the distribution of Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) in 2013 under then Secretary Virgilio delos Reyes. The lease covers a period from three to 10 years. The first three years were commonly paid in advance, while the following years will be renewed on a contractual basis. Beneficiaries were paid P7,000 to P10,000 ($140 to $200) per hectare.
The validation affirmed previous reports that local politicians and former managers and supervisors of Hacienda Luisita Inc. have been renting tracts of land from agrarian reform beneficiaries. These officials are most likely used as dummies of the influential people inside the hacienda and the province. Calling for an immediate end to the aryendo system that disenfranchises farmers and obstructs the delivery of agrarian reform, Secretary Mariano also committed to charge those liable for coercing, luring and swindling beneficiaries into the illicit scheme.
The group Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) said the biggest proprietor of aryendo system in Luisita is Agrikulto Inc., which is owned by the Lorenzo landlord clan controlling vast plantations in Mindanao. Recently, a thousand sacadas, or migratory farm workers from Mindanao were trafficked to Luisita, other parts of Tarlac and nearby provinces by Greenhand Labor Service Cooperative, a contractor of Agrikulto. The Lorenzos jointly own Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT) with the Cojuangcos after it bought majority of the company shares in 2014.
Recognizing the significant victory of the toiling masses’ collective action on that day, Anakpawis Partylist Representative Ariel “Ka Ayik” Casilao said that despite continuing attacks on the peasants’ struggle, the unscathed principles and firm resolve of the oppressed farmers will rock powerful oligarchs across the country.
The progressive solon emphasized that the farm workers’ action is justified as it only aims to reclaim position and physical possession of the land they have tilled and sacrificed their lives for.
The symbolic April 24 action, dubbed #OccupyLuisita, is part of a series of land occupation and cultivation activities nationwide amid escalating peasant struggles for genuine land reform.