Bulatlat‘s coverage of Hacienda Luisita has since been the benchmark of other agrarian reform stories it has covered through the years, its lessons and victories often told to the next generation of journalists to serve as a reminder that peasant stories also deserve the spotlight.
By DABET CASTAÑEDA-PANELO
I came to know about the story of the sugarcane workers in Hacienda Luisita, a sprawling 6,453-hectare sugar plantation in Tarlac operated by the Cojuangco political clan, when news came out that they were getting a minimum salary of nine pesos and fifty centavos a week. I could not wrap my head around the fact that families can actually survive with only as much.
There were a few press releases and related materials handed out through courier but I was not able to write the lead to my first story until I set foot inside the hacienda. In my first visit, I met two unionists named Rene, one from the farm workers and the other from the sugar mill and refinery. They both talked about an impending strike due to massive retrenchment and unfair labor practices, harassment from public and private security forces, and, of course, hunger. I stayed a few days inside the hacienda and heard stories about an old man who suffered an arm injury when he was ordered by one of the hacienderos to cut some branches of an old tree because they hit the roof of the landlord’s mansion. There was a typhoon then which caused the old man to fall off the tree.
There were also stories of sugarcane workers who had to hide while fishing along the river because they were disallowed to fish for food. Backyard farming was also restricted. In one of my interviews I was handed a payslip which showed the total salary for that month was only P9.50. Hunger inside the hacienda was so rampant and real that the first word I wrote for my first story on Hacienda Luisita was the word ‘gutom’ (hunger).
The next few months were stories about the strike which led to the massacre of seven sugarcane workers right at the gates of the sugarmill. Unconfirmed reports from sugarmill workers said there were scores of sakada (contractual farm workers from other provinces) who were killed and were taken inside the refinery. There were six succeeding related deaths after the massacre, three of those killed I personally knew. The most remarkable for me was the death of Tarlac City Councilor Abel Ladera who was killed a few hours after I interviewed him. The thought that I was the last person he was with before he was killed sent a chilling effect and meant trips to the hacienda had to be limited for security purposes. That was the same day he finally got a hold of copies of the official maps of the 6,543-hectare sugarcane farm that spans 11 barangays in three towns of Tarlac province which he was able to secure from the Municipal Agrarian Reform office. The maps were crucial to the case filed by the farm workers seeking the revocation of the Stock Distribution Option as means of land distribution of the Hacienda Luisita property.
The day before Ka Abel’s death, he arranged an interview for me with three men who admitted to being part of the Yellow Army. This interview proved to be the most challenging as it took at least two months to arrange and a good three hours to complete. In the interview, the men said their official designation were supervisors who dictated the work schedule of the farm workers. They also admitted to carrying arms at work. The Cojuangco clan has repeatedly denied the existence of the Yellow Army.
The difficulty in covering the Hacienda Luisita issue was that most of the interesting stories were only from word of mouth. The farm and sugarmill workers had hardly enough documents to prove the stories were accurate. In my search for a court order that supposedly said the sugar land have been approved to be distributed to the sugar farm workers sometime in the 1980s, I was told by an employee of the Court of Appeals to look for the documents inside a topsy-turvy room with no lights. ‘Check mo, baka nandyan.’ Needless to say, I was not able to find the court documents inside ‘that’ room but that experience did not hamper the drafting of the stories that had to be told. Secondary sources for related literature and official documents deemed crucial in writing the stories that shed light into the plight of the farm and sugarmill workers inside Hacienda Luisita. Attending congressional hearings also proved pivotal in getting the side of the Cojuangcos when requests for interviews were not entertained.
Writing about Hacienda Luisita, its people, their struggles and victories, has taught me the most important lessons in journalism: You cannot write an accurate story out of a press release; even the best case studies and sound bites need to be verified and backed up by evidence; government documents are always crucial as documentary evidence; and, always ask, never assume.
Bulatlat was one of the few news agencies that consistently covered Hacienda Luisita. Sadly, it was only after the massacre of seven sugarcane workers on November 16, 2004 that corporate media took notice of their stories and put them in the headlines. In fact, there was only one actual footage of the massacre which was taken by another alternative news media outlet and has been used by big media companies in their reports and documentaries. Bulatlat‘s coverage of Hacienda Luisita has since been the benchmark of other agrarian reform stories it has covered through the years, its lessons and victories often told to the next generation of journalists to serve as a reminder that peasant stories also deserve the spotlight.