Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Vol. V,    No. 18      June 12 - 18, 2005      Quezon City, Philippines











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Luisita Workers Reject GMA Expressway; Press for Her Ouster 

After stopping plantation and milling operations at Hacienda Luisita, cane workers and their families gear up for blocking the construction of one of President Macapagal-Arroyo’s flagship projects – a super expressway.

By Abner Bolos

The much-delayed Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway Project (SCTEP), one of the 10 flagship programs of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, may yet face its biggest hitch: the striking workers in Hacienda Luisita will not allow it to be built on the sugar plantation. Saying that the project is the final proof of the insensitivity of the Arroyo government to their plight, the cane workers demand instead that the president step down from power.

Rene Galang, president of the 5,000-strong United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU) said June 11 that the family of former President Cojuangco-Aquino, instead of implementing a court decision to distribute the land to the tillers, managed to hold on to the 6,000-ha. sugar plantation and profited immensely through land use conversion since the government implemented the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) 17 years ago.

In an interview with Bulatlat, Galang said the road project is “part of a systematic land-grabbing scheme by the Cojuangco-Aquino family, in collusion with the Arroyo government, to further deprive us of our legitimate rights.”

“This is the last straw,” he also said. “The Arroyo government clearly sided with the Cojuangco family in the labor dispute and was responsible for the death of at least 10 of our members and supporters. We cannot allow her to do anymore injustice on the poor hacienda people by constructing (the SCTEP) inside the hacienda. We demand that she step down from Malacañang,” Galang.

The government announced last April the start of the P27.5-billion road project which will connect the Subic Bay Freeport and Special Economic Zone in Zambales, Clark Special Economic Zone in Pampanga and the Luisita Industrial Park in Tarlac. The project will be funded through a 40-year loan from the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC).

Once built, the SCTEP is touted to be the longest road network in the country covering some 94.5 kilometers. About 536 hectares stretching across the provinces of Zambales, Bataan, Pampanga and Tarlac will be used for the project, some 64 has. of which is located inside Hacienda Luisita.

Its proponent, the Base Conversion Development Authority (BCDA) said the project is a key component of the
Central Luzon development plan, which includes the development of two former U.S. military installations, Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, into a major international airport and international port, respectively.

Controversial project

At the outset, the project has been marred with delays and controversies. When the loan agreement was signed between BCDA and JBIC on Sept. 14, 2001, the loan package was worth only P17.8 billion. On July 20, 2004 the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA) asked the BCDA to conduct another bidding after the project cost ballooned to more than P27 billion.

NEDA Director General Romulo L.Neri said at that time that another bidding was necessary because the project was redesigned and also to “avoid legal problems, such as the Supreme Court nullifying the contract, like in the case of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal.”

On Aug. 16, 2004, Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez passed House Resolution No. 95 which called for an inquiry on alleged overpricing of the first phase of the SCTEP. Suarez said then that with the current price, construction cost is P310 million per kilometer for the four-lane highway but average cost for a similar project is only about P70 to P100 million.

Environmental concerns were also swept aside for the project to push through. In September 2004 the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) allowed the destruction of a virgin forest reserve at the Roosevelt Protected Landscape in Dinalupihan, Bataan to give way for the project.

In January 2005, JBIC threatened to withdraw funding for the project because of the value-added tax and import duties worth P2.3 billion that may be levied on the bank. The government, upon request of the BCDA, immediately exempted JBIC and included a tax subsidy for the Japanese bank in the 2005 budget.

Another cause of delay is the payment for right-of-way acquisitions. BCDA had to secure a P1 billion loan from a local private bank for its counterpart funding which includes right-of-way payments.

In the case of Hacienda Luisita, Galang clarified that union members are not that concerned with money from government acquisition of land for the project. “We are opposed to the project because it is a direct threat to our survival. It will open the floodgates of more large-scale land conversion and with that, our stake in the land,” Galang explained.

But even then, management lawyers say that farm workers are not entitled to a single centavo from right-of-way fees unless the corporation decides to do so in terms of stock dividends.

ULWU, together with the Central Azucarera de Tarlac Labor Union (CATLU), the 700-strong sugar mill workers’ union, launched a simultaneous strike in November last year which has become the bloodiest and most controversial labor dispute in the country.

An assumption of jurisdiction (AJ) order issued by the government led to the Nov. 16 massacre which resulted in the death of at least seven strikers allegedly by government troops. In the ensuing months, four supporters of the striking workers: two farmer leaders, a city councilor and a priest would be assassinated.

The unions blame the Arroyo government and the military for the killings. After seven months, the workers still man several picket lines surrounding the sugar mill and have vowed to continue with the strike.

Galang said the SCTEP is part of the Cojuangco-Aquino family’s design to convert the entire hacienda into a commercial area. The planned conversion, Galang said, will drive the people away from their homes and their sole means of livelihood, and deprive them of their claim on the land.

He said the project now fully explains why hundreds of troops from the Northern Luzon Command are deployed in the hacienda.

“Aside from trying to weaken the people’s resolve to continue the strike, the military now serves as the advance party to clear the area in preparation for the (SCTEP),” Galang said.

Right to till

All cultivable land in the hacienda has become idle since the strike started. To see them through the difficult rainy season, union members plan to cultivate portions of the hacienda to produce vegetables and other food crops.

“We will exercise our right to till and make the idle land productive. While we await the decision of the cases we have filed against management on the transactions regarding the land, including the implementation of CARP, we need to come up with something to ease the difficulties we are facing,” Galang explained.

He said that the union will make sure that the plan will be done in a collective and organized manner and that those who will participate are aware of their rights and responsibilities, he said.

He added that both unions are always ready to face management again on the negotiating table to amicably resolve the strike, Galang said. Bulatlat




© 2004 Bulatlat  Alipato Publications

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