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Another test for Aquino

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The timing was suspicious, but the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court to order the distribution of some 4,915 hectares of land in what is known as the Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac to 6,296 farmer-beneficiaries could not have come at a better time. The decision ended more than 40 years of difficult, often bloody, struggle for the poor farmers and hopefully puts an end to decades of deception by the Cojuangco clan over the disputed lands.

The decision came at a time when a rift was escalating between the Supreme Court and Malacanang over the issuance by the former and the defiance by the latter of a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the travel ban imposed by the Department of Justice on Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her husband Mike. The decision raised eyebrows because it seemed like a vengeful reaction to the Executive Branch’s defiance of the Court’s TRO, but the 14-0 vote that included those of President Aquino’s appointees negated such speculation.

It’s also possible under the circumstances that the Judicial Branch was solidifying its ranks as it battles for respect and credibility in the midst of an open defiance by the Executive Branch, but the popularity and the righteousness of the decision have drowned out the doubts raised by Aquino’s allies.

It is ironic that the powerful Cojuangco clan lost this long battle during the tenure of one of its illustrious members, and that situation makes the decision even more laudable. The ruling, although muddled by the Malacanang-SC schism, fortifies the judicial canon that nobody is above the law, not even the powerful family of the President of the Republic.

More importantly, the SC decision has hopefully set the tone for the full implementation of the country’s much-ignored and manipulated Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law. It should pave the way for the distribution of lands to the farmers of other large haciendas that have evaded the scope of agrarian reform by hiding behind the Stock Distribution Option institutionalized during the tenure of another prominent member of the Cojuangco clan, the late President Cory Aquino.

The SDO, which allowed the distribution of stocks instead of land to farmers, gave hacienderos or the owners of huge tracts of land a door with which to evade land reform, and the Cojuangcos took advantage of it to retain ownership and control of the Hacienda Luisita. But that’s going ahead of the story.

The Cojuangcos obtained ownership of the land and a sugar mill in Tarlac in the late 1950s by securing loans and guarantees from the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) and the Central Bank to purchase the land previously planted to tobacco under the Spanish-owned Compana General de Tobacos de Filipinas (Tabacalera), with the guarantee that they would turn over the lands back to the farmers after 10 years.

But the Cojuangcos never turned over the lands in 1967. In 1968, the Manila Regional Trial Court ordered the Cojuangcos to fulfill the condition of the loan and distribute the lands to the farmers. The Cojuangcos appealed the decision before the Court of Appeals, where it sat undecided for years.

When Cory Aquino became president, her administration ordered the withdrawal of the case from the appeals court. Cory eventually established the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) with the SDO provision in July 1987, the Cojuangcos chose the SDO and distributed stocks to the farmers.

The shares of stocks didn’t help improve the condition of the farmers because, according to a bulatlat.com article, each of the farm workers was given only one day a week to work at the sugar plantation, earning P9.50 per week or P38 per month. Worse, the farmers said, they never received a single cent of dividend from the Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI).
The stocks were worthless to the farmers and the situation made them even poorer and often without food despite the fact that they were the ones tilling and planting the land. To protest the SDO plan and to demand land distribution, the farm workers staged a strike in November 2004. On November 16, a week after they set up the picket line, policemen and soldiers fired at the strikers, killing seven and wounding hundreds more.

The bloody incident came to be known as the infamous Luisita Massacre, an image that tainted the clean image of Cory Aquino and which would haunt her son, Noynoy Aquino, throughout the 2010 presidential elections and well into his present tenure.

In July 1988, exactly a year after Cory Aquino implemented the CARP with the stock distribution option (SDO), the 8th Congress enacted Republic Act 6657, or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law that validated Cory’s CARP (with SDO) and which, Anak Pawis Rep. Rafael Mariano said, legalized land grabbing and land use conversion.

In May 1989, the Cojuangcos entered into a tripartite agreement between the Tarlac Development Corp. (Tadeco), the Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI), which they both owned, and 93% of the farmers who were deceived into accepting the stock option.

In July 2005, the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council junked the SDO agreement and declared it unconstitutional. In December that year, the Cojuangcos appealed the decision before the Supreme Court and obtained a TRO that remained in force until July this year when the High Court, voting 8-5, recommended the holding of another referendum to allow farmer-beneficiaries to decided whether to take stocks or land.

Finally on Wednesday, Nov. 23, in a unanimous 14-0 vote, the Supreme Court ordered the distribution of the lands to the farmers. The SC also reiterated its ruling in July ordering HLI to pay the 6,296 farmers a total of P1.33 billion broken down as follows: P500 million HLI received from Luisita Realty Inc. for the sale of 200 hectares of land in 1996; P750 million for the sale of the Luisita Industrial Park; and P80,511,500 for the sale of the 80.51-hectare lot for the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway (SCTEX) road network. The 3% of the proceeds of the transfers that were paid earlier to the farmers shall be deducted from the P1.33 billion.

Will the Cojuangcos finally abandon the storied Hacienda Luisita where HLI reportedly earns P8 million per milling season? Or will they continue their evasive ways and appeal a unanimous court decision, perhaps hoping that by delaying justice some more, they could get a more friendly court in the future?

It is now up to Aquino to prove that his family has indeed divested their interest in the hacienda, and to show to the Filipino people that he meant it when he said he would rid the country of the “wangwang mentality” and that he would lift the people from poverty.

Will the Luisita farmers finally own the land they have tilled for decades? Or will they be frustrated again by the power and influence of the Conjuangco clan? When they finally secure title to their land, will the Aquino government help them make their farms productive or will Aquino take revenge by not lifting a hand to help them?

With each farmer getting just a little more than 7,000 square meter each, they would need all the help from the government in terms of small loans to buy seeds, fertilizers and other agricultural inputs and implements to make their small farms productive. They would also need help in forming cooperatives to improve their productivity and to secure loans and fair prices for their produce. They would also need protection from possible harassment by the Cojuangcos.

By fully implementing the provisions of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, it is hoped that the incomes of farmers all over the country would increase, giving the economy in the rural areas a big push, which will redound to the overall economic benefit of the entire country.

Is Aquino ready to rise beyond the comfort and pressures of the Cojuangco clan, and put the interest of the people ahead of that of his family? Is he ready to take the high road of leadership and statesmanship to remove the last vestiges of feudalism in the country and steer the country back to economic recovery? Is he ready to set aside his differences with the Supreme Court for the sake of the country and his people?

Let’s hope he is.




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