Monday, January 23, 2012

The never-ending saga of Hacienda Luisita

During the tumult of 1984, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.’s widow, Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, rose to the occasion and emerged as the anointed leader of a peaceful revolution that would topple the despotic Marcos regime. Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s dictator for almost twenty years, fled to Hawaii after his downfall where he eventually died in exile. Cory Aquino became the reluctant president who would restore the democratic institutions which were destroyed by the strongman Marcos.

Twenty-eight years later to 2012, Cory Aquino’s son, now President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III is dangerously pushing the country to the cusp of yet another upheaval. But this time, there would be no deliverance from an oppressive regime where his mother Cory was the symbolic leader of the first EDSA People Power Revolution. Instead, Noynoy Aquino could be the one to blame for starting an agrarian revolt right in his own family’s backyard, an uprising that could virtually spread throughout the country.

An unclassified but sensitive US diplomatic cable published by anti-secrecy group Wikileaks has said that the implications of the Hacienda Luisita case to the landholdings of other wealthy families in the Philippines who have avoided land reform would be far ranging and would have a deep social impact.
Peasant revolution under Noynoy Aquino? Photo courtesy of Michael Wailes.
After the Supreme Court made its decision last November 22, 2011, to redistribute the lands of Hacienda Luisita to its farm workers in accordance with the terms and conditions of the loan that enabled the Cojuangco family to purchase the Hacienda in 1957, Noynoy Aquino’s spokesperson assured that there was no reason why Hacienda Luisita would not comply with the court’s ruling if it became final and executory. On December 12, 2011, the management of Hacienda Luisita filed a motion for reconsideration before the Supreme Court appealing its decision ordering the distribution of Hacienda Luisita to its farm workers, yet ensuring another chapter in the enduring saga of Hacienda Luisita and the continuing doggedness of the Cojuangco family to hold on to their last vestige of feudal possession.

Through various legal manoeuvres, Hacienda Luisita has avoided compliance with the original condition of their loan in 1957 to transfer ownership to the farmers 10 years after the loan matured in 1967. When Cory Aquino assumed the presidency in 1986, she exempted Hacienda Luisita from the government’s land reform program she herself initiated. Three more presidents came to power but Hacienda Luisita remained in the hands of the Cojuangco family, which includes the late president Cory Aquino and her son, the current president.

In July 2011, after a series of motions for reconsideration, including a restraining order to stay the Supreme Court’s decision scrapping the stock distribution option (SDO) proposed by the management of Hacienda Luisita, the Supreme Court revoked the SDO but allowed individual farmers to choose between owning the land or remaining as a stockholder of the Hacienda. The government appealed the Court’s ruling and asked the high court for the full distribution of the land to the farmer beneficiaries, which would lead to the November 22nd ruling in favour of the farmers.
Hacienda Luisita farmers' misery and the SDO. Photo courtesy of Jes Aznar/Bulatlat.
Click link to view "Sa Ngalan ng
Tubo: A Documentary on Hacienda Luisita, Parts 1-4."
It would now appear that the Supreme Court decision to redistribute the lands would never be final and executory. The new motion for reconsideration by the management of Hacienda Luisita has reassured that the issue would never die unless the Supreme Court decision is reversed or Supreme Court Chief Justice Corona is impeached, whichever comes first.

On close examination, the Supreme Court decision of November 22nd is in itself flawed and self-defeating. In ruling that the Hacienda lands be distributed to its farm workers, the high court also ordered that owners of the Hacienda be paid just compensation to be calculated from November 21, 1989, the date the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) revoked the stock distribution plan of Hacienda Luisita. The Department of Agrarian Reform and the Land Bank of the Philippines were ordered to determine the compensation due to Hacienda Luisita management.

At issue before the Supreme Court then was who had control over agricultural lands if the stock distribution plan of Hacienda Luisita were to be operational. The court found that the farmers would never gain control of the lands if they remained as stockholders because the management of Hacienda Luisita would always have the greater proportion of shareholdings. Thus, to place control in the hands of the farmers, the lands should be distributed to the farmers instead of allowing them to remain as stockholders in a minority position.

Having said that, the issue of ownership and control over the lands has been settled in favour of the farmers. Why then should Hacienda Luisita management be compensated? They have never been the rightful and legal owners of the lands. The fact is the management of Hacienda Luisita has benefited from these lands since 1957 and from the sale and conversion of some of the lands which they never owned. It is therefore ludicrous to order the farmers who are now the legitimate owners of the lands to pay the management of Hacienda Luisita. The Cojuangco family never owned the lands in the first place, and if they were, their ownership would be limited to 10 years from the time they obtained the lands in 1957 through a government loan. In failing to transfer the lands to the farmers in 1967 and continuing to benefit from the use of the lands up to the present time, the Cojuangcos have no legal and moral obligation to demand compensation. By right, the farmers should be asking for recompense from the Cojuangcos instead.

The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is trying to implement compensation for Hacienda Luisita under the land reform law which arguably does not cover the lands of the Hacienda. Even if Hacienda Luisita should now be embraced by the comprehensive agrarian reform law, the DAR should take into account that the Cojuangcos have been well compensated over the years for the use of lands they never owned.

Hacienda Luisita implemented its stock distribution option when Cory Aquino was president and as a way of evading land distribution under comprehensive land reform law. When PARC revoked the SDO, the Cojuangco-Aquino family went to the Supreme Court and filed a petition for a temporary restraining order. This temporary order lasted for six years until the Supreme Court’s decision of November 22.

The DAR is relying on a lame and absurd policy that it does not distribute lands for free, that beneficiaries ought to pay. Ownership of the lands has now been settled. Hacienda Luisita is simply being transferred to its rightful owners, not under land reform but under the original condition of the loan that enabled the Cojuangcos to use the lands for ten years and more because of the family’s political influence and economic clout.

Now that the DAR and the farmers are at odds on the issue of compensation, this would probably put the burden on the Supreme Court again to reconsider its decision or clarify the matter of compensation. Either way, the case enters a stage of limbo where it may not be settled beyond the years remaining in the Aquino presidency just as the restraining order took a toll of six long years, despite being temporary in nature.

Or the justices of the Supreme Court, being chastened by the ongoing impeachment proceeding before the Senate and fearful of their own job security, may decide to reverse their decision. Naturally, the farmers will request the high court to reconsider. If they win again, then its Hacienda Luisita’s turn to ask for reconsideration. So it goes on and on. It has become an endless and ridiculous cycle where no acceptable solution seems possible. All along the general idea is that the Supreme Court has the last and final say on the matter. But simply not in the case of Hacienda Luisita where a sitting president and a powerfully entrenched political family are involved in threatening to destroy the entire judicial system.

Or, the farmers might take the matter into their own hands, which is not highly improbable because the government’s comprehensive land reform program has become an abject failure. With recent events unfolding, there seems to be no other viable alternative.

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