PerryScope: By Perry Diaz
The recent “compromise agreement” signed by the Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) owners and the farm workers is now awaiting approval -- or rejection -- by the Supreme Court. The “compromise agreement,” submitted to the High Court for approval on August 12, 2010, would allow the farmer-beneficiaries to choose ownership of HLI stocks or a parcel of 1,400 hectares of the 6,453-hectare Hacienda Luisita. The remaining undistributed portion -- 5,053 hectares -- of the plantation would be retained by the Cojuangcos.
According to HLI, 70% or 7,441 of the 10,502 farmer-beneficiaries signed the “compromise agreement” during a referendum conducted from August 6 to August 10, 2010. Of the 7,441 who signed the agreement, 98.13% or 7,302 voted for the stock distribution option (SDO) while only 1.88% or 139 voted for land distribution. In addition, a financial assistance worth P150 million will be distributed to the farmer-beneficiaries on a staggered basis once the “compromise agreement” is approved by the Supreme Court.
But while the High Court is reviewing the “compromise agreement,” several groups -- including the powerful Catholic Church -- are divided over the terms of the agreement, a situation that could ignite a firestorm of controversy and compromise the “compromise agreement” itself.
The crux of the controversy is the SDO part of the “compromise agreement.” A group of farmer-beneficiaries, the Alyansa ng mga Mangagawang Bukid sa Hacienda Luisita (AMBALA) opposed it. They based their opposition on a resolution issued by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) in 2005 which revoked the SDO approved by the farmer-tenants in a referendum held in 1989 for “violations of the agrarian reform law, rules and regulation.” The resolution also ordered the distribution of 4,915 hectares covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL). However, HLI asked the Supreme Court to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) to prevent the enforcement of the land distribution called for in the DAR-PARC resolution. The High Court granted the TRO in 2006.
“The landed and the landless”
In my article, “The Landed and the Landless” (October 21, 2005), I wrote: “In 1987, a new constitution was adopted. Interestingly, a provision was inserted in the constitution exempting landowning corporations from land reform provided they give out shares of stock to the tenants. In June 1988, President Cory Aquino signed the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL). Under CARL, 10.3 million hectares were targeted to be given away to farmers. At last, the long-awaited land for the landless. However, only 24% of that target were given away. The 76% not given away included the 6,300-hectare Hacienda Luisita owned by President Aquino’s family, the Cojuangcos. According to a newspaper account at that time, ‘the hacienda is the largest single piece of contiguous land in the Philippines.’
“To comply with the special provision of the 1987 constitution, Hacienda Luisita gave away stocks to its farmers… on installment. The catch: until the stocks were fully paid for, the Cojuangco family retained the voting rights; thus, remaining in full control of the hacienda.
“In May 1989, a stock distribution option (SDO) -- as opposed to outright distribution of land -- was agreed upon after a referendum by the farmers approved it overwhelmingly. The SDO would give the farmers 33% of the shares of the corporation, Hacienda Luisita, Inc. (HLI), that will own the land.
“In October 2003, the farmers of Hacienda Luisita petitioned the government to revoke the SDO, saying that HLI was not giving them enough dividends and profits. If the SDO is revoked, Hacienda Luisita would be distributed outright to the farmers. On September 23, 2005, a special legal team from the Department of Agrarian Reform submitted a report recommending the revocation of the SDO. That would mean that the hacienda has to be distributed to the farmers as prescribed by CARL.
“A few weeks later, HLI revealed that portions of Hacienda Luisita was mortgaged to five banks due to losses suffered by HLI. The question is: If the SDO is revoked and the land is distributed to the farmers, who will pay off the mortgage?”
Last August 16, 2010, a faction of AMBALA filed before the Supreme Court “a comment and opposition with motion to expunge the compromise agreement” submitted by HLI four days earlier to the Supreme Court for approval. AMBALA alleged that the “compromise agreement” was illegal because it was signed before the High Court could issue a ruling on the validity of the SDO.
If the Supreme Court approved the “compromise agreement,” then that would clear the road for the implementation of the “compromise agreement.” However, if AMBALA prevailed and the Supreme Court rejected the “compromise agreement,” then that would effectively invalidate the SDO and pave the way for land distribution to the farmer-beneficiaries.
The question is: Will a Supreme Court decision end the 21-year battle between the Cojuangcos and the farmer-beneficiaries? It probably would if the High Court ruled in favor of the farmer-beneficiaries’ motion to expunge the “compromise agreement.” But if the High Court approved the “compromise agreement,” it could lead to further warfare between the Cojuangcos and those farmer-beneficiaries who opposed the “compromise agreement.” And this is where it could haunt President Benigno “Noynoy” Cojuangco Aquino III for the rest of his presidency.
Although Noynoy has divested his one percent share of HLI when he assumed the presidency, he made a promise during the campaign that the land would be distributed in five years. In the farmers’ minds, it was not just a campaign promise, it was a covenant that Noynoy should -- nay, must! -- fulfill.
No matter how much Noynoy distances himself from the “compromise agreement” issue, he is permanently associated with Cojuangcos. They are his family. Interestingly, the people see Noynoy more of a Cojuangco than an Aquino.
Country over family
Recently, Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo voiced out his opposition to the “compromise agreement.” He said HLI should distribute the land to the farmer-beneficiaries. He said that Noynoy should “prioritize the country over his family in dealing with the issue.”
Noynoy is riding the crest of “Pagbabago” (change) and has a popularity that no other president had enjoyed since the time of the late President Ramon Magsaysay more than 50 years ago. The people see in Noynoy a messianic leader who will deliver them from poverty. They are now his “family” including the farmer-beneficiaries of HLI. If he gets closer to them, he would feel their pulse and listen to their heartbeats. Then he would know how it feels to be landless… and powerless.