Boost to land reform

THE DECISION of the Supreme Court to reject with finality the bid of President Aquino’s Cojuangco clan to get compensation for Hacienda Luisita based on 2006 prices, which would have allowed the clan to secure at least P5 billion, has cleared the way for a full implementation of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL) a generation after it was passed. The sugar plantation is the country’s most controversial land reform case. It has been described as a “litmus test” for the high court, and it has raised doubt that a genuine Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) is possible in a democratic setting.

Going by the numbers, the vote in the Supreme Court is overwhelming. Although the justices voted 8-6 with one abstention to base the value of Luisita at around P196 million based on 1989 prices, the decision merely affirmed their ruling of November 22, 2011, in which they rescinded the stock distribution option (SDO) and voted 14-0 to distribute the vast estate.

By Luisita’s sheer size (more than 6,000 hectares), whatever happens there is expected to determine the resolution of other land reform cases. In fact, the extension of the CARL, which was supposed to lapse in 2009 and which led to the passage of the CARP Extension with Reforms (Carper) law, had been premised on the need to allow more time to resolve such burning cases.

As many as 4,915.75 hectares are covered by the SDO program, which was approved in November 1989. Of that number, 4,335 hectares will now be distributed to farm worker-beneficiaries or their successors in interest, who number 6,296.

The justices still need to qualify whether their landmark ruling is “nunc pro tunc,” a legal term stipulating that it cannot be used as basis for similar cases. This must be made clear because the high court has to resolve 13 other land reform cases. Moreover, considering its record of flip-flopping, as shown by its rulings on the case of Philippine Airlines flight attendants and stewards, the high court might change its mind suddenly. But we have the assurance of its spokesperson, Midas Marquez, that the ruling is “final and executory,” and that the high court will not entertain further pleadings and motions for reconsideration on the dispute that took 27 years to resolve.

What should concern everyone now is the government’s capability to implement that final ruling. Antonio Ligon, a spokesperson of Hacienda Luisita Inc., said HLI “will abide and comply with what is required by the decision.” In addition, Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes said he would start the land distribution “immediately.” Before that, however, the Department of Agrarian Reform will have to conduct the valuation and inspection of the estate, as well as the identification of the beneficiaries. He promised to do all three steps simultaneously, but the whole process is expected to take about a year.

Much will depend on the willingness of HLI to cooperate with agrarian reform officials. It will have to show its net income in 1989, the year the Supreme Court said the value of the estate should be set in accordance with the aborted SDO scheme hammered out that year between the management and the farm workers.

Moreover, HLI may still question that compensation base year set by the high court with the DAR Adjudication Board. DAR officials said this would not hamper the pre-distribution process, but considering that the case has dragged on for more than a quarter of a century, their optimism must be taken with a grain of salt. In any event, it’s a test case for the Cojuangco clan’s willingness to abide by the ruling of the high court and come to terms with social justice.

What is needed is vigilance. Farmers, the Church and other agrarian reform advocates must be vigilant until the land is finally awarded to the rightful beneficiaries. The ruling represents a victory for social justice and emancipation; it represents a boost for democratic egalitarianism. Authentic land redistribution in the Philippines has always been cast in doubt because of the social, political and economic elites’ influence on the levers of power and decision-making. In contrast, successful land redistribution in Japan after World War II and in Taiwan after the death of Chiang Kai-Shek was carried out by dictatorships.

The next months will see whether the Supreme Court decision on Hacienda Luisita will finally advance the late President Corazon Aquino’s centerpiece program or further buttress the cynical view that authentic land reform is a pipe dream in a democracy.

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Tags: agrarian reform , Cojuangco , Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law , Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program , hacienda luisita , land reform , Philippine Airlines , President Corazon Aquino , SDO , stock distribution option , Supreme Court

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