SC missing in action in HLI conflict
LET ME echo Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo’s question: Why is it taking so long for the Supreme Court (SC) to decide the Hacienda Luisita case? The good bishop, during the radio interview in which he posed the question, actually provides two possible answers: either (1) the SC hasn’t studied the case yet, or (2) it is just waiting for an opportunity to use it as a political bargaining tool. Neither possibility casts the supposedly august body in a good light.
The bishop’s question has basis: The case has been languishing in the SC since 2006, when Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) asked it to temporarily restrain the Department of Agrarian Reform from enforcing the 2005 decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) to nullify the Stock Distribution Plan of the HLI, and distribute the land instead to the 6,296 qualified beneficiaries who had asked for such distribution. With the end in view of reversing the DAR order.
The SC issued the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO), and then proceeded to drag its feet on the issue itself. After three years, it was the farmers’ turn to go to the SC—asking it to lift the TRO. (How long is “temporary”?)
Dragging its feet some more, the SC scheduled Aug. 3, 2010 and finally Aug. 18, 2010 to hear oral arguments, and to its credit, went ahead with its schedule despite an “agreement” that was presented to it on Aug. 11, 2010 by the HLI, allegedly signed by 7,441 of 10,502 farmers. (How the beneficiaries ballooned from 6,296 to 10,502 is another story.) The agreement was to retain the stock distribution option rather than the land distribution alternative (but with a reduced area of about 4,000 sq m each, compared to one hectare each if the land had been originally distributed).
After the second oral argument session on Aug. 24, the SC passed a resolution appointing a Mediation Panel to see if a Settlement Agreement could be reached by the parties. Without a settlement within the prescribed period (about a month), the SC was to decide the case on its merits. And that’s where we are now—eight months after the mediation failed, with the SC decision nowhere in sight.
It would be easy to think that given the slowness with which the wheels of justice move, five years (2006-2011) is really not too long. But that’s the whole problem. The farmers of Luisita haven’t been waiting for five years, but for 43 long years, for their land. And that is much too long.
Hacienda Luisita was supposed to have been distributed to them by 1968—10 years after Jose Cojuangco Sr. bought the land and sugar mill from Tabacalera. And here is the supreme irony: Cojuangco would never have been able to purchase what is now Hacienda Luisita, in the first place, were it not for the farmers. Why? Because the GSIS (peso loans) and the Central Bank (dollar guarantee) accommodations used for the purchase were granted conditionally: that after 10 years he would distribute the land, pursuant to the social justice program of the government, to those who were tilling it. Without that social justice aspect, there would have been absolutely no reason for the government financial institutions to even deal with Cojuangco. In short, the farmers were Cojuangco’s excuse for getting the behest loans and guarantees.
How did the Cojuangco family get to keep the land? First, when it came time to pay the piper (1968), so to speak, Cojuangco, hiding behind some unfortunate GSIS language, claimed that there were no tenants on his land, only farm workers, so there was no one to distribute the land to. That excuse didn’t hold up under Marcos (let’s face it, no excuse would have), and a Regional Trial Court ordered the distribution of the land. The case was with the Court of Appeals (CA) when the Edsa Revolution occurred. The new solicitor general, Frank Chavez, asked the CA to dismiss the case, claiming in effect that it had been overtaken by events: the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
But the CARP law had the equivalent of a poison pill provision: the so-called Stock Distribution Option (SDO), where the farmers could “choose” to own shares of stock in the corporation that owned the land, rather than to own the land itself. Why poison pill? Because aside from the fact that the constitutionality of that provision is questionable, it essentially gave the landowners an excellent excuse to continue to, in effect, own/control the land. And the SDO was what the Luisita farmers “chose”—because the DAR did not give them information on other options, nor did it intervene when the farmers were told (wrongly and falsely) that the SDO would result in incomes/benefits almost double what they would receive if they owned the land.
Needless to say, the promised benefits did not materialize. The PARC’s 2005 decision revoking the SDO said, among other things, that the lives of the farmworker beneficiaries (FWBs) became even more miserable after 16 years of the SDO; that the HLI had not shown profits for any of those years, and had converted/sold almost one-eighth of its total area for non-agricultural use, thus failing to comply with the minimum criteria for a stock distribution plan, namely: “…that the continued operation of the corporation with its agricultural land intact and unfragmented is viable with potential growth and increased profitability.” (emphasis supplied)
The foregoing account shows that the Luisita farmers have so far been screwed by the landowners, by Congress and by the Executive. The question is: will they be screwed by the Supreme Court too?
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