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July 21, 2011
Satur C. Ocampo | ‘The land they till is their life’

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

What will happen next in the Hacienda Luisita land dispute?

This is the question tossed to me by various friends, following the strong reactions to the confusing Supreme Court ruling last July 5. Voting 6-4, the tribunal upheld the revocation of the stock distribution option (SDO) yet ordered a new referendum among the original 6,296 Luisita farm-worker beneficiaries to determine if they wish to get the land due them or stay with the SDO.

I’ll try to answer the question by looking into the expected actions of the parties in the dispute and the probable responses by the Supreme Court justices, and analyzing their implications.

Let us not forget: The overarching issue that should be resolved is whether social justice the Filipino peasants’ centuries-long quest, the very rationale of agrarian reform will prevail or not.

1. There won’t be any referendum within six months as required by the SC ruling. Why? Because the Department of Agrarian Reform and the Office of the Solicitor General, the lawyer of the government, will file a motion for reconsideration over this aspect of the ruling. They will ask the SC to order the distribution of 5,000 hectares of land to the farm-worker beneficiaries in strict compliance with RA 6657, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Act (CARP).

A similar motion will be filed by the farm-worker beneficiaries, represented by the Alyansa ng mga Manggagawang Bukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala) and the United Luisita Workers Union (ULWU), who had earlier declared they would boycott the referendum if it would be held.

(Ambala and ULWU, along with Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the Catholic Church’s national social action center, and various support groups, will converge at Liwasang Bonifacio on July 22 to dramatize their objection to the referendum order, their basic rejection of the SDO, and their demand for land distribution.)

2. The DAR-OSG motion for reconsideration will anchor on Section 31 of RA 6657, which provides that “the agricultural land of the corporate owners or the corporation shall be subject to the compulsory coverage of this Act” if within two years of the CARP approval the SDO is not realized.

“Following this provision,” Solicitor General Jose Anselmo Cadiz argues, “the (HLI) land should have been distributed to the farmers in 1990.” So why wasn’t that done in 1990?

Apparently the DAR failed in its duty to monitor the SDO implementation. It recommended revocation only in 2005 16 years late! after the farm-worker beneficiaries petitioned to junk the plan because it had failed to improve their lives.

3. How will the justices respond to the motion for reconsideration? Normally, the SC entertains such a motion if the mover presents a substantially new argument. This is one such instance. Oddly, the two-year period required to implement the SDO was never cited during the oral arguments in August last year; nowhere was it cited in the elucidations of either the majority or minority of the justices.

The motions for reconsideration will give the justices time to dwell and decide on this question.

4. If two of the six justices in the majority are persuaded to change their stand, the referendum order would be dropped. If only one shifts, the vote would become 5-5, and Chief Justice Corona’s vote could break it to junk the referendum.

5. A tie vote would enable Corona to reconstruct his well-argued, but at the end weakened, argument in favor of land distribution. He wrote: “Unless there is land distribution, there can be no agrarian reform… A program that gives qualified beneficiaries stock certificates instead of land is not agrarian reform.” Yet he conceded that, in “consideration of fairness and equity, qualified farm-worker beneficiaries may waive their right to actually own the lands they till and stay as stockholders of petitioners (HLI).”

6. Notable was Corona’s assertion that, in pursuit of social justice, the HLI land should have been turned over to the farmers in 1967 44 years ago rather than in 1990 in accordance with the CARP.

He recalled that the Jose Cojuangco family had acquired the 6,000-hectare estate from the Spanish firm Tabacalera in 1957 with government financial backing. The land’s turnover to the farmers after 10 years was the condition, Corona emphasizes, for the grant of such financial assistance.

But the Cojuangcos did not comply.

“History will be the unforgiving judge of this Court,” Corona warned his associate justices, adding: “We cannot correct a historical anomaly and prevent the eruption of a social volcano by fancy legal arguments and impressively crafted devices for corporate control.”

He urged the magistrates to “take judicial cognizance of the violent incidents that intermittently occur in Hacienda Luisita, solely because of the agrarian problem there.” (Indeed, the original sale by Tabacalera was a response to continuing agrarian unrest in Central Luzon.) The HLI case “proves that for landless farmers and farm workers,” said Corona, “the land they till is their life.”
Clearly, the Cojuangcos cheated the farmers in 1967; they cheated them again in 1990, under the CARP. Will the majority, if not the entire Corona court, realize their bounden duty to render social justice?

Published in The Philippine Star

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