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September 8, 2012
With Sereno-led SC, what’s at stake for Luisita farmworkers?

Issues regarding valuation of land, verification of beneficiaries, previous sale of parcels of land and claim of the Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation still stand in the way of actual distribution of Hacienda Luisita lands to farmworkers; and the farmworkers fear what would happen when these issues reach the Sereno-led Supreme Court.

By RONALYN V. OLEA
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – When the Supreme Court issued its final ruling on the Hacienda Luisita agrarian case on April 24, 2012, many have thought that the half-century land dispute has ended.

On the ground, however, farmworkers know the struggle for their right over the land is far from over. For one thing, no land distribution has taken place since the release of the high court’s decision; the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is still preoccupied with the so-called verification process of farmworker-beneficiaries.

With Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno appointed at the helm of the Supreme Court, the leading national peasant organization in the country said the distribution of Hacienda Luisita could drag on for another two decades, at the very least.

“The Cojuangcos will surely exploit Hacienda Luisita’s valuation issue and once again run to the courts all the way to the Aquino-Sereno Supreme Court to evade land distribution,” Randall Echanis, deputy secretary general of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) said.

Although the high court issued its final ruling on the distribution of Hacienda Luisita, the SC has left the determination of ‘just compensation’ with the DAR. Under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and the law extending it, landlords are given ‘just compensation.’ Section 9 of the Article III of the 1987 Philippine Constitution also states that “no private property shall be taken for public use without just compensation.”

The value of the land covered by agrarian reform shall be determined by a committee composed of DAR, Department of Agriculture, Landbank of the Philippines and the landowner, according to Sentro para sa Tunay na Repormang Agraryo (Sentra). In the process of valuation, the farmers or farm workers are not represented.

“The higher the valuation of the land, the higher the ‘just compensation’ to be given to the landlord and this translates into a higher amortization to be paid by the farmworker-beneficiaries,” Jobert Pahilga, executive director of Sentra and lawyer of Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala), explained.

Pahilga said the government shoulders one-third of the amount of just compensation, which is to be taken from taxpayers, and the remaining amount will be paid for by the farmworkers through amortization to the Landbank of the Philippines.

In the particular case of Hacienda Luisita, the DAR has yet to determine the valuation of the land.

In its April 24, 2012 decision, the Supreme Court maintained that the date of reckoning shall be November 21, 1989, the same date that the stock distribution option (SDO) in Hacienda Luisita was approved. The SDO is one of the non-land transfer schemes allowed under CARP. To evade actual distribution of the land, the Cojuangco-Aquinos during the administration of the late president Corazon Aquino, the current president’s mother, gave farm workers shares of stocks instead of land. The 1989 valuation, according to the farmworkers, should be pegged at P40,000 ($952) per hectare, the same valuation given by the Cojuangco-Aquinos when they computed the shares of stocks of farm workers under the SDO. While the SC affirmed that the valuation should be based on 1989 prices, it did not accept the P40,000 per hectare proposal of the farmworkers, saying that it is too low. It practically gave the DAR the free hand in determining the valuation of the land.

Although Sereno, the newly appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, voted with all the justices in the unanimous SC decision ordering the distribution of the sugar plantation to its farmers/workers, she dissented on the amount of ‘just compensation’ for the Cojuangco-Aquinos.

In her opinion, Sereno said, using the 1989 valuation for the land is “too confiscatory,” stating that the amount of compensation “should be reckoned from the fair market value, specifically as of the date of the issuance of the Notice of Coverage on 02 January 2006.” The DAR issued the notice of coverage in 2006 pursuant to the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (Parc) resolution revoking the SDO.

Using Sereno’s 2006 valuation, the vast hacienda controlled by the clan of President Benigno Aquino III for more than five decades would be worth P2 to to P2.5 million ($47,600 to $59,500) per hectare.

Why does Sereno’s opinion still matter?

Pahilga said the Cojuangco-Aquinos will definitely question the valuation set by the DAR before the Regional Trial Court acting as special agrarian court. “Surely, the Cojuangco-Aquinos will demand higher compensation. We will also a file petition to demand lower compensation and the issue may reach the Sereno-led Supreme Court,” Pahilga said.

Pahilga noted that Sereno was consistent in her position in the three Supreme Court decisions on Hacienda Luisita dated July 5, 2011, November 23, 2011 and April 24, 2012.

Sereno’s opinion is almost similar to that of the Hacienda Luisita Incorporation (HLI), which states in their motion for reconsideration that the “taking” of the land should be reckoned with the issuance of the SC final decision or at the very least, the reckoning should be January 2, 2006.

The issue of compensation has not been resolved by the SC decision, Pahilga said. If the Sereno-led Supreme Court will decide in favor of the Cojuangco-Aquinos, farmworkers would end up landless as they would not be able to pay the high amount of amortization.

Rodel Mesa, secretary general of the Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (Uma) and one of the leaders of Ambala, described Sereno’s opinion as “giving the land with the right hand and taking it back with the other.”

Mesa said that assuming that valuation is pegged at P1 million ($23.8 thousand) per hectare, farmworker-beneficiaries will have to shell out P67,000 ($1,595) per year for a period of 30 years.

“How in the world could we pay that?” Mesa asked. He said the estimated gross income of a farmer with 0.7 hectare of land would range from P50,000 to P60,000 per year ($1,190 to $1,428). “The land would never fall into our hands.”

“Sereno was anointed to protect the interest of the Cojuangco-Aquinos,” Mesa said.

Under CARP, the amortization shall be paid in 30 years in 30 equal amortizations. Failure to pay the amortization for an aggregate of three years shall mean foreclosure.

Pahilga said the inability of many farmers to pay amortization resulted in cancellation of certificates of land ownership award (CLOAs) and emancipation patents (EPs). Pahilga’s office, Sentra, handles cases of CLOA cancellations due to non-payment of amortization involving 10,000 hectares.

CLOAs and EPs are certificates transferring the land to the farmer-beneficiaries until the amortization is fully paid for and land titles would supersede the CLOA or EP. The difference in the term of the two certificates reflects the different agrarian reform programs that issued it.

The DAR reported in 2007 that 5,049 EPs and 103,092 CLOAs were already canceled involving 204,579 hectares of land. The figure does not include pending cases of cancellation.

“Aquino’s statement that he will distribute Hacienda Luisita was all for show. With the CARPer, farmers will continue to remain landless,” Mesa said.

Pahilga argued that the reasonable compensation for the Cojuangco-Aquinos should only be P3.998 million ($95,000). The amount is based on the Court of Appeals decision during the administration of Corazon Aquino. In 1985, the Regional Trial Court of Manila ruled that the entire Hacienda Luisita be distributed to qualified beneficiaries. When Corazon Cojuango- Aquino became president, her administration moved for the dismissal of the case, arguing that Hacienda Luisita would be distributed to the farm workers pursuant to the agrarian reform program of her government.

The Court of Appeals granted the motion of the government on the condition that should the program fail, the land should be distributed to the farm workers and Tarlac Development Corporation will be compensated in the amount of P3.988 million ($95,000).

“The SDO [stock distribution option] failed and so, the Court of Appeals ruling should stand. The Cojuangco-Aquinos should only be paid P3.988 million,” Pahilga said.

If the opinion of his clients will be considered, Pahilga said, no compensation should be paid to the Cojuangco clan.

“Compensation for the Cojuangco-Aquinos defies logic.” Lito Bais, chairman of the United Luisita Workers Union (Ulwu) and Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (Uma), said. “With five decades of our lives stolen by the Cojuangcos, we have paid more than enough. The Cojuangcos should instead be made to pay for the time, sweat and lives we had offered.”

Bais’s explanation was simple. “Historically, the land belongs to us, not to the Cojuangco-Aquinos,” he said.

Other unresolved issues

The list of farmworker-beneficiaries is another thorny issue that may reach the doors of the Supreme Court.
To date, DAR has interviewed 8,550 farmers.

Pahilga said the DAR’s list contains dummies of the Cojuangco-Aquinos. The Cojuangco-Aquinos, Pahilga said, may also file a petition for exclusion of rightful beneficiaries. The Alyansa ng Magbubukid sa Asyenda Luisita (Ambala), for its part, will file for the exclusion of dummies.

“Who are the beneficiaries? Again, this issue may reach the Supreme Court,” Pahilga said.

Another thorny issue is the proceeds of the sale of the 500 hectares and 80.51 hectares of the land. While the SC final decision stated that the HLI should pay farmworkers their share from the P1.3 billion-sale ($30.95 million) of parcels of Hacienda Luisita land, the resolution also stated that legitimate expenditures, taxes, among others, shall be deducted.

“What if they [HLI] claim that nothing remains of the amount? In their 2006 financial statement to the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission], the HLI stated they are already bankrupt,” Pahilga said. “Can you believe that? That is impossible.”

The claim of the Rizal Commercial Banking Corporation (RCBC) to a portion of the 500-hectare land is another issue that remains to be solved. The RCBC “acquired” the land on November 24, 2004 as payment for the loan obligations of Luisita Industrial Park Corporation (Lipco).

Pending before DAR is the Ambala’s petition for revocation of the conversion order involving the 500-hectare land.

“All these issues will ultimately reach the Supreme Court,” Pahilga said. “We are preparing for the worst.”

Sereno will serve for 18 years as Chief Justice.

“The Cojuangcos, in conspiracy with a Cojuangco-Aquino president and a politically-indebted Chief Justice, are all set to prolong the agony of Luisita farmworkers,” Echanis said. (http://bulatlat.com)

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