By Chichi Conde
MANILA – Malacañang on Sunday said it stood by the need to pay “just compensation” to the owners of Hacienda Luisita, the vast agricultural estate owned by the family of President Benigno Aquino III, amid calls for the free and immediate distribution of the land to farmers.
“The giving of just compensation to the owners of the hacienda is a requirement under the agrarian-reform law,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said in a radio interview on Sunday. Valte said it was up the court to determine the payment due the Cojuangcos for losing their land.
The Palace official, however, refused to answer whether Aquino would be more “pro-poor” or “pro-family” on the Hacienda Luisita issue. “That is irrelevant,” Valte said, pointing out that the President “has already divested his shares” in his family’s corporation that runs the sugar plantation.
A day after the Supreme Court voted 14-0 for the distribution of the Cojuangco estate, Aquino bared his desire to ensure both empowerment for the farmers and just compensation for the hacienda owners. “We hope the two objectives can be met,” Aquino said.
The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) has said that just compensation is under the law and that owners of Hacienda Luisita are entitled to it. DAR Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes said Saturday that farmers are compelled by law to pay monthly amortization for their and the department is likewise compelled to pay the Cojuangcos just compensation.
But critics have pounced on Aquino after he made the statement last week that his family needs to be compensated if the 4,915-hectare hacienda Hacienda Luisita is to finally be redistributed among the land’s longtime tillers.
“The nerve” of Aquino to expect “just compensation” for his family, said Randal Echanis, deputy secretary-general of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, in a statement. “They used government money to acquire the hacienda in the late 1950s and have made a fortune for more than half a century now. And now, they want the government to pay for the lands.”
Echanis said “the Cojuangcos do not deserve compensation. The Cojuangcos have long benefited from their illegal and immoral stranglehold of Hacienda Luisita and the farmworkers’ have long paid for the land.”
AnakPawis Rep. Rafael Mariano, also in a statement released on Saturday, echoed Echanis’s position. “Since 1957, the Cojuangco-Aquino clan have made a milking cow out of Hacienda Luisita sugar estate and amassed wealth by exploiting farmers and farmworkers. It is the height of callousness that (Aquino) now has the gall to demand for land compensation for his extended family.”
Mariano said “the President speaks as if his family was shortchanged or disadvantaged by the Supreme Court decision ordering total land distribution for Luisita farmers. In case the he has forgotten, the Cojuangco-Aquinos repeatedly evaded actual land distribution for the past five decades through anti-farmer, state-sponsored agrarian reform programs.”
Reacting to the SC decision,Aquino said on Friday that he saw nothing fishy in the timing of the decision of the Supreme Court to redistribute Hacienda Luisita. But he said the interests of both the farmers and the owners of the hacienda must be equally protected. Aquino said one sector should not be sacrificed just to accommodate the other on the issue of land distribution.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court stressed that “control over agricultural lands must always be in the hands of the farmers” and that allowing the 6,296 beneficiaries to remain stockholders would never allow them “gain control given the present proportion of shareholdings.”
Aside from ordering the distribution of 4,915 hectares of Luisita, the decision also requires Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) to pay the beneficiaries the balance of P1.3 billion.
The high court also ordered DAR to hire a reputable accounting firm to check the books of HLI and its subsidiary, Centennary Holdings Inc., to determine if the P1,330,511,500 earned from the sale of these properties was used for legitimate corporate purposes.
The ruling was hailed as a victory for peasants in the impoverished Philippines who have long struggled to break the stranglehold of powerful political clans on the country’s rich agricultural lands.
Analysts said the ruling would test the government’s will to complete the distribution of 4.3 million hectares of farmland across the country. About 1 million hectares — most are under litigation — are still to be awarded to landless farmers by 2014 when the land reform program ends.
Earlier, farmers groups and their supporters insisted that Hacienda Luisita should be distributed for free and that the beneficiaries should not have to pay monthly amortizations for the land. They cited the same reasons – that the Cojuangcos have made a fortune from the land over the decades and that there’s still the question of whether the clan actually owns it to begin with, considering the requirement of the GSIS loan agreement.
Jobert Pahilga, a lawyer for Ambala, the farmers’ group in Hacienda Luisita, said a free distribution is mainly a political call but it has a legal basis. Besides, he said, “the Cojuangcos have made their fortune from the land that they don’t own in the first place. Why should they enrich themselves even more from the farmers?” (With reports from Reuters and Agence France-Presse)