AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT BENIGNO S. AQUINO III: Let Agrarian Reform be an Instrument of Social Justice and Political Wisdom in the Second Aquino Administration

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When RA 9700 was enacted, the remaining balance of lands to be distributed by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is pegged at 1,078,365 hectares. This means that DAR should distribute more than 200 thousand hectares annually beginning 2009.

But in 2009, the DAR distributed only 59,495 hectares of private and government-owned agricultural lands. This is a measly 8% of the total Land Acquisition and Distribution (LAD) balance. It is the lowest LAD accomplishment in CARP’s 21-year history.

The province with the biggest backlog in land distribution is Negros Occidental which has a balance of 126, 212 hectares representing 12% of the national balance. In 2009, the DAR distributed 2,979 hectares only or a measly 11% of what should be distributed for the year in the province.

Cries for justice reach the ears of the Lord, we are one with our small farmers:

Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI), owned by the family of President Aquino III, has been locked in decades-long dispute with the farmers who want the 6,443-hectare plantation distributed through CARP. The 1989 stock distribution plan giving 33 percent of the company’s shares of stock to the farmers is being challenged before the Supreme Court. But even before the Supreme Court decision, the HLI last August, announced that a majority of the farmers approved a questionable compromise agreement that gave them the choice to keep their shares of stock or get 1,400 hectares of the remaining land. 1 President Benigno Aquino III is taking a hands-off stance on the issue.

We appeal for truth, fairness and social justice. Both former President Cory Aquino and President Benigno Aquino III promised the distribution of the land during their election campaigns. With the so-called compromise, the farmers will end up, after 21 years without land, without jobs and in deep poverty, with 1,400 hectares only out of the original hacienda while the Cojuangcos, the original landowners, get to keep 4,227 hectares (about 800 hectares having been sold or used by HLI). Is this agrarian justice?

How can a president of the people stay neutral on this issue? We call upon President Aquino III to intervene on the side of the farmers. As President, he ”swore to preserve and defend (the) Constitution and execute its laws.” The Constitution categorically states that the farmers should get the land based on their “right to own directly or collectively the lands they till.”

The Aquinos and Cojuangcos have enjoyed the fruits of the land and avoided or resisted its distribution for the last 50 years. The stock distribution of HLI is a flawed and failed substitute for land distribution which the Department of Agrarian Reform revoked in 2006. It is time to distribute the land now, the largest hacienda in the country today. The farmers should then be provided with government support services to make them successful owner-cultivators, as envisioned by the Constitution.

The resolution of the Hacienda Luisita case is a test of the administration’s political will. It will send a strong signal for the successful implementation of agrarian reform. The administration will have moral high ground in distributing the remaining 1 million hectares of agricultural lands.

We also call for justice in the case of the poor farmers in the Teves landholdings in Negros Oriental. The farmer beneficiaries in Caranoche–Teves landholding were issued Certificate of Land Ownership Award (CLOA) in 1997, while the farmer beneficiaries in Villareal-Teves landholding were issued CLOA in 1999. In the Caranoche lands, a Supreme Court decision affirmed the validity of the CLOA and the CLOA holders. There is also a permanent injunction that barred the Teveses from further action on the landholding. However, continued legal maneuverings, human rights violations including the killing of 2 persons highlight the land conflict. These maneuverings prevent the farmers from being installed in their CARP-awarded land. To this day, they live in fear, hunger and desolation.

Worst, the conflict was extended to the House of Representatives. The Committee on Agrarian Reform, an oversight committee for CARPER implementation, is now chaired by Representative Henry Pryde Teves, a party to the conflict. A strong cloud of doubt has been cast on his chairmanship and the oversight function of the committee due to conflict of interest. In this vein, we call upon the House of Representatives to install a pro-CARP leadership on the Committee on Agrarian Reform since time is tolling and there is much to do to in the next four years to successfully implement CARP.

Aside from these cases, we pray for the swift resolution of cases and prompt distribution of Hacienda Bacan, Hacienda Paraiso and Hacienda Grande owned by the Arroyo family in Negros Occidental; the Fortich and Ramcar landholdings in Bukidnon; the Lopez and Arcal landholdings in Davao Oriental; the Davao Penal Colony and the vast banana plantations operated by the Floirendos in Davao del Norte; the Yulo estate being developed by the Ayalas in Laguna; the CARP-covered Jao property being claimed by the Siliman University in Masbate. These cases are among the most contentious land cases today. They represent serious cases of feudal injustice in Philippine modern times. They warrant very serious attention of government in equity and social justice through CARP.

It is also important for Congress to provide an adequate budget to be able to distribute around 250 thousand hectares per year and provide support services for old and new farmer beneficiaries and agrarian reform communities. The budget of about P20 billion, part of which is in the DPWH budget, is just not sufficient to meet these objectives. This has become more relevant with the problems of food insecurity and climate change challenges.

Furthermore, we call upon Congress to enact climate-coherent laws -- a National Land Use Act that will provide a framework for harmonization of laws on land classification and utilization and protect agricultural lands from unjustifiable conversion. We also call for the passage of a new Watershed Management Act and a new Forestry Act to help bring back the forest and to better adapt to climate change.

Finally, let us all pray for peace to always reign in our country, through distributive justice and strong solidarity with our small farmers and the rural poor. We pray for the Holy Spirit, the God who is always with the poor, to lead us away from sin, enlighten our hearts and minds, and purify our intentions. And may the love of Christ propel us in our quest for a truly reformed society.

The over-riding social concern of the Church of the Philippines has been all these years centered on the inequitable distribution of the nation's wealth and the endemic social injustices that underpin that evil. We would like in this statement to focus our attention on the greatest victim of our unjust economic order, the rural poor, and the diminishment of their dignity as people and as citizens. We cannot put it too strongly, but this diminishment is a negation of Christian love---and hence of the God who is love. (Cf. Jubilee of the Agricultural World Address of John Paul II, Nov. 11, 2000l also, Land and Agrarian Reform, Pastoral Exhortation on Philippine Economy, no. 54, CBCP, 1998).

The calculation of 1,400 hec vs 4,227 is as follows: original area = 6443, initial retention by HLI = 1527. Subject of SDO is 4916 of which HLI sold or used for various projects about 800 (the 500 sold yielded sales revenue of 1.2 billion pesos of which farmers got only 37.5 million. HLI said the rest of money was lost in operations). Of remaining about 4100 hectares, HLI offered to return to the farmers if they all wanted to unwind transaction is 33% or about 1400 hectares. The Cojuangcos end up with 1527 + 2700 = 4227 hectares.