Decades of deception

“Justice. I’ve heard that word. It’s a cold word. I wrote it down several times and always it looked like a damn cold lie to me. There is no justice.” – Antoinette Mason, Wide Sargasso Sea

The Supreme Court (SC) has forgotten that decades of deception had twisted the meaning of land reform in Hacienda Luisita.

In a decision released yesterday, the SC maintained that the farmers should again choose between the stock distribution option (SDO) and receiving actual land parcels.

The high court rejected the petition of the Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI) to stop the implementation of the 2006 decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council and the Department of Agrarian Reform, which stated that the 16-year-old SDO should be revoked.

However, the justices ruled that they could not simply ignore the “overwhelming” vote for stock distribution in 1989, when more than 6,000 farmer-worker beneficiaries said they wanted to be stock-holders in the 6,453-hectare sugar estate owned by President Benigno Aquino III’s family. Hence, there should be another referendum, according to the decision.

But the overwhelming vote for the SDO was a product of the Cojuangcos’ maneuverings to evade land distribution.

Let us revisit the history of the grave injustice in Aquino’s own backyard. The Cojuangcos were able to purchase Hacienda Luisita through a loan from the Government Service Insurance System and the Central Bank under the condition that they will later distribute the land to the farmers.

The Manila Regional Trial Court ruled that the Cojuangcos should satisfy the conditions of the loan. The land-owning clan, however, sought the reversal of the decision in the Court of Appeals. When Cory Aquino (the supposed anti-thesis of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos) became president, her administration ordered the withdrawal of the case. Ironically, the then icon of democracy, the saintly Cory Aquino whom many Filipinos closely associate to the sacred feminine, used her position to protect the interests of her family and prolong the agony of the tillers.

It was also under her term that the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was enacted. But more than two decades after it was passed into law, the CARP has failed in its objective: to give land to the poorest and give power to the peasantry. In fact, in Tarlac, the CARP beneficiaries were mostly the rich, the socialites, the landed politicians. More importantly, the Cojuangcos have ingeniously kept their grip on the land through the SDO of CARP.

The SC turned a blind eye on the fact that the 1989 SDO was only a form of manipulated compromise. The private army of the Cojuangco-Aquinos harassed the farmers into agreeing to the SDO. Many were deceived into receiving temporary monetary relief only to find out that they gave up their means of livelihood, their right to life.

But the farmers cannot be blamed, for the decades-long exploitation in Hacienda Luisita has left them stuck in hand-to-mouth living conditions, so much so that even dole-outs could spell the difference between life and death.

Now, the SC seems to have brought the land dispute back to square one. While it rejected the petition of the HLI, it was a feeble decision. It left the thorny issue hanging on the outcome of another referendum, when it was a manipulated referendum that stripped the farmers of their right to land. The essence of land reform is to give land – not stocks or pieces of paper – to the tillers. Land reform should be grounded on the spirit of social justice. It is a shame that even the judiciary does not seem to understand the true meaning of land reform, a meaning that has been distorted by years and years of deception.

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines believes that this travesty of justice has to end. It has been more than 500 days since Aquino promised to distribute Hacienda Luisita to farmer-worker beneficiaries. Now, more than a year after he was elected and barely three weeks before his second state of the nation address, the farmers are still waiting for the land to be distributed. Farmers were killed in this struggle for land when the police and the Cojuangco private army fired bullets mercilessly at the picket in 2006. A farmer-leader already died and justice, still, has not been served.

As student journalists who advance noble advocacies, it is necessary that we write about this mother of injustices, especially as a scion of the landed family of Cojuangcos now sits as chief executive. It was the same president who defended the bloody dispersal of the Hacienda Luisita workers’ strike. The same president who defended his administration’s decision to drastically reduce the budget of many state universities and colleges. The same president who kept silent on crucial issues of human rights violations such as the continuing disappearance of UP students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan. The same president, who, despite all his legal powers, cannot make decisions in favor of his impoverished constituents.

The primary goal of journalism is to report the truth. The truth is that a landed clan continues to deprive thousands of poor farmers of their right to land and life. Let the truth be told.