DAR: Land distribution to Hacienda Luisita farmers must undergo processBy Inquirer Central Luzon, TJ Burgonio, Tonette Orejas
Philippine Daily Inquirer
CITY OF SAN FERNANDO— You don’t just marry anyone you meet in the streets, right?
Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes cited this common sense principle on Wednesday to explain why the distribution to farmers of Hacienda Luisita, the 6,443-hectare sugar estate owned by the family of President Benigno Aquino, must undergo a process that could stand legal scrutiny.
The Supreme Court ruled with finality in April that 4,915 ha of the estate should be distributed to 6,296 farmworkers.
De los Reyes was here to join the local commemoration of the 24th anniversary of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), a social justice initiative launched by the late President Corazon Aquino.
Told that Luisita workers resented the interviews undertaken by the Department of Agrarian Reform in the course of releasing their lands, De los Reyes said, “Interviewing is no guarantee all of them are getting lots.”
So far, the DAR has interviewed 8,400 farmworkers as it validates who among them, or their heirs, signed the November 1989 agreement under which they agreed to receive shares of stocks in the estate instead of land.
The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council in 2005 to scrap the deal, upholding findings that it did not improve the lives of the farmers.
De los Reyes said his department had concluded the first round of interviews and was to complete the second and third rounds next month.
The verification process is arduous but necessary, he said, adding that the Luisita estate was “managed as a plantation, not by a kasama system where there is a farmworker [assigned to] specific parcels [on record].”
De los Reyes said that the distribution of the estate comprising 17 land titles on 1,746 lots could take time.
So far, 20 percent of the signatories have been confirmed dead and their heirs have come forward to claim their share of the land to be distributed.
Commentators have said that Hacienda Luisita could serve as the litmus test of the Aquino administration’s sincerity in implementing agrarian reform.
In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Friday, De los Reyes addressed criticism that his department had been “consistently underperforming” in implementing CARP, which expires in two years. DAR still has to cover nearly 1 million ha comprising some of the country’s prime agricultural lands.
“We have the unfortunate curse of undertaking the land reform program under a democracy and the rule of law. If you look at other countries, the land reform program was undertaken under a dictatorial regime, where people who didn’t give up land were shot. We’re doing this under the rule of law, and under the rule of law, due process is important,” he said.
Some 300 farmers from Negros Occidental and Bukidnon staged a 10-day march to Manila earlier this month to press full implementation of the land-to-the-tiller program. In a meeting with the farmers in Malacañang on June 14, President Aquino promised that he would carry out the reform program his mother initiated before its expiration in June 2014.
The President said that notices of coverage for lands 25 ha and above and 10 ha and above would be issued by December 2012 and lands under 10 ha not later than July 2013.
De los Reyes dismissed claims that he was too “legalistic,” saying that he preferred to make decisions that would stand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court, rather than to merely please the farmers.
“I’m not here to run for anything else. I’m not going to make a decision which is not based on evidence,” he said, recalling rulings by past DAR secretaries overturned by the high court.
De los Reyes admitted that the private agricultural landholdings in Negros Occidental were the most contentious, but he said the DAR was on track of covering them by December 2012.
After he came onboard in 2010, De los Reyes said he discovered that the old notices of coverage had a lot of defects: It was uncertain whether landowners got them and, if ever they were received, their return was not tracked, and the recipients’ names could not be deciphered.
“When we opened the folders, we realized that a lot of the titles we have were not current,” he said, pointing out that the lands had either been sold, or been subdivided into different titles.
“So even if we send the notice of coverage, it would not be titled. This is a very big problem in the notice of coverage,” he said.
Inaccurate technical descriptions of landholdings were another matter, he said.
Even so, the DAR was closely working with the Land Registration Authority, Land Bank of the Philippines and Social Security System to set up a system of coverage, De los Reyes said.
“Our promise to issue notice of coverage to lands above 10 ha by December 2012, I think we can do that. We’re very confident we can meet that target,” he said, referring to 600,000-ha landholdings nationwide, including at least 120,000 ha in Negros.