(Third of a series)
HACIENDA LUISITA, Tarlac City—It is harvest time in the sugar plantations.
Trucks laden with freshly cut sugarcane lumber along MacArthur Highway on their way to Central Azucarera de Tarlac, the sugar mill in Hacienda Luisita owned by the family of President Aquino.
On any given day in this nippy season of good cheer, hundreds of these trucks are parked, as far as the eye can see, in the vicinity of the sprawling mill. They wait for their turn to disgorge their cargoes into the maws in the Central to be crushed and refined into white sugar.
Smokestacks from the factory belch clouds in the sky and compete with the majesty of Mount Arayat in the background, where, folks say, Noah’s Ark rested during the biblical deluge. Telltale contours of the vessel are said to be etched atop the peak, a refuge for insurgent guerrillas since World War II.
Spanish owners of the hacienda, fearing labor unrest and an incipient Marxist rebellion, put the estate up for sale in 1957.
Then President Ramon Magsaysay, concerned about the push for power of his political rivals, the sugar barons from Negros eyeing the hacienda, persuaded his young aide, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, to get his wealthy father-in-law of the Cojuangco clan to buy the estate.
Don Pepe Cojuangco agreed, securing a dollar loan guaranteed by the government on condition that the estate be sold in 10 years at cost to the tillers under Magsaysay’s social justice program.
Ninoy managed the estate well and was beloved by his farmers. He pampered them with rations of rice and sugar, provided education for their children and medical care. From there he launched a successful political career, derailed by the advent of martial law, which later sought to enforce the Magsaysay condition. Ninoy, who was jailed for nearly eight years, was assassinated in 1983, on his return from self-exile in the United States.
The sale to the farmers directed by Magsaysay, however, did not happen. Instead the hacienda opted for a stock distribution option in lieu of land redistribution under the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) promulgated by Ninoy’s widow, Corazon Aquino, two years after she took power following the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship.
A violent strike in 2004 led to a clamor for the dismantling of the plantation. Workers said the stock option did not improve their lives.
As the administration of the couple’s son, the current President, prepares to dismantle the plantation and distribute the land to its workers upon the directive 13 months ago by the Supreme Court, which upheld the farmers’ contention, nongovernmental organizations are showing how the beneficiaries could cut their umbilical cord from the estate.
Loida Rivera of the women’s advocacy group Samahang Magsasakang Kababaihan is exhibit A of a success story of these movements that underline particularly the importance of women in the struggle for social justice.
Rivera is producing muscovado from the 3 hectares she received after the 77-ha sugar plantation in nearby Magalang in Pampanga that she was tilling came under CARP and was distributed among its 11 tenant farmers nine years ago.
The unrefined brown sugar has been produced in the country in small quantities, but its popularity was set back at the turn of the century with the massive demand for refined sugar in the United States and Europe.
With the now generation of fitness buffs eschewing white sugar, muscovado—reputedly rich in magnesium, potassium, calcium, phosphorous and other minerals—has found a prominent place on healthy options shelves.
“We have proved that processing sugarcane ourselves can bring us income bigger than what we get from the Central,” Rivera said.
Upbeat on future
Rivera hasn’t stopped there. She is seeking a P2-million loan from the Department of Science and Technology so she could produce a product that could compete in the global brown sugar market.
She sounded upbeat recounting her business venture, unlike the sullen mood at Mabilog—one of 10 barangays comprising Hacienda Luisita in the towns of Concepcion, and La Paz, and Tarlac City.
Renato Lalic, 46, said that since the strike that turned violent and left seven people dead at Hacienda Luisita in 2004, jobs have become scarce. Workers subsequently took over the land in some villages, where barangay (village) captains allowed each household to farm two ha of the estate so they could survive.
Many of them planted rice, vegetables and peanuts, Lalic said, but back-to-back storms in 2009 and drought the following year, mercilessly set them back. Unable to repay loans, many of them leased their farms to sugar planters for P10,000.
“Life has been a series of difficulties,” said Lalic, who has rented out to a sugar planter a part of the land he had occupied but continues to cultivate rice and vegetables on the other hectare for his family’s daily needs.
It is a fate that awaits beneficiaries of Hacienda Luisita, who are now undergoing a tedious identification process even before they could get hold of their land, without any game plan coming from the Department of Agrarian Reform on how they would become farmer entrepreneurs.
Barangay Mabilog reflects the Supreme Court’s position that the stock distribution option in Hacienda Luisita hammered out in 1989 did not benefit the farmers, or their community. Roads bear the pockmarks of a dusty moonscape during summers, slimy and impassable during the rainy season.
It is a far cry from the Orange County, California, atmosphere in Las Haciendas, the Acacia-covered residential part of the estate, with a swimming pool and a golf course.
There’s a sprinkling of stone houses at Mabilog—thanks to daughters who had become OFWs, or married foreigners. A few families have acquired secondhand bicycles—discards from a modernizing China. They are shared during the rainy season when tricycles are unavailable to buy government-subsidized rice in the city.
“Most people in the villages eat two meals a day,” said Bishop Broderick Pabillo, who had spent nights with the farmers to share their miseries. “It is easier to travel from Manila to Tarlac than go from one barangay to another in the hacienda.”
A good meal comes when a vendor arrives from the city to sell bones from a factory making chicken “tocino” to flavor the nourishing soup, said a man at asari-sari store who said he used to be a New People’s Army guerrilla before he joined the Hacienda’s security force.
Rising from ashes
It likewise has not been easy for Rivera, a mother of three who gave up a nursing career when she married an agriculture undergraduate and became a farmer.
Rivera and her husband had been sharecroppers in the estate of Feliciano Tinio. It used to be planted with rice and corn, but with the rising prices of sugar on the world market, the landowner decided to plant sugarcane instead.
After CARP was passed in 1988, the tenants applied for coverage of the estate two years later. They were subsequently sacked, a fate suffered by many tenants in agricultural estates who demanded a piece of the estates they were farming when land distribution program came into effect.
The cane fields in the Tinio estate were put to the torch. Goons razed to the ground the huts of the tenants.
Under the auspices of the Samahan, derided as a communist front organization, Rivera and her group persisted.
In 2004, she was awarded the title to her piece of the estate at P120,000 per ha to be paid in 25 years. The owner got 30 percent in cash and the rest in bonds from state-owned Land Bank of the Philippines.
Rivera attended seminars sponsored by the NGO Project Development Institute, which has been providing paralegals to educate potential agrarian reform beneficiaries. It is one of many such groups engaged in social justice causes working with uneducated farmers. Financial aid comes from the German Church Institute based in Bonn.
“They told us we are nothing but communists, but this is where we are now,” said Rivera, gesturing to an ancient steel contraption used to crush canes, a concrete block to which the juice flows and the cauldrons in a small part of her field littered with carcasses of the fresh harvest.
She set up her enterprise two years ago, but it has limited capacity. The rest of the harvest still goes to the Central in Tarlac.
Rivera hires “sacadas,” migrant workers who left oppressive sugar barons on Negros Island, for the few more pesos that she offered.
A dozen of them work for her—hard-bitten men from Escalante like Jiemilito Ayo, 33, who took along his wife and daughter. They call home a bamboo shed with rusting corrugated iron over it, without amenities, in the middle of Rivera’s 3-ha Nirvana. He shares the hut with five other sacadas.
Ayo gets a fabulous salary of P1,000 a day from Rivera for wielding a machete to cut down the sugarcanes and haul them over his shoulder to a truck, which can carry up to 20 tons of the harvest, for delivery to the Cojuangco mill.
“It was OK in Escalante. I was near my relatives. But it was difficult there. Here, I am able to feed my family three meals a day,” said this man, who, along with his seven siblings, never went past elementary school.
He has always been a sacada, those heroic men whose travails were captured in a Behn Cervantes movie blockbuster.
Yields from muscovado
Returns from the muscovado enterprise are several times more than the income from sugar milled at Hacienda Luisita, said Rivera.
That’s because brown sugar fetches a good price in the markets, for now just in the neighboring towns where she sold her produce.
She said that revenue from two ha of sugarcane in her property sold to the Central was P120,000. One ha devoted to muscovado paid her a similar P120,000.
The Church-backed Task Force Mapalad has the same muscovado project at La Castellana in Negros Occidental. It was set up several years ago without any government support for 180 beneficiaries of the land redistribution program in the province.
The P2.5-million project employs 24 workers and produces 36 tons of muscovado per month. It fetches a monthly net income of at least P23,000.
The project is seeking to raise P5 million to upgrade its facilities, increase production and comply with globally acceptable good manufacturing practices and critical control points standards.
It shows that given the resources, CARP works, and there will be life after Hacienda Luisita whose fate, for better or for worse, is regarded as a litmus test of the government’s sincerity in carrying out agrarian reform in the country. (Conclusion: Interview with Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes)