MANILA, Philippines?On the eve of a Supreme Court hearing on the explosive Hacienda Luisita dispute, Manila Archbishop Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales called the agrarian reform law a ?gem? that gave Filipino farmers the right to own the land they till.
Responding to questions by reporters during a belated celebration of his 78th birthday on Aug. 10 at Arzobispado de Manila, Rosales pointed out that the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was enacted in 1988 by no less than the late President Corazon Aquino, mother of the incumbent Chief Executive.
?That is a gem in the history of the Constitution,? Rosales said.
?What is clear in the law is the right of the farmers to own lands,? he said, referring to Corazon Aquino?s centerpiece program to promote social justice and eliminate one of the major causes of peasant unrest.
The high court is hearing oral arguments on Wednesday on a petition by President Benigno Aquino III?s cousins who are running the vast sugar plantation owned by the family in Tarlac province. They are seeking to overturn a 2005 decision by the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) scratching the stock distribution option (SDO) under CARP reached in 1989.
The PARC said the SDO scheme, which critics said diluted Corazon Aquino?s CARP in its initial stage, did not improve the lives of the farmers of Hacienda Luisita Inc. (HLI).
Issues up for discussion
The high tribunal has directed the parties to discuss, among others, the following issues:
? Whether the PARC has jurisdiction and the power and authority to revoke the SDO 16 years after it was hammered out without violating due process and the non-impairment guarantee clause, or the sanctity of contracts under the Constitution, and what will be its legal basis.
? Whether the petitioners who brought the case to the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) and later the PARC were ?real parties in interest.?
? Whether the rights, obligations and remedies sought are governed by the corporation code and not by the agrarian reform law. (Mr. Aquino?s cousins aver that the workers are only entitled to a third of the assets of HLI under the corporation law.)
? Whether the distribution of all hacienda lands will result in the dissolution of HLI as a corporation.
? Whether the Luisita Industrial Park Corp. and Rizal Commercial Banking Corp., as transferees of a portion of the 6,500-hectare estate, may invoke the ?doctrine of innocent purchaser.?
Court spokesperson Ma. Victoria Guerra told reporters that the parties also could raise the compromise agreement reached earlier this month between HLI and farm workers, who voted in a purported ?referendum? to retain the SDO in lieu of a piece of the 1,400 ha, or a third of the plantation, up for distribution.
?There is no prohibition against them raising the matter of the compromise agreement... but the focus is on the issues,? Guerra said.
During Tuesday?s en banc hearing, the court directed the PARC and the secretary of agrarian reform to comment on the HLI motion for approval of its purported compromise agreement with the president of Alyansa ng mga Manggagawang Bukid sa Luisita (Ambala), the vice president of United Luisita Workers? Union (ULWU), and representatives of the supervisory group in the plantation.
The Supreme Court also required the HLI to comment on the opposition to the compromise agreement filed Monday by another faction of Ambala.
Some hanging in the air
The tribunal denied the motion of Christian Monsod, former chair of the Commission on Elections and a member of the commission that drafted the 1987 Constitution, to join Wednesday?s proceedings, saying the parties were already well-represented.
Monsod, a pro-bono lawyer for land reform activists for many years, asked the high court on Monday to allow him to participate as representative of the Farmworkers Agrarian Reform Movement Inc. (FARM), after one of its leaders, Noel Mallari, switched sides and signed the compromise agreement.
He said that Mallari?s action ?left FARM and its members hanging in the air as they are left without a representative in (the) case.?
Last week, HLI initially distributed P20 million to the farmers as part of a P150-million assistance package under the compromise settlement in what a DAR official described as a move to preempt the court. HLI said 70 percent of its 10,000 workers had voted to retain the SDO scheme.
The National Secretariat for Social Action (Nassa) of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines Tuesday slammed the ?unusual haste? with which the settlement was reached, saying that the process was ?questionable and suspicious.?
The manner signatures of the farm workers was obtained was ?dubious? in view of allegations of bribe disguised as ?financial package? or ?monetary benefits,? Nassa said in a statement.
?The strategy of capitalizing on peoples? poverty to trick them into accepting the disadvantageous compromise is another form of grave injustice committed against the farmers,? Nassa said.
Fr. Edwin Gariguez, Nassa executive secretary, called on Mr. Aquino to take a stand on the land dispute and prevent his relatives from twisting the law.
In a forum hosted by the Catholic Media Network in Manila Tuesday, Gariguez said that if Mr. Aquino allowed his relatives to continue implementing the SDO, it could set a precedent to the 13 other estates across the country that were currently offering the same scheme to farmers.
Straight, not crooked path
A new law extending CARP for another five years to cover more than 1 million ha of the nation?s most productive estates that had escaped agrarian reform for two decades because of corporate loopholes was enacted last year. It also allocates P150 billion for its implementation.
Mr. Aquino is yet to outline a policy on the new law.
The President on Monday repeated that he would not interfere in the land dispute because he did not want to impose himself on the HLI employees who have been suffering since the violent strike over the dismissal of 300 workers in 2004 that killed at least seven people.
?The President should ask his relatives to tread what he calls the straight path,? Lito Bais, ULWU president, said in a statement, referring to an Aquino shibboleth.
About 2,000 farmers from various haciendas are expected to mass at the Supreme Court today to support the plight of Luisita workers, according to Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas. With reports from Kristine L. Alave and Russel Amador, Inquirer Central Luzon