EDITORIAL: Ties that bind

Illustrated by Gian Suyat

The Philippines is a country beset with the problems of feudalism – a system of landlord ownership over agricultural lands, at the expense of the farmers who only rely on land for their living.

This is the set-up of Philippine society the recent ruling of the Supreme Court has dared to challenge. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the 4,900-hectare land of the Cojuangco-owned Hacienda Luisita be distributed among its 6,200 farmer beneficiaries.

The Cojuangco family gained ownership of the Hacienda Luisita and its sugar plant Central Azucarera de Tarlac through a loan from the Government Service Insurance System, with the condition that they distribute the land after ten years.

After the set date, the Cojuangco family still failed to distribute the land to its tenants. More so, they were able to escape land distribution by availing the stock distribution option in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, a bogus land reform law approved by former president Corazon Aquino. The SDO allows the land owners to provide tenants stocks or shares of the income instead of distributing actual land to the farmers.

The farmers have organized to fight for the distribution of land since the 1960s, which culminated in November 16, 2004 when police officers opened fire to the protesters, killing 14 farmers in the picket line.

The farmers of the Hacienda Luisita have been fighting for their land for almost 50 years. Indeed, the SC ruling might be a sign of hope for an end to this long-running feudal set-up in the country.

However, much skepticism has been raised about the sincerity of President Aquino to transcend his family ties and distribute the hacienda of his relatives. Aquino is related to the Cojuangcos through his mother Corazon.

Aquino in news reports has declared that the Cojuangcos must follow the SC ruling. However, he maintained that his relatives must still be given “just compensation.”

“Farmers need to be empowered so they can have their own lands to till. But agrarian reform has a second part. Let us not deplete capital. That means there should be just compensation so that the owners of land do not end up having their land taken from them, that they be rightly paid,” Aquino has said.

He went on to say that no “one sector” must be sacrificed over the other – perhaps pertaining to the private sector which involved the sugar plantation business of his kin.

Remaining impartial throughout this phenomenal decision would then be a challenge for a President with a landlord history, given the slow-paced and cautious treatment he has been giving this agrarian dispute since he assumed power. True, he had proclaimed compliance to the ruling of the SC, mainly because he thinks any decision from the SC is an “order.” However, it remains to be seen when Aquino would entirely turn his back on his familial connections for the sake of genuine agrarian reform.

These are the two objectives of the President – give land to the farmers, but give his kin payment for their loss, as well. To wait for him to include in his objectives the provision of free land to the landless and an end to concentrated land ownership in the country would be a futile one, unless he strips himself of his landlord history.

The Philippines is a semi-feudal country run by a President with a landed family. The SC ruling is thus the first step to end this feudal set-up. For the decision to truly favor the landless, the farmers must then be given land for free without any payment to the owners. Aquino’s landed family who had for so long benefitted from this set-up need no more of just compensation.