Land and Liberty—and the Question of Elite Motives

Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD

In the news again for the nth time since the aggressive and then supposedly pro-people land reform program of former President Ferdinand Marcos is the Hacienda Luisita, that 5,000 hectare estate of the Cojuangco family sprawled in much part of Tarlac. Marcos, of course, did not think of the land reform program as something that concerned only with titles and plots of lands to be distributed to farmers. Armed with some ideas he culled from the Russian and Israelite land operation programs that related to the kibbutz and the moshav, he talked of a philosophically grounded program that he called “agrarian reform.” Initially, this was to free rice and corn farmers from the bondage of oppression inflicted upon them for centuries and centuries on end by the landlords who live in towns and cities and whose only interest in their land ownership was their receipt of the produce.

The news is that the decision of the Department of Agrarian Reform to revoke the Stock Distribution Option agreement between the farmers and the management of Hacienda Luisita Incorporated is politically motivated and that it is part of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s vendetta. We know, of course, that the former President Corazon Aquino has declared her vow to search for truth and that she is not “Anti-Gloria” but “pro-truth.” It is this position of going after truth, she says, that has moved her into joining forces with those calling after Arroyo to resign. There is a contradiction here nonetheless: that call for truth and at the same time that act of crying foul and thus calling the present president to resign. The truth, at least in the way we are to approach it with wisdom, is searched through the process of unraveling it by untangling the tall tales and knots masking it and this does not necessarily mean calling for the resignation of the president in order to accomplish that. Aquino, with the Freedom Constitution, could have called the shots in 1986. With that, she could have saved the Cojuangco clan the embarrassment that it is going through now. With that Constitution, she could have declared a bolder and more daring approach to land distribution, something Marcos failed to do despite his high-profile claim to success.

Sometime ago, the news jolted us when in the melee between the picketing farmer beneficiaries and the military a number of farmers died from gunshot wounds, some of those dead the children of the farmers. I remember writing about this incident, unable to contain the pain that I came to know from the news accounts. I quote from the poem, “Cariño Brutal” I wrote on November 18, 2004 when the news about the seven deaths in the dispersal at the hacienda picket line spread like wildfire. I quote from the piece:

I am another lord of the rings, the lord/ Ringing around what justice means/ In contested lands/ And fierce fields and quiet dreams./

Even those of children, I have robbed/ Them of their lusty nursery rhymes,/ Their lilting limericks about Fernando Poe Jr./ Giving hope to the hopeless, Erap blabbering/ About giving more for the less,/ And Alma Moreno promising that eternal sweetness/ And the ambience she buys in Hong Kong/ With Joey Marquez, they who talk of hometown/ Service like the one in the pueblos encircling/ The hacienda of Kris and Joshua and Philip,/ They who sell truth and politics and goodness,/ They who sell the feel-good quality/ Of pleasing me in that perpetuity of parodies./

There is that dark theatricality in all these,/ These children dying by waiting to live,/ These farmers living by waiting to die,/ But, well, oh well, this is how the script runs,/
All those who are useless,/ All those who dwell in the margins,/ Those who are nameless,
Those who are faceless,/ Those who cannot chant the mantra of keeping silence/ Those who fight and struggle and seek what is right/ Those who write verses to announce their fair aims,/ All of those, all of them, they are to play that role/ Of living by waiting to die/ Of dying by waiting to live/ And then they fade to black,/ The dark that declaims about darkness itself,/ The dark that consumes the spirit of the just/ The dark that does not know light/ The dark that owns the singing of children/ The dark that snatches their laughter/ The dark that poisons their once-a-day meal./

I am the lord of the rings, the rings/ That belong only to the dark/ That belong only to those who hear me sing/ In the dark. As it is, I preside in this blessed butchering, / This cariño brutal for sacadas and their prayers/ This cariño brutal for the bruised land and its nightmares/ This cariño brutal for the wounded spirit and its memories./

But I will see the coming of that dawn that erases/ All the traces of the bloodied stories of fourteen deaths/ In a day, the dawn that breaks into a morning of glory/ And then the food will announce their coming/ The fruits of the land will announce their rocky birthing/
And the feasting will commence and go on/ For days and days on end/ And the bounty will remember the dead, all those/ Who died in the name of this redeemed land./ And then, and then, I will fade to black,/ Be buried in the storms, the floods, the rains/ Swallowed by the sea and the light of that morning/ Of feasting and dancing and triumphing.//

It is seldom that we mix poetry—or what passes for one—with the brutalities of land reform and its pretentious sibling, agrarian reform. But in that November last year, the wounds of living life in misery and in the mercy of those who benefited much from the unjust structure of land and resource ownership in the country had become raw again—and there was blood. To think that agrarian reform has been put in place in order to give life to the oppressed and yet ending up killing the intended beneficiaries is an irony of ironies. And the whole exercise, at best, has become a farce.

We look closely at the history of land acquisition in Hacienda Luisita and we see the history of big land ownership all over the country. With the right opportunity and the right connections coupled with the documented right intentions, we get to accumulate vast tracks of land the way the Castila lord and master was touted to have acquired his vast landholding by simply looking at the horizon and by the force of his visual power and authority, would mark out his property. Other stories talk of the Castila lord and master riding on a horse and would whip his horse harshly and mercilessly for it to gallop far and wide and that would be the boundary of what he owned. There are certain exaggerations in these stories, of course—as there were machinations too in the awarding of Torrens titles to the usurpers and occupiers. But one reality remained: The farmers who needed the land to till did not have the land to till—or in certain circumstances, they ended up giving up their land in favor of the new lord and master, with the farmer eventually becoming a tenant for years and years on end.

This agrarian issue at the Hacienda Luisita comes to the fore because on September 23, the legal team of the Department of Agrarian Reform submitted its “terminal report on two petitions, recommending the revocation of the 16-year old Stock Distribution Option agreement” in the Hacienda.

The issues attendant to the recommendation to revoke the SDO go back to the time of the dispersal on November 16, 2004 that left seven dead and many injured. DAR, through Task Force Luisita, took to task and began investigation on the reasons for the strike that led to that brutality and violence. By July 2005, the task force had come up with its report and had the same submitted to DAR Secretary Nasser Pangandaman.

The task force’s recommendation was based on the failure of the SDO agreement “to improve the lives of more than 5,000 farmer beneficiaries.” Pangandaman, the Inquirer reported, said: “After 16 years of implementing the SDO at the Hacienda Luisita, the department is saddened by the fact that the living conditions of the plantation workers did not improve. Worse, it deteriorated through the years, which is contrary to the vision of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.”

In the Hacienda Luisita Timeline of the Inquirer News Service, we see the history of the acquisition of the Hacienda Luisita from Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas—or Tabacalera. The acquisition began in 1957, with Jose Cojuangco Sr. buying in from Central Azucarera de Tarlac and the Hacienda Luisita. Two special historical points in the timeline are instructive: first, the condition for the Central Bank resolution approving a loan for Cojuangco and second, the condition for a loan from the Government Service Insurance System.

Both loan conditions were premised on some sense of social justice linked with land distribution to farmers. The Central Bank Monetary Board said: “There shall be a simultaneous purchase of Hacienda Luisita with the purchase of the shares, with a view to distributing this hacienda to small farmers in line with the administration’s social justice program.” In a letter to the GSIS as basis for the latter’s approval of a loan, Cojuangco wrote that this would “pave the way for the sale to bona fide planters on a long-term basis, portions of the hacienda.”

In an effort to make good with his promise of the good life to the least advantaged farmers, Marcos, through the then Ministry of Agrarian reform, filed a case against the Hacienda Luisita in 1980. Then something happened. (To be continued.)

Published, INQ V1N15 2005

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