Will the Philippines' Hacienda Luisita Really Be Broken Up?

One of the last vestiges of the Philippines’ feudal past is finally coming to an end. Or is it really?

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled with finality to award Hacienda Luisita, the vast tract of land owned by the Cojuangco side of the family of President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, to their tenants and farm workers, more than 20 years after a landmark land reform law was passed during the presidency of the late Corazon Aquino, herself a third generation Cojuangco.

It is expected to take some time to sort out the details of the land distribution. And, given the vagaries of law and politics in the Philippines, there is always the chance that delay will play to the advantage of the Cojuanco family.

The 5,000-odd-hectare estate, the second-biggest in the Philippines, is the crown jewel of the family, who gained control over the land in the 1950s when the late President Ramon Magsaysay feared that the powerful Lopez family of Iloilo would gain control over the land. Magsaysay sold it instead to Jose Cojuangco, Noynoy Aquino’s grandfather. Noynoy divested his interest in the property before taking office in 2010.

The failure of the government and the courts to force redistribution of the land has come to symbolize the sway of the so-called Twelve Families, the oligarchs who for most of the country’s modern history have controlled the sinews of the economy.

Located in Tarlac in Central Luzon, a bastion of feudal lords and peasant uprisings, Hacienda Luisita was a lucrative sugar cane plantation throughout the Spanish, American and Japanese colonial and occupation periods. It served as the headquarters for the US Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he liberated the Philippines in 1945.

The Cojuangcos continued to reap the windfalls during the heyday of the sugar industry until a devastating crisis hit the sector from which it hasn’t fully recovered. Then the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (Republic Act 6657) was passed in 1988 covering all tenanted and agricultural lands in excess of five hectares throughout the country.

Although many met the agrarian reform law with skepticism, tenants welcomed the Hacienda Luisita coverage only to be frustrated when the Cojuangco family opted for a stock distribution scheme to effectively maintain control of the land. That didn’t satisfy the farmers, who rallied at the gates of the plantation on Nov. 16, 2004, demanding fairer wages and a greater commitment for the promised land reforms. They were met with police and soldiers who stormed their blockade. Twelve picketing farmers were shot in what has become known as the Hacienda Luisita massacre. Two children were also were killed and hundreds were injured.

The peasants went to the court. It took more than two decades before the court recognized their ownership over the land.

Faced with the prospect of finally ceding control over the vast prime property, the Cojuangco family sought a compensation package that is designed to further enrich the clan.

Unfortunately or fortunately, an adversarial Supreme Court now holds sway and an impeached Supreme Court Chief Justice, Renato Corona, is one of President Aquino’s political arch-enemies, along with former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who appointed Corona to the office along with most of the other members of the court.

Hacienda Luisita has even become a side issue in Corona’s continuing impeachment trial. In its most recent decision regarding the property, the Supreme Court ruled that the compensation package should be pegged at 1989 prices, the year when RA 6657 was passed into law.

It is a decision that can be viewed as a frontal attack against the president and his family, and one that would deprive the Cojuangco family of a portion of their economic base. At the same time it ensures that the political vendetta between Aquino and Arroyo will continue to dominate the former’s presidency. Arroyo*, who was barred from leaving the country in a dramatic detention at Ninoy Aquino Airport – named for the current president’s assassinated father – remains in detention as President Aquino seeks to bring her to justice on charges of massive corruption, election fraud and plundering the state during her 10-year presidency.

The Corona-controlled Supreme Court, however, is widely perceived as an installed ally of Arroyo.

For now, the peasants who lost so many of their protesting colleagues and comrades fighting for the right to own the land can cherish the sweet smell of victory. The victory would have been sweeter if it hadn’t come under the present political situation. It was victory nevertheless.

But the peasants, after going through all the stages of their struggles, are fully aware that while the battle has been won, the war is not over. Until the last of the Cojuangcos are out of Hacienda Luisita, they still cannot declare a complete victory. That is a legitimate concern. Nothing is ever really over in the Philippines.

*Corrected 29 April 2012

(Edwin Espejo blogs at Chronicles of Mindanao for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.)