The Supreme Court has voted unanimously to redistribute Hacienda Luisita, the vast agricultural estate owned by the family of President Benigno Aquino III, to tenant-farmers, resolving what had been a controversial - and bloody - blight on the legacy of the incumbent's late mother Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, and the credibility and integrity of government's Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.
Voting 14-0, the high court, in a 56-page resolution penned by Associate Justice Presbitero Velasco and promulgated on November 23, Wednesday, also nullified an earlier 6-4 decision ordering the Department of Agrarian Reform to hold a referendum to let the Luisita farmers choose between owning shares of stocks in Hacienda Luisita Inc. or portions of the more than 6,000-hectare estate.
When the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law was passed in 1988, during the presidency of Aquino’s mother, it was hailed as the government's cornerstone social justice legislation. The impression soon soured, however, when Luisita was placed under a stock distribution option that allowed the landholding to remain intact and under the continued control of the Cojuangco clan.
In its new decision, the SC stressed that “control over agricultural lands must always be in the hands of the farmers” and pointed out that allowing the 6,296 beneficiaries to remain stockholders would never allow them “gain control given the present proportion of shareholdings.”
“There is even no assurance that 100 percent of the 118,391,976.85 shares issued to the (farmworker beneficiaries) will all be voted in favor of staying in HLI,” the SC said, noting that beneficiaries who opted to own stocks are not protected by the CARL.
Aside from ordering the distribution of 4,915 hectares of Luisita, the decision also requires HLI to pay the beneficiaries the balance of P1.3 billion from the Cojuangcos’ sale of portions of 500 hectares of converted lot, part of which is now an industrial park, and an 80.51-hectare lot on which a part of the SCTEX road network was constructed.
The high court also ordered DAR to hire a reputable accounting firm to check the books of HLI and its subsidiary, Centennary Holdings Inc., to determine if the P 1,330,511,500 earned from the sale of these properties was used for legitimate corporate purposes.
“Any unspent or unused balance as determined by the audit shall be distributed to the 6,296 original FWBs,” the SC said.
In return, HLI will be paid “just compensation.”
The SC gave DAR six months to submit a compliance report.
Land reform advocates have long said the failure to distribute Luisita made a mockery of the agrarian reform law and had set a precedent that emboldened other landowners to resist distribution of their properties, often leading to deadly confrontations with farmers demanding ownership of the land they tilled.
In November 204, at least seven Luisita farmers were killed when government troops fired on them during a strike. This was followed by a string of assassinations of several of the farmers’ supporters, among them local government officials and clergymen. No one has ever been prosecuted for these deaths.
In its July decision, although the high court upheld a decision of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council that revoked the stock option scheme in Luisita, it also said any beneficiary who wanted to continue owning stocks was entitled to 18,804.32 HLI shares.
The decision was met with intense criticism by agrarian reform advocates who called it a “betrayal” and, a week later, Aquino gave the nod for Solicitor General Jose Anselmo Cadiz and Deparment of Agrarian Reform (DAR) Secretary Virgilio delos Reyes to file an appeal.
Aquino, who divested his shares in HLI in 2010, has long been pressed to convince his family to distribute Luisita but has always claimed that he cannot prevail upon them to do so. - Lorenz Niel Santos, InterAksyon.com and Fritzie Cabial, News5