For Philippine Family in Politics, Land Issue Hits Home
Jes Aznar for The New York Times
Workers loaded sugar for delivery last month at Hacienda Luisita, a Philippine plantation that is owned by the family of former President Corazon C. Aquino.
Jes Aznar for The New York Times
A farm worker carried rice he had harvested from contested land at Hacienda Luisita, about 80 miles north of Manila.
HACIENDA LUISITA, the Philippines — Like his father before him, Buenaventura Calaquian worked the sugar cane fields at Hacienda Luisita, a plantation owned by the family of former President Corazon C. Aquino. In the long-running, sometimes bloody battle over control of the land here, Mr. Calaquian, 58, has come out better than most.
For the last few years, he has illegally occupied 3.7 acres on which he cultivates rice and vegetables. He spends most days watching his fields from a makeshift shack whose thatched roof is patched with flattened cardboard boxes. Small profits from tomato sales have allowed him to buy 50 ducks that now swim in a nearby creek.
“I never want to go back to sugar cane,” Mr. Calaquian said as his wife, Maria, 46, used a single bucket to carry water from the creek over to several uneven rows of tomato vines. “This is better.”
Despite the government’s assertion that a two-decade-old land distribution program has been a success, most farmers in the Philippines have yet to benefit significantly. The uneven ownership of land, this country’s primordial problem, continues to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of large landowning families and to fuel armed insurgencies, including Asia’s longest-running Communist rebellion.
The land problem has drawn fresh attention since Mrs. Aquino’s son, Benigno Aquino III, declared his candidacy for the May 10 presidential election, running on his mother’s legacy of “people power.” Though Mrs. Aquino made land reform a top priority, she allowed landowning families to eviscerate her distribution program. Critics say there is no greater example of the failure of land reform than her own family’s estate.
For the past five years, the family has been fighting in the Supreme Court a government directive to distribute the 10,000-acre Hacienda Luisita — the second-biggest family-owned piece of land in the Philippines, about 80 miles north of Manila — to 10,000 farmers.
In 2004, the military and the police killed seven protesters during a strike by farmers fighting for land and higher wages. Since then, the family-controlled Hacienda Luisita Inc. has managed to plant only 40 percent of the estate with sugar cane; the rest has been seized by individual farmers or remains idle.
Criticized for his family’s position, Mr. Aquino, 50, the front-runner in the presidential election, announced recently that the family would transfer the land to the farmers after ensuring that debts were paid off.
“It will be theirs clear and free,” Mr. Aquino said in an interview in Manila.
But Mr. Aquino’s cousin, Fernando Cojuangco, the chief operating officer of the holding company that owns the plantation, said that the extended Cojuangco family, owners of this plantation since 1958, had no intention of giving up the land or the sugar business.
“No, we’re not going to,” Mr. Cojuangco, 47, said in an interview here. “I think it would be irresponsible because I feel that continuing what we have here is the way to go. Sugar farming has to be; it’s the kind of business that has to be done plantation-style.”
He dismissed the widely held view that Mrs. Aquino, his aunt, had made land reform a centerpiece of her government.
“Is there a document that it was a centerpiece? I always asked that question even to her ex-cabinet members. Was there a cabinet meeting where she said this is the centerpiece?”
In 1987, when Mrs. Aquino, born a Cojuangco, began carrying out land redistribution, the government estimated that 10 percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the country’s agricultural land.
The government says that under the program it has redistributed 10 million acres of privately owned land and 7.4 million acres of public land, allowing each farming family to acquire up to 7.4 acres with government-backed loans. The government says owners who relinquish land have received compensation; for sugar estates, the payment is $2,000 per acre.
Last year, the government extended the program to redistribute 2.5 million acres of “problematic lands” that the authorities have been unable to distribute “because of the resistance of some big landowners,” said Nasser C. Pangandaman, the secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform.
Mr. Pangandaman described the program as a success. But most farmers’ groups, scholars and businessmen question the department’s figures.
“The department has never provided us with a clear and credible inventory of the lands that have been distributed,” said Rafael V. Mariano, a congressman who is a member of Anakpawis, a union-based political party.
What is more, lawmakers, most of whom come from large landowning families, included loopholes in the program, critics say.
“Because of the loopholes, landlords have been able to find all sorts of ways and means to recover their land,” said Roland G. Simbulan, a professor of development studies and public management at the University of the Philippines.
The biggest loophole, critics say, was a stock and profit-sharing program that Mrs. Aquino agreed to under pressure from large landlords. Instead of redistributing their land, about a dozen families, including her own, were allowed to turn farmers into shareholders.
The government eventually found that the Cojuangcos had violated the agreement by failing to share profits with the farmers and ordered that the land be distributed, said Mr. Pangandaman of the agrarian reform department.
Mr. Cojuangco said the ruling was a politically motivated attack against his family. The family company treated the workers well, providing health care, homes for some, interest-free loans and a guaranteed minimum wage, he said.
The farm workers at Hacienda Luisita voted in favor of the stock and profit-sharing program in 1989. But because of the decline of the sugar industry and mechanization, the amount of available work diminished steeply so that some farmers were working only one day a week by the late 1990s, said farmers and union officials.
Since the 2004 strike, many have been unable to return to work at the hacienda even as they lacked the funds to buy the seedlings and fertilizer necessary to plant crops on land they are occupying.
In a barrio called Paunawa, Esmeraldo Alcantara, 42, was one of several frustrated jobless men collecting brush to sell for about 30 cents a bundle.
“If I had land and capital, that would be ideal,” said Mr. Alcantara, who controlled a two-acre plot that he had given up trying to plant. “But since I don’t, going back to work at the hacienda would be better. But I can’t do that, either.”
A sign at the village entrance warns motorcyclists wearing helmets or bandanas to stay out — a reminder of the tumultuous strike, when union officials, farmers and supporters were assassinated, sometimes by hit men riding motorcycles. (The Philippine military, which accuses farm leaders of being tied to the Communist rebellion, is believed to be behind these kinds of killings.)
Mr. Cojuangco said he was not afraid of venturing into the hacienda that his family has controlled for three generations.
“I can go out there to the barrios,” he said.
Lito Bais, the head of the farm workers’ union, said, “If that’s true, then why isn’t he doing that?”
“I believe that as long as the Cojuangcos are here, they’ll never give up the land,” Mr. Bais said. “And as long as we’re here, we’ll never give up the struggle for this land.”