Farmers Ask Supreme Court: Reject Luisita Deal

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

MANILA, Philippines - A group of farmer-beneficiaries of Hacienda Luisita Inc. asked the Supreme Court (SC) yesterday to nullify the compromise agreement signed by HLI with a faction of the farmers earlier this month.

The farmer-beneficiaries belonging to the Alyansa ng mga Manggagawang Bukid sa Hacienda Luisita (AMBALA) said they were misrepresented in the signing of the deal last Aug. 6.

The group urged the high court to reject the agreement and consider it void for carrying the stock distribution option (SDO), a scheme whose legality is being questioned before the SC.

AMBALA, in a 30-page petition, urged the SC to proceed with the oral arguments set for tomorrow and resolve the case based on the issues presented.

The compromise agreement gave farmers the choice to retain shares of the company under the SDO scheme, as was agreed upon in 1989, or own a parcel of land in the plantation.

Around 1,400 hectares comprising a third of the 6,500-hectare hacienda will be put up for distribution. The agreement also includes a P150-million financial assistance for the 12,000 farmer-beneficiaries of HLI.
The agreement was signed by HLI and representatives of the AMBALA, ULWU and the Supervisory Group of HLI.

AMBALA, however, pointed out the resolution of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) in 2005 that revoked the stock distribution option is still legally binding since the scheme was found to be in violation of the CARP law.

“Therefore the compromise agreement should not be considered at all,” AMBALA lawyer Jobert Pahilga said.

“The alleged overwhelming majority who chose to remain under the stock distribution option scheme did not cure the illegality and invalidity of the stock distribution option,” the group said.

The SC earlier took over the question of the legality of the stock distribution option scheme under the memorandum of agreement signed between HLI and the farmers in 1989.

The stock distribution option plan was recalled by DAR in 2005 following complaints that the scheme defeated the purpose of CARP and put them at a disadvantage.

The HLI immediately filed a petition before the SC in February 2006 seeking the invalidation of the DAR order recalling the stock distribution option agreement.

AMBALA stressed the compromise deal signed on Aug. 6 violated Section 65 of the CARP law, citing for instance, the waiver to question the conversion and development of the land to non-agricultural use.

The petitioners also claimed the agreement had violated Section 4 of the CARP law, which provides that agricultural land in excess of five hectares shall be distributed to farmers, while the landowner shall be given just compensation for the value of the land.

Under the CARP’s compulsory or mandated land acquisition scheme, the government will pay the landowner the cost of the property that will be distributed to the farmers.

The land value of Luisita will be assessed to determine the cost.

AMBALA also claimed HLI conducted a referendum among the farmers before the deal was signed, which undermined the jurisdiction of the SC over the case.

AMBALA said the management should have asked permission from the SC before conducting the survey among farmers and forging the deal with the farmers since the case is already under judicial jurisdiction.

The HLI had submitted to the SC a copy of the compromise agreement, urging the high court to approve and consider the deal with the farmers as a positive step towards the implementation of CARP.

The SC, however, cautioned the compromise agreement submitted by HLI would not automatically resolve their dispute and divest the high court of jurisdiction over the case.

Misrepresentation


In the same petition, AMBALA claimed they have been misrepresented in the deal, accusing the supposed signatory, Noel Mallari, of being a fake.


“Mr. Mallari, who claims to be the president of AMBALA, has never been president of the said organization and he had long been ousted there from acts inimical to the interest of the farm workers… He had long been not a member or officer of the group,” they said.


AMBALA, now led by Felix Nacpil, said they have already clarified this issue with the SC in a manifestation last January.


“This case is not just an ordinary intra-corporate issue. The issue here is social justice for farmers under the agrarian reform law,” AMBALA lawyer Pahilga said.

They also alleged that Eldifonso Pingol, another signatory in the deal representing the United Luisita Workers’ Union (ULWU), has no authority to represent the union.

They said ULWU did not appoint Pingol to represent them in the signing of the agreement on Aug. 6.

AMBALA urged the high court to order the immediate distribution of the remaining agricultural lands to the farmer-beneficiaries.


At the same time, another labor dispute in Hacienda Luisita was heard by the Court of Appeals (CA) yesterday.


The Central Azucarera de Tarlac (CAT), which operates a sugar mill and refinery, distillery and carbon dioxide plants in Barrio San Miguel in Tarlac, asked the CA’s special 17th division to stop the implementation of an order of National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) last year to compensate the plantation’s security guards in the amount of P4.35 million in back wages.


The CA is reviewing a ruling issued by the NLRC on Feb. 26 last year that found CAT liable, along with security agencies Evergreen Security Services and Limbas Investigation and Security Agency, to pay the security guards their separation pay and full back wages from 2004.


Rommel Reyes, one of the security guards seeking compensation from CAT, told the CA that a total of 116 security personnel were initially involved in the complaint but only eight were left to pursue the case before the NLRC since the others opted for an out-of-court settlement.


Reyes said they were forced to resign from their work due to nonpayment of their salaries.


He said CAT stopped paying their salaries following the Luisita massacre incident where hundreds of workers of the sugar plantation staged a violent strike in 2004 to demand the reinstatement of some of their colleagues who were dismissed by management.


The strike prompted CAT to cease operations until December 2005, when all the striking union members were allowed to return to work.

Hands off

President Aquino yesterday said he would leave resolution of the issue between the family-owned hacienda and its workers to the concerned parties, stressing the parties themselves know what is in their best interest in forging the deal.

The President added he is not in a position to meddle in the talks between the HLI and the farmers since he had no interest in the management of the sugar plantation.


He said he left the decision to his relatives in the management of the sugar plantation since “I have divested myself of any interests there.”


“But who has interests there now? Farmer-beneficiaries and members of my family and other stockholders. The question now is, who is in the best position to know what should happen to them? I believe the ones who are directly involved, and not those outside making comments, would know where the corporation should go,” Mr. Aquino pointed out.


The President made the statement after being criticized for keeping his distance from the Luisita case since his relatives own the land and the corporation that manages the sugar plantation.


Mr. Aquino visited his family’s residence in Luisita over the weekend but said he neither talked with the farmers nor with HLI management. The President went to the hacienda for a short break while the farmers were lining up for the financial package offered to them by HLI.

“I adopted a hands off policy for me to act properly,” he said.


If he would interfere in the negotiations, Mr. Aquino said it would appear that he was imposing on the parties concerned.


The President said he made a promise to the people that they would be his boss and the farmers as well as the HLI management were part of those he would want to serve.

“They are the ones who have interests there, so they should tell me directly the direction they want to take,” he said.


Mr. Aquino also said he did not want to make any comment since it would be seen as prejudging the issue that is now under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.


On the other hand, Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, head of the social arm of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said Mr. Aquino would likely adopt the stand of DAR that did not honor the stock distribution option scheme offered by Hacienda Luisita.

Pabillo pointed out the recommendation made by Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) in shooting down the stock distribution option scheme as illegal was adopted by DAR.


“The position of the PARC, that is the position of the government, so naturally that is also the position of the President,” Pabillo said.


According to Pabillo, Malacañang had assured him that “they would support the position of the PARC.”


Pabillo earlier urged President Aquino to show “leadership by example” by intervening in the issue and upholding the interests of the farmers.


Pabillo asked that the compromise agreement be set aside to allow the genuine process of agrarian reform.

He said HLI should not insist on offering the stock distribution option to the farmers since the legality of the scheme has been questioned before the SC. 
 With Aurea Calica, Evelyn Macairan, Sandy Araneta - By Edu Punay (Philstar News Service, www.philstar.com) 

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