Sugar cane farmers, mostly from the vast plantation owned by the family of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, at a protest in Quezon last year. Pic: AP.

Long-delayed reforms remain elusive, reports Asia Sentinel

Despite a 2012 Philippine Supreme Court order requiring the family of President Benigno S. Aquino III to redistribute its vast Hacienda Luisita sugar plantation to poor farmers, critics say the pace of divestiture is slow and that redistribution targets are not being met.

Nor, say activists, is the powerful Cojuangco dynasty alone. They say the program is problematic and running well behind schedule, with impoverished beneficiaries who do get redistributed properties often leasing them back under the table to the landowners who were forced to divest, and with poverty rates increasing among those who do get the property.

Farm advocates say that although the Rancho Luisita divestment is moving ahead, the Cojuangco family is being paid far too much for its land by the government, and that forced evictions and destruction of farmers’ homes continue, with Tarlac Province police and private security guards clashing with farmers in early February.

The land is controlled by the Tarlac Development Corporation, known as Tadeco, which is owned by the Cojuangco clan. President Aquino is related to the family through his late mother, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, the daughter of Jose Cojuangco, the family patriarch. Despite his position as a lightning rod in the controversy, the president plays no role in either the family businesses or the plantation.

In 1987, attempts to push reform forward resulted in an episode called the Mendiola Massacre when state security forces in Manila violently dispersed a farmer’s march on Malacañang Palace, then occupied by Corazon. Thirteen farmers were killed and many more were wounded.

Tadeco says the lands the farmers are being evicted from are not part of the 6,000-hectare sugar plantation that is covered by the reform program. The activists and farmers disagree, saying the lands do come under the program. Under its provisions, all lands exceeding seven hectares were to be bought by the government and resold to the landless farmers.

On Feb. 11, farm activists and leaders of the Catholic Church rallied at Malacañang to demand that the acquisition program be extended. It was supposed to have ended in 2012 but was extended by the Congress to this coming June. The farmers say land distribution targets aren’t being met and that politically influential families and the national government itself own more than half of the land that has yet to be distributed.

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