Hopes Rise at Family's Hacienda : Vexing Land Reform Issue a Crucial Test for Aquino

Times Staff Writer

It is the season for cutting sugar cane here, and on the Hacienda Luisita, the family plantation of President Corazon Aquino, the fieldworkers have fallen as usual into the rhythm of days in the fields, nights in the barrios.

The cane cutters, most of them migrants, are paid an average of 35 pesos a day, about $1.75. They have few possessions, and they often live in homes with no electricity. Of late, though, they have begun to hope for a change for the better.

"We will make money," said Carlos Ambrosia, 24, who was born on the hacienda and is raising two children here. "We are looking for a bright future now."

The cause of their optimism is the election of Aquino, the woman who sometimes occupies the white ranch home with the cared-for lawn in the five-house compound up the road from the cane fields, near the hacienda's private airstrip and golf course.

In the campaign leading up to last month's presidential election, Aquino promised the Philippine people a fairer share of the ownership and benefits of the land. She pledged specifically to use her family estate, the Hacienda Luisita, as a model for land reform throughout the Philippines.

"I shall sit down with my family to explore how the twin goals of maximum productivity and dispersal of ownership and benefits can be exemplified for the rest of the nation in Hacienda Luisita," she told a campaign audience on the island of Mindanao.

In the face of growing agrarian unrest and peasant-based insurgent movements, Philippine governments have been espousing the cause of land reform for decades. Jaime Tadeo, chairman of the Peasant Movement of the Philippines, says that since 1935 "they have been promising a genuine land-reform program; so far, it's just a promise."

The United States has done some occasional prodding in this direction. As early as 1952, a high-powered American mission recommended land reform and elimination of graft and corruption as top priorities for this country. So far, though, there has been little change in the structure of rural Philippine society.

In some places, land reform has never even been tried. In others, it has been carried out in such a way as to produce a class of debt-ridden tenants forced to sell or mortgage their rights back to their landlords--somewhat like the sharecroppers in the American South after the Civil War.

The land reform issue raises the broader question of whether Aquino and her government will represent merely a perpetuation of the old Philippine social elite, as skeptics on both left and right suggest, or whether she has the will and political strength to bring about a more even distribution of income.

Five years ago, writing about Aquino's late husband, Benigno S. Aquino Jr., a prominent Filipino predicted that an Aquino government would be "nothing more than a change of political personnel" and went on to say: "Superficial reforms would affect only an insignificant segment of the population. Otherwise, things would be as they had always been: Social injustice, economic stagnation and political strife would continue to dominate the national scene."

Marcos the Writer

The writer was Ferdinand E. Marcos, the recently deposed president, and his remarks appeared in a short book entitled "Progress and Martial Law."

Such criticism has been revived here since Aquino took office and named her Cabinet. Nick Elman of the May 1 Movement, a workers' group affiliated with Bayan, a left-wing umbrella organization, observed: "There is no member of the Cabinet who belongs to the broad mass base. This is an elite government."

Yet Elman said his organization is backing the Aquino government, for now. And others argue that the political climate is more conducive to social change now than ever before.

Prof. Maria Aurora Carbonell-Catilo, a professor at the University of the Philippines, said: "You cannot deny the class origins of Cory Aquino, but the countervailing forces are there at work now--the church, the media, the people themselves, who can get organized at a moment's notice.

"The important thing is the experience that every Filipino has had under Marcos. He has been burned, he has had poverty and hard times. He knows he has a stake in the political system, and that feeling can't easily be set aside."

Hacienda's Phones Tapped

The Hacienda Luisita, in particular, felt some of the political effects of the Marcos era. In the 1970s, when Benigno Aquino, then Marcos' chief political rival, was in prison, the hacienda's phones were tapped and its airstrip was closed.

Aracelino G. Sutto, manager of the hacienda's services group, said: "We were not allowed to use planes. We couldn't even use radios."

Socially, however, the hacienda has not changed much since 1957, when Corazon Aquino's family, the Cojuangcos, bought the plantation--about 17,300 acres--and its mill.

"The idea," Benigno Aquino once told the writer Nick Joaquin, "was to buy the hacienda, turn it into a viable operation, then subdivide it and sell it either to the workers or to agricultural cooperatives."

But the idea never came about. Benigno Aquino, who admitted that he "didn't know sugar from corn," took over the management of the hacienda in 1958. He settled some labor problems, brought in a mobile health clinic and imported university sociologists and Jesuit priests to study the lives of the workers. He talked of offering the tenants what he called "cradle-to-grave" welfare benefits.

Sugar Profits Increase

He also worked hard to increase production. Under his management, sugar output reached levels never achieved before, and so did profits.

But, in 1959, Benigno Aquino ran for vice-governor of Tarlac province. From then on, he devoted himself largely to politics and was jailed for nearly eight years after Marcos declared martial law in 1972. In 1983, after three years of self-imposed exile, mostly in the United States, he returned to the Philippines and was shot to death as he got off the plane.

Sutto, who began working at the hacienda in 1963, said that he saw Benigno Aquino only three times.

"We would brief him on what was going on here before visitors came," Sutto said.

Today, the hacienda is managed primarily by President Aquino's brother, Jose Cojuangco, who works out of the same Manila office building that recently served as Aquino's campaign headquarters. (He is a cousin of Eduardo Cojuangco Jr., a wealthy businessman and former ambassador who was one of Marcos's principal allies.)

Hacienda Employs 6,100

The hacienda has about 4,300 workers in the field and 1,800 in the sugar mill, which dates back to 1928. All the workers are unionized except for the migrant cane cutters, who are paid on the basis of how much they cut. The land itself is still owned by the Cojuangco-Aquino family, as it has been for nearly three decades.

In the recent election campaign, Marcos seized on the hacienda in an effort to challenge Corazon Aquino's credentials as a reformer.

"Opponents have a tendency to classify our society into rich and poor," Marcos said in a speech. "Look at their own household first. The source of their wealth is . . . the sweat of their tenants."

No previous Philippine government has gone further than Marcos' in the direction of land reform. In 1972, Marcos signed a law requiring the breakup of agricultural lands of more than 17.3 acres and the eventual transfer of these properties to tenants living on them.

Reform Move Discounted

Marcos took action on land reform soon after he declared martial law, and many observers here argue that it was a political move aimed at shoring up domestic and international support for his government.

"It was an attempt by Mr. Marcos to co-opt the programs of the left," said Gabriel U. Iglesias, dean of the college of public administration of the University of the Philippines.

Conrado F. Estrella, Marcos' minister of agrarian reform, asserted last October that since its inception the program had benefited about a million families living on more than 5.4 million acres. But critics say it was poorly carried out and was designed in a way that provided little economic help to the farmers.

The program applied only to rice and corn lands, for example. A foreign economist said that "it looked terrific but didn't touch the big sugar and coconut boys." And in 1977, the Marcos government held that land that had been planted in sugar cane but was then changed to rice, corn or vegetables was also not subject to land reform.

Even where Marcos' land reform was carried out, the effect was to give small plots of land to former tenants who had no money for fertilizer or equipment or for marketing their produce, and who quickly wound up in debt to money lenders or their former landlords.

'Reverse Land Reform'

In some cases, the result was what came to be called "reverse land reform." People who had received small plots of land sold the rights to it back to the landlords. Technically, this is illegal, but landlords have found ways around it by having the former tenants sign documents saying they have become employees.

Dr. Ponciano B. Intai, chairman of the economics department of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos, reported in a policy paper that Marcos' land reform was at first a success but later became moribund. Intai found that there were instances of what amounted to "reversals to share tenancy."

Under the traditional arrangement, tenants turned over a portion of their harvest, often as much as 50%, to their landlords. In exchange, the landlords often provided credit, tools, and other support. Critics say Marcos' reform eliminated the benevolent side of this relationship and offered no substitute for it.

"To the peasant, the landlord is a multifaceted guy," Iglesias said. "He is a brother, a friend, a person to borrow money from. When you just replace him with some government office, that's not enough. This is why the peasant rebellion has continued."

New Kind of Landlord

Prof. Carbonell-Catilo, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Marcos' land reform, notes that under Marcos' program, the peasants found themselves dealing in effect with a new kind of landlord, the corporations that sold them supplies.

"Maybe the landlord is not one guy now, but impersonal agents like fertilizer dealers," she said. "Agriculture is 70% of the Philippines. It's a big market for these transnational corporations."

Advocates of land reform contend that Aquino should greatly expand the scope of Marcos' program and see that it is properly carried out.

"We want genuine land reform," the Peasant Movement's Tadeo said. "The Marcos program covered only 13% of the total area. We believe in dismantling the land monopolies."

Proponents of reform also think Aquino should provide greater financial support for the peasants receiving new lands and should encourage the formation of agricultural cooperatives so that peasants can own small plots of land or shares of an estate and yet work together to run a large tract as a single operation.

Rapid Population Growth

Yet even those who strongly favor land reform admit that it will not solve all the problems of the rural Philippines, where the population is rapidly increasing.

"You can't pin all your hopes on land reform," Carbonell-Catilo said. "You can't just fragment the land indefinitely. You have to have labor-intensive industries in the rural areas, too."

Aquino, in her principal campaign speech on land reform, embraced many of these recommendations, promising the people "a more equitable sharing of the benefits and ownership of the land which is God's gift to you."

"Together we will seek viable systems of land reform," she said. ". . . You will probably ask me, will I also apply it to may family's Hacienda Luisita? My answer is yes."

At the hacienda, though, there are few signs of impending change. Officials running the place say they fear that land reform might be disastrous for everyone at the hacienda.

"If there are 6,000 families and you Give them each one hectare (about 2.47 acres), what will happen to them?" asked Nereo Mendoza, assistant resident manager of the hacienda. "They can't survive on one hectare."

Sugar Industry Depressed

The Philippine sugar industry is in an extremely depressed condition, and Hacienda Luisita officials said that their sugar mill may be one of the few to survive. The hacienda's cane-growing operations are already losing money, they said, but the plantation continues to make a profit because of its mill, which processes cane not only from the hacienda but from plantations nearby.

"Right now, how can you do it (land reform), when the price of sugar is so low?" Mendoza said in an interview in his office, which was filled with production charts and printouts. "You can't take the risk. Right now, the yield is 70 to 80 tons of cane per hectare. What would happen if we went down to 40 tons?"

The plantation faces a chronic problem with squatters, people who live there although they are not employees. At one point, soon after the Cojuangco family bought the hacienda, Benigno Aquino drew up an extensive program to build housing, provide necessities and attract outside investment into the area to help such people.

Hacienda Plans Reexamined

Hacienda officials say this program was never carried out, because Marcos, after he was elected president in 1965, cut off all credit and government aid that might have benefited the Aquino hacienda. But now, Benigno Aquino's plans for social programs are being dusted off and reexamined.

Still, Mendoza said he doubts that President Aquino will carry out land reform at the Hacienda Luisita merely for its own sake or because of her campaign commitment.

"No, I don't think she will be that irresponsible," he said. "You just don't do it that way. We have a moral responsibility, not just to our own people but to the whole province. If this mill fails, it will affect the entire area."

Protacio S. Navarro, president of the United Luisita Workers Union, which represents some of the workers, said he believes that in line with Aquino's campaign promise the Hacienda land "should be divided among the legitimate residents in this area."

'Forced to Toe Line'

Navarro was a Marcos man, and in the campaign he supported the complaints by Marcos forces that the Aquino plantation has exploited its workers. Talking with a reporter, he sought to justify his campaign conduct as follows: "As a party man, I had to support Marcos. They forced us to toe the line."

There are indications that some hacienda officials may seek to punish Navarro for his criticism. Rizalino Juliano, identified as a senior aide to Jose Cojuangco, President Aquino's brother, said of the pro-Marcos union leader: "That --- of a -----. There will be a time of accounting."

Amid the euphoria of the Aquino victory, the hopes for land reform and new prosperity have spread through the barrios of the hacienda. But already hacienda officials are trying to dampen the expectations.

"I think the people here will be disappointed," Sutto said. "I've been trying to tell the boys this is a business entity. They can't expect special privileges just because Mrs. Aquino owns this land. This is a business enterprise, and it has to make money."

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