Feudalism, to many parts of the world, is a remnant of an archaic past. A chapter in human history where an oligarchic few controlled the lives of many.
In the Philippines, on the other hand, feudal landlords still exist. While the upper class have reaped the rewards of steady economic growth in the past decade, which has also expanded the middle class – the lowest rung of our society have languished in destitution.
Despite being an agricultural nation, so much of those employed in this sector are in dire poverty. Their fortunes are controlled by a wealthy elite who have held on to their dominant landholdings.
The most noteworthy example of a struggle between the peasant-class and the elite landlords occurred twelve years ago today, in what is now known as the Hacienda Luisita Massacre.
On the 6th of November 2004, thousands of farm workers and sympathetic activists barricaded the gates of Hacienda Luisita – one of the major sugar plantations in the Philippines.
In what should have been a rally for better wages, more humane working conditions and land reform the event culminated into a bloodbath that saw the deaths of at least seven activists and more than 100 injured.
The perpetrators were members of the armed forces, the military and police forces sent hundreds of armed enforcers to the site of the rally upon the request of the landowners – who are members of the influential Cojuangco family.
This powerful clan includes former presidents Corazon Aquino and her son, Benigno Aquino III. They are not only powerful politically, the Cojuangcos are also among the pioneers of the sugar and banking industries in the country.
The protesters were mostly farm workers who had stopped operations and went on strike, pressuring the landlords to take action or else face pecuniary losses.
Despite the union leaders, who were acting as spokespersons for the rallyists, still in active negotiations with the landlords, on the 16th of November security forces opened fire at the demonstrators.
The reasoning given for such a brutish use of force was that the demonstrators became too rowdy, with police and military citing instances where they were pushed back by the activists who greatly outnumbered them.
That excuse does not satisfy when taking into account the fact that many of the wounded had gunshot wounds on their backs, seemingly collating the claim by activists that they were running away from the military when they got shot.
The influential Cojuangco family have stakes in farming, banking and their control of Hacienda Luisita was financed by a government loan in 1957.
The hacienda – an inheritance from the sugar plantation system practiced during Spanish colonial times – is a massive area of land, at 6,000 hectares. This makes it larger in size than Makati City and Pasig City – two of the country’s most modern cities.
It also is the country’s biggest source of sugar, and during the American colonial period it supplied 20% of the U.S. sugar import at its peak.
The facility not only includes a sugar mill and vast sugar cane fields, but also a class-exclusive country club – the Luisita Golf and Country Club – complete with a spa, swimming pool and golf course.
During the Marcos regime, there were attempts to have the Cojuangcos cede control of Hacienda Luisita to be placed back under the Ministry of Agrarian Reform to be redistributed to the farmers at a compensation to the family.
The courts sided with the government, but an appeal by the family delayed the process until 1988 when Cory Aquino was already president.
In 1986, after the ousting of the Marcos regime and the start of the administration of Corazon Cojuangco Aquino the property was listed to be among those redistributed in then-president Aquino’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
The promise was made even though she was part of the Cojuangco clan that had ownership over the plantation.
Thus, it came as no surprise that her promise quickly changed in 1988 – when, instead of a land distribution the Hacienda Luisita would instead be put under a stock distribution option.
The succeeding years would see the peasant-workers slide deeper into poverty, with deregulation and poor crop harvests pushing them into a worse state than they were before the Aquino era.
Mood for change
In 2003, protests occurred sporadically – led by farm workers and other activist groups calling for the redistribution of land as promised under CARP.
That same year, they had petitioned the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to revoke the stock distribution option and to set the tone for land redistribution instead.
The workers had also formed a collective bargaining union, where they sought higher wages and better work conditions – all falling on deaf ears.
The following year, the events which would spark the uprising among farm workers occurred which led to the massacre. To this day, many farmers are still living in dire conditions – subservient to a powerful family holding a monopoly on the yields of the plantation.
During that year, future-president Benigno Aquino III was still a congressman in his home province of Tarlac. In the aftermath of the bloodshed, Rep. Aquino gave a privilege speech in Congress condemning the incident and calling for a swift resolution of justice.
Died in vain?
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the farmers. It mandated the total distribution of Hacienda Luisita to farmers, based on 1989 land valuations.
This was at the height of the Benigno “Noy” Aquino presidency, where the resolution of the Hacienda Luisita land dispute was one of the cornerstones of his campaign.
However, in 2015 the peasants watchdog Luisita Watch issued a statement condemning the promises of Aquino as nothing but a “sham”.
“Full of deception, violence and landgrabbing” is how the group called the process. With many citing that lands re-divided into other land holdings have been exempted from the court ruling.
The sugar mill at the hacienda has also been sold to another private buyer, rendering the workers unable to process sugar canes on their own and instead relying again on another affluent feudal lord.
Aquino promised a complete land distribution by 2014, however thousands of hectares have yet to be distributed – not only in Luisita but in the rest of the country as well.
The farmers have also condemned the coercive use of armed forces to facilitate the land distribution, with many citing cases of harassment during the course of the proceedings.
There has been no individual held liable for the deaths of seven activists during that grim day on November 16th, 2004. In July of 2005, the Office of the Ombudsman dismissed murder charges against parties involved.
A decade after the event, the aggrieved families filed a petition to reopen the case. The claimants argued that the NBI, who investigated the incident, failed to ask for their statements in their investigation.
The outcome of this endeavor is still in the air, but with an incumbent president who is staunchly against the Aquino family and who has extensive links to peasant-movements we might see this case make more inroads into achieving justice for the victims.
Lessons for the rest of the country
The case of Hacienda Luisita has been cast in the spotlight only because of the high-profile individuals involved.
There are similar cases of farm workers being mistreated, and of redistributed lands being confiscated by wealthy landlords but do not get the same airtime.
President Duterte caught everyone’s attentions when he declared himself the first “left-wing Filipino president”, alluding to his links with labour unions all over the country and his ties with the rural, farmer class.
The president should take this moniker seriously and push for reforms that will benefit these demographics, particularly as they have been ignored for so long.