After the strike ended more than two years ago, the HLI farm workers have been planting rice and vegetables providing them with income and food. But more than the earnings, they find fulfillment in cultivating the land that is rightfully theirs.
BY DABET CASTAÑEDA
Vol. VII, No. 28, August 19-25, 2007
Hacienda Luisita, Tarlac (125 kms. north of Manila) – The small dikes that separate the parcels of farmland are all wet and muddy. The newly planted rice stalks are bent in different directions. The stalks of string beans are jumbled alongside a forest of tall grass while a stretch of kamoteng kahoy (cassava), miniature eggplants and green chili are scattered just beside a hut.
It is only the second day of the planting season for 71-year old Perfecto Versola, or Mang Pering, and his family. It coincided with the second day of Typhoon Egay, the strongest storm to hit the country so far this year, and the farm workers are all soaked up including Mang Pering who has been suffering from asthma for the last two days. Even his grandchildren who just came from school that day join the farm hands rebuild the small dikes that have eroded while the old man’s polio-stricken daughter help out in the weeding process.
The Versola family started to cultivate 2.2 hectares of land here in Barangay Balete March this year planting vegetables for a start. It is the first time since more than five decades ago that farm workers in Hacienda Luisita are able to produce food crops for their own consumption.
“Nung araw, kahit kulitis hindi namin pwedeng pitasin,” Mang Pering said. “Hindi rin kami pwedeng magtanim kahit sa loob ng bakuran namin.” (Before, we could not pluck even the wild amaranth. We were also prohibited to plant anything not even beside our homes.)
It was in 1957 that the Cojuangco family of Tarlac, clan of former President Corazon Cojuangco-Aquino, acquired the 6,000-hectare sugar producing hacienda from its Spanish-owners, the Compania General de Tabacos de Filipinas (Tabacalera) using government funds.
In 1988 during Pres. Cojuangco-Aquino’s term, the hacienda was placed under the government’s agrarian reform program through a new scheme known as the Stock Distribution Option (SDO). This paved the way for the Cojuangcos to convert the 6,000-hectare hacienda to a 4,000-hectare family-owned corporation (the Hacienda Luisita, Inc. or HLI) and gave farm workers shares of stocks instead of actual land parcels.
The SDO scheme combined with the mechanization of the sugar farm process has led to decline of the farm workers’ basic pay which, since the early 1990s, has dwindled to a suffocating P9.50 ($0.20 at an exchange rate of $1=P46.60)a day and has resulted in the retrenchment of hundreds of farm workers.