November - December 2008
Minding mining
Dispute over Hacienda Bacan

Mike Arroyo claim stalls land reform in Negros

GETTING the land — not landing in jail — was the hope Alexander Celis nurtured when he and other Negros farmers trekked recently to the Land Registration Authority (LRA) office in Quezon City. The main reason for their trip was merely to convince President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to speed up agrarian reform in a Negros sugar plantation being linked to her husband, First Gentleman Jose Miguel ‘Mike’ Arroyo.

The 35-year-old Celis says the 157-hectare Hacienda Bacan in Negros Occidental’s Guintubhan village in Isabela town was among the pieces of agricultural land owned by the Arroyo family. In 2001, the President promised to distribute this and other Arroyo landholdings to farmers under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

“Seven years have passed but we remain landless,” says Celis. “Worse, we were imprisoned for simply asking President Arroyo to fulfill her own promise.”

Parang niloloko kami (We can’t help but feel that we are being fooled),” he adds. “Habang pinaglalaban namin ang karapatan namin sa lupa, lalo nila kaming pinahihirapan. Hinaharangan nila ang CARP sa bawa’t kilos namin. (The more we assert our rights to the land, the more they make it difficult for us. They are blocking CARP every step of the way).”

JAILED FOR THE ‘PROMISED’ LAND. Negros farmers land in jail after asking President Arroyo to fulfill her promise of giving up the hacienda that reportedly belongs to her husband. [photo by AR Sabangan]

Law circa 1998

Republic Act No. 6657 instituted the CARP in 1988 to promote social justice through a mechanism for more equitable distribution and ownership of land. It originally had a lifespan of 10 years, but was extended for another 10 years in 1998 due to delays in land distribution and lack of budget allocation. There are moves in the present Congress to further extend it, with at least 65 percent of agricultural lands still not covered by CARP.

Last Thursday (November 27), the police arrested nine (including Celis) of the 30 or so protesting farmers and detained them at Central Police District’s Station 10 in Kamuning for allegedly violating Article 146 of the Revised Penal Code.

Article 146 prohibits assemblies or meetings that have to do with crimes of treason, rebellion, or insurrection, and carrying of unlicensed firearms by participants. The LRA filed the complaint against the farmers.

Witnesses to the farmers’ picket at the LRA office have been clear and consistent: They did not hear the farmers call for President Arroyo’s ouster or the overthrow of her administration. Neither did they see the farmers carry any weapon during the assembly.

“We were just shouting, urging the President not to renege on her promise,” Celis says. “We were just reminding her that she has to give the hacienda to us, and that the LRA should also help us get the land.”

LRA is an agency under the Department of Justice that is mandated, among others, to provide legal and technical assistance to the courts on land registration cases. It is also tasked to extend assistance to other agencies of the government in the implementation of the agrarian reform program.

On Friday, the farmers were freed after the LRA dropped the complaint amid calls of support for the farmers’ cause from religious and civil society groups. But it may take more doing before Hacienda Bacan is turned over — if at all — to the likes of Celis. After all, the CARP ends this month and, according to the farmers, they are up against no less than the President’s husband.

Location map of Isabela, Negros Occidental courtesy of Wikipedia

Gloria’s offer

Based on the calculations of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), it takes only about five to 15 months for a landholding to be acquired and distributed to farmer-beneficiaries under CARP. The process supposedly becomes faster when the landowner voluntarily offers his or her farm for agrarian reform.

Section 3 of RA 6657 defines agrarian reform as the “redistribution of lands, regardless of crops or fruits produced, to farmers and regular farm workers who are landless.” It also pertains to “all other arrangements alternative to the physical redistribution of lands, such as production or profit-sharing, labor administration and the distribution of shares of stock which will allow beneficiaries to receive a just share of the fruits of the lands they work.”

Landlords are supposed to retain only a maximum of five hectares of the lands covered by CARP, and three hectares for each of their children. The rest should be distributed to the farmer-tillers.

Many landlords, however, have found a loophole to avoid relinquishing their lands: land reclassification. Lands classified by local zoning ordinances as residential, commercial, and industrial lands are excluded from CARP.

By its public statements, the Arroyo family, though, did not seem to be among such clans. The President’s offer of Arroyo land for CARP seven years ago was quickly followed by another voluntary offer by her brother-in-law, the First Gentleman’s younger sibling, Ignacio ‘Iggy’ Arroyo. Yet it was only in 2007 that DAR was able to start processing the claims of the Bacan farmers who encountered last month yet another obstacle at the Registry of Deeds (ROD).

“It was delaying reform in the hacienda,” says farmhand Rogelio Salva, 58, describing the hurdle they found themselves facing at the ROD. “So we had no choice but to elevate our claim to the LRA.”

To effect the transfer of the ownership of the land to farmers, the ROD in Negros Occidental must cancel the hacienda’s original title so that this could be transferred to the Republic of the Philippines. This would then enable the DAR to eventually generate certificates of land ownership award (CLOAs) for the farmers.

The ROD, however, did not cancel the land’s original title named under Rivulet Agro-Industrial Corporation because the ROD wanted to include the name of the President’s husband in the P42.31-million certificate of cash deposit (COD) representing payment to Rivulet.

The multimillion-peso certificate would serve as compensation to Rivulet after the DAR takes away the hacienda from the firm and places the property under the CARP.

Records from the Office of the Treasurer of Isabela town show that Jose Miguel Arroyo bought the hacienda from Rivulet through a public auction on April 8, 1994. At the time, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was still a senator.

Isabela treasurer Araceli Garcia certified that the “delinquent property declared in the name of Rivulet was “sold…to Mr. Jose Miguel Arroyo” for only P176,722.89, which was actually the total amount of property taxes and penalties that Rivulet failed to pay for the hacienda in 1989, and from 1990 to 1993. The property’s value during the time of the auction was P1.04 million.

The sale became final on March 27, 1996 when Enrique Pinongan, provincial treasurer of Negros Occidental, issued a “Final Bill of Sale” that said Bacan “was sold to Mr. Jose Miguel Arroyo…married to Gloria M. Arroyo.”

This would then help explain why, in a letter dated Nov. 14, 2008, lawyer Romulo E. Gonzaga of the ROD in Negros Occidental, had refused to cancel Rivulet’s title. Instead, he advised provincial agrarian reform officer (PARO) Teresita Depeñoso to “effect the correction” of the COD issued by the Land Bank of the Philippines by including the First Gentleman’s name as landowner.

Gonzaga also said that should the DAR fail to comply with the correction of the COD, the department’s request to transfer Rivulet’s title to the Republic of the Philippines “will be denied, thus we will return all the documents to your end.”

HELP US GET THE LAND. Negros farmers picket at the LRA office in Quezon City, urging the government to hasten the distribution of the 157-hectare Hacienda Bacan. [photo by AR Sabangan]

Mike wins auction

Returning the documents that contain the farmers’ claim over the hacienda would further delay the award of Bacan to its tillers. The farmers thus went posthaste to Manila to convince the LRA to intervene and cancel the property’s original title.

Interestingly, the First Gentleman has denied that he has taken control over the hacienda, even though he admits being the winning bidder in the 1994 auction of the land.

In his Declaration of Trust dated October 16, 2007, Mike Arroyo stated that he only bought the hacienda as trustee and that it remains “the exclusive property of Rivulet….” He also gave his consent “to any sale, transfer, assignment, encumbrance, or other charge which Rivulet… might transact over the said property, as well as to any request or application which Rivulet… might make pursuant thereto, with relevant government or private entities.”

The First Gentleman’s declaration, combined with the ROD’s most recent stance, have had farmers in Negros scratching their heads. Asks Jose Rodito Angeles, president of peasant federation Task Force Mapalad (TFM) and a farm worker in Hacienda Grande, another property in Negros Occidental owned by the Arroyo family: “The First Gentleman himself said that he doesn’t own the hacienda. Why would the ROD include him in the cash deposit? Is this another ploy to impede CARP implementation in Bacan?”

Name Mike a payee

Celis also wonders aloud, “Dati ministerial lang ang trabaho ng ROD sa pagkansela ng titulo. Pero ngayon, parang mas nakikialam na sila. Pinipilit nilang isali si First Gentleman sa babayaran, pero siya na mismo ang nagsabi na hindi sa kanya ang lupa (The ROD, which before only had a ministerial duty in the cancellation of titles, has intervened on the issue, insisting that the First Gentleman should also be named as payee when he had already conceded his right over the land to Rivulet).”

In fact, the First Gentleman’s declaration had come six years after at least two provincial agrarian reform officers sent him letters that said the DAR could not process his brother Iggy’s offer to place Bacan under CARP because official documents indicated that the younger Arroyo was merely the hacienda’s administrator.

In 2001, Iggy Arroyo, on behalf of Rivulet, had offered to put Bacan under CARP in exchange for a P45-million compensation. But the DAR turned down the proposal, arguing that the only one who could make such an offer was the hacienda’s owner, who it said was Mike Arroyo, not Iggy.

On October 8, 2001, PARO Alexis Arsenal wrote to the First Gentleman, informing him that the DAR could not process the offer made by his brother because the application for voluntary offer to sell (VOS) filed by Iggy Arroyo “has no attached special power of attorney (for him) to sign and dispose the property under CARP executed/issued by the landowner, Atty. Jose Miguel Arroyo.”

Arsenal also appealed to the First Gentleman to help expedite placing the hacienda under CARP by either signing a new VOS application or issuing a special power of attorney for Iggy Arroyo.

Series of letters

As late as 2004, however, there was still no response from Mike Arroyo. This prompted another PARO, Felicidad Bañares, to return the farmers’ claim folder to the municipal agrarian reform officer (MARO).

Bañares said in a January 19, 2004 letter to MARO Jose Renato Defiño: “Series of communications were made to the landowner/representative for him to submit needed requirements, but no response had been received up to this writing.” Without the landowner’s cooperation, the DAR could not process the claim.

Three more years passed before another PARO sent a letter regarding Hacienda Bacan to the First Gentleman. By then Depeñoso had replaced Bañares; in her August 2, 2007 letter, Depeñoso pointed out to the President’s husband that “(per) our findings, you bought the said landholding in the auction sale….” She also noted that that a final bill of sale was issued to the First Gentleman in 1996, which therefore indicated that he was the owner of Bacan.

The PARO then wrote, “Further, may we request from your good self to annotate documents of sale at the back of the title to facilitate immediate processing of your claim folder if ever you decide to sell voluntarily your property to the DAR.”

FIRST TIME. It was Irene Celes’ first time to join a farmers’ picket in Manila. “This is also the first time I landed in jail,” says the 22-year-old farmhand of Hacienda Bacan in Negros Occidental. [photo by AR Sabangan]

Mike disowns interest

Two months later, the First Gentleman finally replied, in the form of a Declaration of Trust and in which he stated, among other things, that “I have and claim no interest in the property whatsoever.”

With the declaration in hand, the DAR stepped up its move to have Bacan distributed to the farmers by having Land Bank release the P42.31-million certificate of cash deposit in favor of Rivulet.

Then came the letter of ROD’s Gonzaga that essentially stopped the process in its tracks.

In a telephone interview last November 26, the PCIJ asked Gonzaga why he had refused to honor the certificate of cash deposit from Land Bank and why his office was refusing to cancel Rivulet’s title.

He replied by saying that “Lately I got a threat from the corporation.” But he declined to identify which entity he was referring to. He added, “Baka file-an pa ako ng case (A case might be filed against me). I have to play safe legally.”

The Bacan farmers’ struggle, however, might not end at the ROD. Last November 25, Rivulet Agro Industrial Corporation filed a petition before the Provincial Agrarian Reform Adjudicator in Negros Occidental that accused DAR Secretary Nasser Pangandaman, PARO Depeñoso, and Land Bank vice president Leticia Lourdes Camara of “unlawful confiscation” of the hacienda.

No notice from DAR

According to Rivulet, the DAR did not inform the firm about the supposed just compensation that it deposited in favor of the company worth P42.31 million.

“There was no notice served; no offer by the DAR to pay a specific value for the property; no chance for Rivulet to accept or reject the offer,” the company said in the petition executed by lawyer Ruy Alberto Rondain, who is also counsel to the First Gentleman. “There was no hearing held to determine just compensation; no chance for Rivulet to prove its claims.”

Rivulet also assailed the DAR for proceeding with the acquisition of Bacan even though Rivulet last February 14 filed an application for conversion at the office of the MARO in Isabela. The company said the DAR had certified there was no pending application for conversion so that the department could justify proceeding with the questionable acquisition of the hacienda.

He missed deadline

TFM’s Angeles, however, says that according to DAR rules, a landowner is given only up to 30 days to file his or her petition or application for conversion from the time the DAR issued a notice that the land is covered by CARP.

“That’s way beyond deadline,” the peasant leader says of Rivulet’s latest move. “The notice of coverage was issued in 2001. But the application for conversion was only made after seven years.”

In the meantime, the Bacan farmers are racing feverishly against time. Right after being freed from jail last Friday, the farmers went straight to the DAR central office in Quezon City to launch another campaign. They have decided to go on a hunger strike.

Farmer Celis says that prior to the picket at the LRA, they had mounted several other campaigns in a bid to hasten the processing of their claims on Hacienda Bacan.

“We camped out at the DAR central for two months,” he says. “We also picketed in front of Malacañang half-naked to get the attention of the President. We also had a series of pickets in Negros.”

Ginawa na namin lahat para matupad na ni Presidente ang pangako niya (We did everything for President Arroyo to fulfill her promise),” says Celis. “Ano pang gusto niyang gawin namin? Sana hindi kamatayan ang magpapakilos sa kanya para matupad ang pangarap namin (What else does she want us to do? I hope it’s not death that could finally make her act to make our dream come true).”