House plans to exempt PNoy land from distribution

PNS — THE House is laying the groundwork for President Benigno Aquino III’s family to retain Hacienda Luisita and justify the non-distribution of the disputed 4,102-hectare plantation, and following a call by House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. for big investors to enter into corporate farming contracts.

In a speech during a meeting between House leaders and representatives from the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce and Philippine business goups, Belmonte encouraged foreign investors and corporations “to purchase or lease state-owned lands and private farm lands and enter into contractual arrangements with landowners, farmer organizations and agrarian reform communities that manage these lands.”

Belmonte said allowing agrarian reform-awarded land to be used as collateral for loans could benefit farmers as the credit restrictions in the agrarian reform law had impaired farmers’ rights to avail themselves of credit.

Akbayan Rep. Arlene Kaka Bag-ao, vice chairman of the House committee on agrarian reform and President Aquino’s ally, immediately protested Belmonte’s statement, saying they ran counter to the main objectives of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program.

“Aggregating farmland for corporate farming could be a viable option to help ensure food security,” Belmonte said.

But Bag-ao said the Speaker’s statements made it look like “there is no plan to distribute the lands to the farmer-beneficiaries, after all.”

Some 1.1 million hectares of agricultural land have yet to be distributed to farmers and hacienda tenants that the government hopes to achieve in the next five years under the agrarian reform program.

Bag-ao said not only would Hacienda Luisita benefit from Belmonte’s plan. The other beneficiaries would be the 200-hectare Hacienda Bacan of the family of former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo in Negros Occidental, the 61-hectare landholdings of the family of Negros Occidental Rep. Henry Pryde Teves, and 13 other farms nationwide.

Belmonte told the foreign chambers of commerce and big business that the House would promote agribusiness as the cornerstone of the country’s rural development strategy.

“To put this strategy into motion, we are now deliberating on key legislative measures that would raise rural productivity and enhance food security through agricultural modernization and efficient supply-chain management,” he said.

Allowing agrarian reform-awarded land to be used as collateral could also benefit farmers because that would permit broader access to credit.

Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño, whose farmer-members continued to contest ownership of the Hacienda Luisita farm land before the Supreme Court, was among those present when the Speaker made the disclosure, but remained quiet throughout the dialogue with the big business.

Bag-ao, whose member-farmers are also contesting ownership of the Hacienda Luisita land, warned that the Speaker’s disclosure of pending bills had already been rejected by previous Congresses.