MANILA, Philippines – The earth-balling and putting up of walls by the Tarlac Development Corporation (Tadeco) in parcels of land in Hacienda Luisita is not illegal land conversion, said Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) Secretary Virgilio de Los Reyes.
“Earthballing and putting walls around the land is not yet land conversion. It’s what you do inside the land itself. If they start building concrete foundations inside the land, then that’s illegal conversion,” De Los Reyes told Rappler in a phone conversation on Wednesday, March 26.
The clarification came after farmer alliance Ambala condemned the Cojuangco-owned company for building concrete walls and putting up barbed wire fences around 366 hectares of land in the villages of Balete and Cutcut in the hacienda. (WATCH: Luisita: The promised land)
There are also tarpaulins hanging on the walls declaring, “Development soon to rise.”
But as far as DAR is concerned, the disputed hectares of land is owned by Tadeco and not the farmers.
“It has not yet been put under Notice of Coverage. The farmers never owned the land. Perhaps they were tenants before but then that’s a labor issue already,” said De Los Reyes.
But because of the farmers’ petition for the DAR to put the land under agrarian reform, the agency will look into records to verify whether or not the land is “carpable.”
Specifically, they will look into Tarlac City records to see if, under local zoning laws, the disputed land is categorized as agricultural.
“We have to look at the zoning laws as of 1988 because that was when CARP began.”
De Los Reyes said the DAR will know soon if the parcels of land can indeed be put under agrarian reform but was unable to give an exact date.
“If it is labelled as agricultural land, we will issue a Notice of Coverage immediately,” he said.
The DAR chief also denied farmer group claims that his agency is allowing violence to escalate in the hacienda.
Farmer group Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) said Tarlac Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer Ileona Pangilinan “washed her hands of any responsibility” for the fencing off of disputed land and violence allegedly perpetrated by police and Tadeco-hired guards.
Groups reported a series of violent bulldozing activities from December to February that displaced farmers and damaged their crops. They asked Pangilinan to issue a Cease and Desist Order (CDO) against the policemen and guards who forcibly evicted the farmers.
But Pangilinan clarified she did not wash her hands of anything.
“My statement when asked by the petitioners for the issuance of a CDO was I had already elevated my recommendation to our higher officials who have jurisdiction over the matter. The issuance of CDOs does not fall within the scope of my duties,” she said in a text message to Rappler.
Farmer groups also insist that the said land is, in fact, covered by a Notice of Coverage issued by DAR on Dec 17, 2013.
“The Notice of Coverage issued by the DAR on the hundreds of hectares of land in barangays Balete and Cutcut is just a scrap of paper. It does not prevent landlords with the aid of private and government security forces from illegally evicting farm workers who have been tilling the lands since 2005,” said Ambala spokesperson Christopher Garcia.
But De Los Reyes gave assurances his agency “will ask the Philippine National Police to make sure the violence there does not escalate.”
If it is policemen themselves causing the violence, then they are also answerable to the law, he said.
Though distribution of Hacienda Luisita land titles for farmers began last October 2013, many farmers remain dissatisfied with the agrarian reform program. They claim some prime lots are being kept from them and that the program’s payment scheme is unfair.
Farmers say the powerful Cojuangco family, to which President Benigno Aquino III belongs, is still trying to stop Hacienda Luista land from being distributed under agrarian reform.
The distribution of all agricultural land to farmers is set to end this June 30 but the DAR admits they will not meet the deadline. – Rappler.com