Big swindle in Hacienda Looc?
Second of three parts
By Gina Mission

Like a bestseller, the story of Hacienda Looc is colorful and tragic. But unlike most bestsellers, it is an all-too-true tale of greed and ignorance. Just like in the thrillers, the "bad people" used money, power and influence to get what they wanted, mostly at the expense of the "good" and "innocent". But unlike the usual innocent-gets-justice ending of similar novels, the Hacienda Looc farmers, after five long years, are still waiting for such a denouement. Worse, recent developments have made them realize that this story could just end differently: The "bad" might just end up triumphant after all.

___Marie Yuvienco. a land reform lawyer and counsel for the farmers of Hacienda Looc, describes the case as "the great-grandmother of all scams." In terms of scope and the intensity of greed involved, she added, it is the worst thing that has ever happened in the history of agrarian reform in the country.

A tourist haven

___The Fil-Estate website on the Harbortown project, last updated on October 1,1996, boasts that it as "not just a beach, more than just a frivolous resort. Fil-Estate Harbortown Nasugbu is a way of life. It is a community of individuals who have learned to draw upon the riches of nature and use to advantage, the luxuries of the modern world. It is a center where the gentle soul and the energetic body, the earthy and worldly, co-exist harmoniously. It is simply, life in complete balance, free to thrive to the fullest."

___What nature has designed, Fil-Estate would maximize. "On gently rolling hills, the green carpets of four world-class golf courses blend comfortably with the rugged perimeters. At the edge of the fine-sanded shore, the open terrazas of luxury resort hotels bring the smell and sound of the sea close to those who enjoy it most. Under the shade of lush foliage, residential enclaves thrive, with parks, community centers, and plant nurseries adding a ray of freshness to memorable holidays," goes the on-line flyer.

___There is, however, another side to Harbortown. Before the golf courses and terazzas were planned, the area was farmland that provided livelihood to 10,000 farmers and their families. The manner in which the land for the Harbortown project has been acquired would tarnish the project’s well-publicized grandeur. As Hacienda Looc farmer Samuel Portonova remarked: "Napakaganda ng Hacienda Looc. Pumangit la-ang dahil sa dahas ng Fil-Estate." (Hacienda Looc is so beautiful. It only became ugly with Fil-Estate’s atrocities.)

___Indeed, the only bad thing about the Harbortown Project, remarked Yuvienco, is that it was conceived in sin.

Fraudulent land deal

___The Deed of Sale dated August 30, 1994, states that what was sold by the Asset and Privatization Trust (APT) to the Manila Southcoast and Development Corporation (MSDC) (TCT No. T-28719) actually covered the entire 8,650.7778 hectares of Hacienda Looc. The bidding terms, however, only covered the "sale of the remaining portions of the hacienda not covered by CARP." In other words, only the remaining 3,248.24 hectares of Hacienda Looc was actually being auctioned.

___The Deed of Sale, however, provided a clause, which reserved "without limitation" to the vendee (MSDC) the rights to ". . . retain and to require the return of the portions of the PROPERTY which are not covered by and not subject to the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), the right to receive the just compensation for the portion or portions of the PROPERTY duly acquired by DAR and duly distributed to qualified farmer-beneficiaries, the right to retain and to require the return of any portion of the PROPERTY previously surveyed by DAR for distribution to qualified farmer-beneficiaries but found not suitable for agricultural purposes or exempt from the CARL by reason of slope thereof, and the right to contest and to recover any portion or portions of the PROPERTY which may not have been duly and properly acquired by DAR or which may not have been duly and properly distributed to qualified farmer-beneficiaries…"

___This clause, said Yuvienco, actually provides loopholes for MSDC to circumvent the land reform law and extend its rights of ownership beyond the 3,432 hectares.

___Quite possibly taking advantage of such loophole, the MSDC filed, on April 10, 1995, petitions before the DAR Adjudication Board (DARAB) Batangas for the cancellation of 25 CLOAs in the 3,294.26 has. and their conversion to non-agricultural use. Both DAR officials and farmers were named as respondents.

___Invoking DOJ Opinion 44 that exempts from land reform all lands classified for non-agricultural uses before the enactment of CARL, Regional Adjudicator Fe Arche-Manalang issued a partial judgement on January 8, 1996 canceling 10 of the 25 CLOAs. It ruled that Hacienda Looc was earlier on classified as part of the tourism zone declared by former President Marcos.

___According to Yuvienco, the 10 cancelled CLOAs, covering 1,219 hectares and affecting 413 farmer-beneficiaries, represent almost the entire area of 1,269 hectares identified as project site by the Fil-Estate-MSDC joint venture for Harbortown. And to complete the delivery of the additional 50 hectares to Fil-Estate and MSDC, DAR Region IV Director Remigio Tabones approved on December 26, 1996, MSDC's petition for exemption and land use conversion of the entire 1,269 hectare-project site.

___How the regional adjudicator came up with such decision is another "suspicious" story. As Yuvienco tells it, all the affidavits supposedly executed by 312 farmers stating that subject lands are unsuitable for agriculture and therefore not covered by CARP were so "characteristically uniform in language, form and substance" that they could only have been mass-produced by a single brain. In fact, Yuvienco’s group found out later that 10 of those who "executed" the affidavits had been dead before the affidavits were "signed".

___In a DAR fact-finding mission report dated December 18, 1996, Agrarian Reform Undersecretary Hector Soliman revelaed:

___In the same report, Soliman assured the farmers that the 1,282 hectares covered by Emancipation Patents under Marcos' land reform would not be affected by exemption or conversion since they were not made the subject of any litigation. Only some 2,829 hectares, according to him, had the potential for exemption for being over 18 degrees slope and agriculturally undeveloped.

___However, in what Yuvienco described as a "midnight order" issued on December 26, DAR Secretary Ernesto Garilao exempted the portions of Hacienda Looc that were under the CARP from land reform.

___Two things, according to Yuvienco, are "not right" with the issuance of said order. For one, no government office issues such an important decision right after Christmas. For another, she said, the name itself – hacienda, Hacienda Looc -- suggests that the land is agricultural. The farmers appealed the decision. But on June 25, 1998, notably after President Ramos made public pronouncements to put a stop to all illegal conversions of agricultural lands, Garilao issued another "midnight order" giving Fil-Estate the ownership of the subject land.

___Immediately, the farmers appealed Garilao’s decision to the Office of the President (OP). After one year, or on June 1999, the OP finally "acted" on the appeal by requiring the farmers to submit their Appeal Memorandum. Right away, Yuvienco filed the memo.

Cheap hacienda

___The terms of the Deed of Sale, and the subsequent court rulings in favor of the MSDC, allowed the company to acquire virtually the entire hacienda for only P215 million, the amount it offered for only the 3,432 hectare-portion of Hacienda Looc.

___According to Yuvienco, at the time, other realty firms were buying lands in other parts of Hacienda Looc and nearby villages at P70,000 to P100,000 per hectare, a far cry from the P25,000 per hectare acquisition price of MSDC for the contiguous 8,650-hectare estate.

___If the USAID feasibility study is to be followed, the entire estate should have been sold by the government at the much higher price of P1.2 billion.

Environmental Menace

___Since Fil-Estate's earthmoving activities on the 216-hectare portion of the hacienda Phase I of the project started in December 1995, the people have complained of erosion and siltation. This has caused damage to the crops they have planted in the lowlands. Fish catch has also been also diminishing.

___Later, it was found out that Fil-Estate started developing Phase I in October 1995 without the prerequisite environmental compliance certificate (ECC) from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Fil-Estate was "forced" to get an ECC in April 1996 following complaints by the people. In October 1996, the DENR fined the company for five violations of its ECC, including its failure to replant trees and build protective measures against heavy erosion. Interestingly, the person who issued Fil-Estate’s ECC, Antonio Prinsipe, was the same person who issued the ECC for the Cherry Hills subdivision.

___Consequently, the DENR suspended the "development activities" of Fil-Estate in Hacienda Looc. This partly explains why its Harbortown website, has not been updated since 1996. Yuvienco said that the DENR suspension has not been lifted up to this day.

___But when CyberDyaryo made inquiries from Fil-Estate on the status of the Harbortown project, Karla Lucban of Fil-Estate’s Customer Relations department admitted that the company has resumed its "erosion control measures" in Hacienda Looc. She also revealed that the company is pushing through with the project, because there are no longer any legal impediments to its development activities, since both the DENR and the DAR have lifted their suspension orders and that Fil-Estate has already reached a "settlement agreement" with the farmers.

___Yuvienco categorically denied that the suspension order has been lifted. What happened, she said, was that Fil-Estate "offered" to clean up its mess by working on controlling soil erosion, brought about by its earlier "development activities," so as not to damage the farmers’ crops and harm their environment any further.

___"The DENR did not lift the suspension order. It only allowed Fil-Estate to stop the damage the they themselves did," said Yuvienco. If the company goes beyond erosion control measures, she added, they can be cited for contempt.

___Yuvienco also denied that a "settlement agreement" has been reached between the parties.

Fil-Estate, the company

___It is not only in Nasugbu that Fil-Estate has become controversial for the enormity of its projects and their corresponding impact on the environment. In Boracay, the golf courses of its Fairways and Bluewater project takes up half of the island. Since the island has no sufficient potable water supply, Fil-Estate is piping in water from mainland Aklan. In Baguio, a place where water is rationed, Fil-Estate is building its biggest golf course, which, many fear, may have to use up all of Baguio's water supply for its maintenance.

___According to environmental activists, an average 18-hole golf course occupies about 85 hectares of land and consumes 6,500 cubic meters of water daily. When translated in terms of water and land use, the golf lawn is equivalent to approximately 40 peasant farm lots producing 500,000 kilos of rice a year and its water consumption can irrigate 65 hectares of farmlands or supply the daily water needs of 15,000 Metro Manila residents. In a country whose food production is not even enough to feed its population, the conversion of farms into golf courses raises serious concerns over the issue of food security.

___To keep the lawns green and velvety, two tons of pesticides and insecticides are sprayed yearly. These toxic chemicals eventually get washed down into the water table, irrigation systems, rivers and the sea. Not only do these pollute the waterways, 90% of the chemicals sprayed on the course end up in the air posing health problems for golfers themselves, caddies and local residents.

Human rights abuses and harassment

___According to the KMP, Fil-Estate and MSDC employ a total of 134 private security guards in Hacienda Looc. These are deployed as combat units and stationed in detachments spread all over the two villages of Calayo and Papaya.

___On the evening of February 13, 1996, two farmers, Francisco Marasigan and Maximo Carpinter, both members of UMALPAS KA-Hacienda Looc, (or Ugnayan ng Mamamayan Laban sa Pangwawasak ng Kalupaan sa Hacienda Looc), were shot to death without provocation by security guards of Fil-Estate and MSDC. The perpetrators were arrested two weeks after the murder but were later released by the Nasugbu police.

___Farmer Portonova recalled that in May 1997, about 60 soldiers of the Regional Special Action Force (RSAF) came to Hacienda Looc in the guise of holding military training. Naturally, the people were alarmed at the "unusual" military presence in their area because never in the history of Hacienda Looc was it ever used for military training. This is in addition to one platoon of the military's engineering infantry battalion that is already in the hacienda.

___Certain local government officials who are publicly known to have economic stakes in Fil-Estate's projects were reportedly mobilized to "intimidate" officers and members of UMALPAS KA. Calayo Barangay Captain Maximo Limeta, who was able to purchase 10 dump trucks by servicing Fil-Estate's development works in Phase I, is allegedly the local hatchet man of Fil-Estate. He is said to have 17 fully armed goons who were tipping off organizers and NGO volunteers to the military and police, spreading the word that death awaits certain persons involved in UMALPAS KA including its legal counsel, Atty. Romy Capulong.

Political Connections

___Many believe that Fil-Estate's fast rise as one of the country's leading developers despite its controversial projects would not be possible without strong political connections with Malacaņang.

___Fil-Estate Chairman Robert John L. Sobrepeņa is a known supporter of former President Ramos' presidential bid in 1992. In fact, Ramos appointed Sobrepena's older brother, Russell, as undersecretary for tourism in charge of the department’s planning office. This position, Yuvienco said, got him involved in tourism development in Boracay, Baguio and other areas where Fil-Estate has projects. The Sobrepenas are Ilokanos who reportedly have historical family ties and political kinship with the Ramoses.

___Ramos himself was part of a controversial joint venture of Fil-Estate to develop a portion of Mt. Makiling as a residential subdivision called Springdale Gardens. He reportedly has property in this project which was later found to lack an ECC. Fil-Estate also employs as its top executives influential people such as Francisco "Jun" Villa III, son of the former Ombudsman Francisco Villa, as business development manager. It can be recalled that the Ombudsman dismissed a case earlier filed by a group of CARP beneficiaries against MSDC and the APT for defrauding the government in the sale of Hacienda Looc.

___Engr. Macky Maceda, son of former Senate President Ernie Maceda, is an environment consultant of Fil-Estate. Roberto Roco, a close relative of Senator Raul Roco, heads the realty firm's finance department. Senator Roco is a major stockholder of Sheraton Hotels, the same hotel chain with whom Fil-Estate has forged joint ventures to build five-star hotels in most of its tourism projects.

___General Eduardo Ermita, then congressman for the fourth district of Batangas (which includes Nasugbu) and reportedly a close friend of Ramos, allegedly owns a large share of MSDC.

Prospects for the farmers

___With Lucban’s disclosure of Fil-Estate’s plan to resume its development activities in Hacienda Looc, Yuvienco fears an insidious attempt by the company to get around the suspension order in the guise of a supposedly noble purpose. The objective, she said, is simple: "They want to deceive the other parties involved into believing that they have finally realized and repented their sins and are now abandoning the grand Harbortown project."

___But the way things are happening, Yuvienco is afraid of another "Ramos return." "We’ve seen it all before. We have known how influence, money and power can make impossible things happen," she said.

___"All things being equal, we can promise the farmers that they will get back their lands. We have all the legal reasons to say so. But in this case, we couldn’t tell them that. Because we know how vulnerable the legal system is to these things," Yuvienco said.

___Meanwhile, UMALPAS-KA chapters in the entire Southern Tagalog Region recently organized a congress in Lipa, Batangas, to consolidate all extra-legal efforts to protect Hacienda Looc from Fil-Estate. As Isabelo Alicakaya, Nasugbu chapter secretary general of UMALPAS-KA, resolutely said: "They’ve swindled us before. The government didn’t help us. We won’t let that happen again."

(Next Week: Inside Hacienda Looc)

CyberDyaryo | 1999.08.26