Thousands of farmers to get plots of Aquino family farm

MANILA - Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Monday that work would start in weeks to divide his family's giant sugar plantation between thousands of peasant farmers, ending a decades-long struggle for control.

The decision had been forced on Aquino's extended family after the Supreme Court ruled that the 4,300-hectare (10,600-acre) Hacienda Luisita must be split among more than 6,000 workers.

"The process to determine the beneficiaries' lots began last week, and the turnover of these lots will begin in September," Aquino said in his annual state-of-the-nation address to parliament.

The farm, one of the biggest in the country, had come to symbolise the failure of a land reform programme begun by Aquino's mother Corazon Aquino in 1988 when she was president.

The programme was launched to break the stranglehold of powerful political families on the agriculture sector, and to empower the tens of thousands of peasant farmers who worked on the estates.

But many elite families had been able to use legal and political manoeuvres to hold on to their farms.

In the Hacienda Luisita case, Aquino's family was accused of trying to avoid giving up its land by converting parts of it to non-agricultural uses and giving its workers shares in a company controlling the farm instead.

The Supreme Court finally ruled in November 2011 that the family must sell the land to the government, which would then sell it to the farmers on easy loan terms.

Aquino's extended family, the Cojuangco clan, appealed the ruling, asking for more money. But the Supreme Court rejected the appeal last year.

Last week the agrarian reform department announced that 6,212 Hacienda Luisita farmers would each get title to 6,600 square metres (1.63 acres).

It said a drawing of lots would be made over the coming weeks to determine which farmer got which blocks of land, about two hours' drive north of Manila.

Aquino said on Monday that the government was working to ensure other large tracts of land would also soon be distributed to farmers who have been waiting for years under the reform programme.

"In the next year, all notices of coverage will have been served for lands covered by comprehensive agrarian reform," he said.