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COA: Floirendo’s hold on state lands unconstitutional

Second of 2 parts
WHAT demonstrates the awesome power of Philippine oligarchs is how they could violate our Constitution, the very basis of our existence as a Republic and of our rule of law. How can we ever build a nation, if its foundation—the Constitution—is facilely violated by oligarchs?

How they are able to do this is a testament to the weakness of our justice system which is ruled by what we call here abogados de campanillas—who would make the “Firm” in the movie of that title look like amateurs—in connivance with underpaid, corrupt judges, what former President Estrada called “hoodlums in robes”.

The Indonesian tycoon Anthoni Salim’s public utility and infrastructure conglomerate as well as Globe Telecoms obviously violate the 40 percent limit on foreign holdings specified by the Constitution, with foreigners owning at least 60 percent of these enterprises’ common shares. They are able to skirt the Constitution though with the fiction of cheap “voting preferred shares allegedly held by Filipinos and through the trick of layered corporations.*

It is not just laws that is being violated by the Floirendo oligarch family of Davao del Norte but the Constitution itself.

This is not my interpretation nor that of Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez who is leading President Dutete’s battle with this particular oligarchic clan, led now by Antonio Floirendo, Jr., one of the few congressman who proclaimed that he voted against the confirmation of Gina Lopez as environment and natural resources secretary.

It is the open-and-shut conclusion of the Commission on Audit, a constitutional body known for its objectivity and non partisanship, except when President Aquino used the body to investigate only the opposition in its audit of pork-barrel corruption.

In its April 25, 2017, Audit Observation Memorandum, the COA concluded that Floirendo’s firm had violated two Constitutions.

The first agreement with the Bureau of Corrections by Floirendo’s Tagum Agricultural Development Corp. (Tadeco, the biggest banana producer in Mindanao) made in 1969 initially involved 3,000 hectares, which was gradually increased to 5,500 hectares, with the agreement to last for 25 years.

This was very clearly in violation of the 1935 Constitution (which was in force then until 1987) whose Section 2, Article XII categorically specified that “no private corporation or association may acquire, lease, or hold public agricultural lands in excess of 1,024 has.”

The contract was renewed in 2003 for another 25 years—to expire in 2028, a generation later. The 1987 Constitution’s Section 3 Article XII retained the 1935 Charter’s maximum limit of allowable government lands to be leased to private corporations, lowering it a bit to just 1,000 has. This limit is less than a fifth of the5,500 hectares that Tadeco has been holding.

It will be a rather uncomplicated litmus test for our justice system as well as for the power of the Duterte administration if such a blatant and very clear violation of our Constitution should be corrected or not. The oligarchic contract has been left untouched since 1969, for nearly half a century and through six Presidents.

One of Philippine oligarchs’ strength though is their ability to use our courts to skirt the Constitution and our laws.

The COA recommendation seems quite simple to implement: for BuCor to cancel the contract immediately. The BuCor has no choice here, otherwise its officials and even the justice secretary, its supervising authority, would be liable for violating our anti-graft laws.

Tadeco’s option would be of course to get a court—maybe even a court in its territory Davao del Norte—to issue one of our justices system’s notorious “restraining orders.”

But that would be a scorched-earth policy for Floirendo: A drawn-out legal battle would push his firm’s suppliers and buyers to suspend their business with it, since its very existence is at risk. This would eventually result in Tadeco’s bankruptcy and closure.

The better alternative for Tadeco would be to strike an agreement with government for an orderly transition, that would reduce the area it holds to less than the 1,000-hectare limit specified by the Constitution, and agreeing to have other firms take over separately the remaining 4,500 has., which would have cooperation agreements for the production and marketing of bananas.

For the sake of Tadeco’s 3,000 workers and our export sector, I hope Floirendo finds a patriotic ember in his heart to seek a compromise arrangement with government. After all he’s already many times a billionaire with Tadeco’s contract that violates our Constitution.

*Details on this is in my book Colossal Deception: How Foreigners Control Our Telecoms Sector.

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