Leni Robredo as the People’s Abogado ?

Elpidio V. Peria
6 July 2016


photo from : mybigblogger.com

While Vice-President Leni Robredo will be touring the countryside to consult the people in her first 100 days in office, she may perhaps consider taking up a role to which she was trained already and to which she also practiced for a while, before she was thrust into the role of being the late Jesse Robredo’s spouse and mother to their three daughters – that of being a lawyer.

As a lawyer, she will have as a model the great US Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who in his law practice before he was nominated to the highest court in the US by President Woodrow Wilson, was dubbed as “the People’s Attorney” since he handled many public interest cases described by Robert W. Gordon, a reviewer of Brandeis’ biography, as “lawyering in the service of reform causes, on behalf of relatively powerless and unorganized constituencies.”

Surely, since she will go around the country, she will encounter numerous cases that are either pending or in need of filing, in various sorts of problems encountered by those who are in the “laylayan ng lipunan” (roughly translated, as the margins of society), and what she can do, since she will not be doing or discharging any official function under the Constitution anyway, the Office of the Vice-President, can lend its prestige in calling attention to those cases, so that either those cases will move along in the slow-moving justice system in the country or, in high-profile cases, she can intervene and file “friend of the court” briefs to put her unique take on the case that she may wish to champion. She can appear in court once in a while, though she may also partner with other NGOs or other public-interest or other well-known established lawyers, to facilitate this possible discharge of her public office.

One issue that has recently come to the attention of Biodiversity, Innovation, Trade & Society (BITS) Policy Center, Inc. which she may want to look closely into is the issue of lopsided or inequitable banana lease contracts prevalent in many areas of the country today, especially in many banana producing areas in Mindanao, particularly in Davao provinces and in SOCSARGEN region.

A cursory examination of one such contract brought to the Center’s attention showed that the term of such contract is 25 years and it pays annually something like Php10,000 per hectare as rental, but, to be deducted from such rental are amortization payments (how did the land owner have something to be amortized, it’s not really clear), real estate taxes and other obligations. There are other seemingly unfair provisions in such a contract and this is not the space to elaborate them here, but one glaringly notorious feature of such contract is that it has no termination clause, in favor of the land owner. This means the land owner cannot invoke this get-out clause in case he finds carrying out the contract onerous, which should be a standard feature of regular contracts. By the way, the right to terminate the contract only belongs to the banana plantation company. The contract becomes a prison to which the farmer cannot hope to escape from, if such contract is not nullified in court.

There is another category of contracts in these banana plantations but are being used in agrarian reform beneficiary (ARB) areas – the agribusiness venture agreements (AVA) – which, and in this one we are cautious as we haven’t seen one, but various studies indicate that such contracts operate in the same manner, i.e., minimize the level of control by the farmers over their land as most decisions are made by the company running the banana plantation. In fact, last year, Congressman Teddy Baguilat of Ifugao filed H.B. 5161, reforming these types of contracts, and he was denounced furiously by the banana industry associations.

The features of such bill appear to have been addressed by a recent administrative issuance by recently-term-expired DAR Secretary Virgilio delos Reyes on AVAs, DAR Administrative Order No. 04-16, but it’s good that newly-installed DAR Secretary Ka Paeng Mariano also expressed his desire to review these AVAs particularly, so that the condition of the farmers engaged in agribusiness plantations through these contracts, may at least be alleviated.

This is where VP Leni’s strategic high-impact class action lawsuit to nullify these lopsided agribusiness contracts will also reinforce the efforts of DAR Secretary Ka Paeng Mariano. She doesn’t necessarily have to win these court cases, but her litigation efforts would focus attention on these inequitable contracts and hopefully that will pave the way for the industry to reform itself, so that its bad practices will not result in reputational harm to its agricultural products that are often exported to other countries.


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