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Filipino farmers win control of Aquino family farm

MANILA -- The Philippines' Supreme Court has ordered the distribution of nearly three-quarters of a vast sugar estate owned by the family of President Benigno Aquino among farmers in a test of the government's will to speed up land reform.

A feudal land ownership system in the Southeast Asian country is among root causes of rural unrest that has fed a communist insurgency over the last 40 years, hobbling growth in poor but resource-rich rural communities.

The court on Tuesday voted to award about 4,300 hectares, or 70 percent, of the Hacienda Luisita estate to more than 6,000 farmer-beneficiaries after they opposed a stock-option scheme.

The stock scheme was offered as a way to get around a 1988 land reform law that would have broken up the property.

Analysts said the ruling would test the government's will to complete the distribution of 4.3 million hectares of farmland across the country.

About 1 million hectares — most are under litigation — are still to be awarded to landless farmers by 2014 when the land reform program ends.

The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, through his cronies, profited much from the local sugar industry, which enjoys trade quotas from the United States. Breaking up the landholdings could change the country's political landscape.

Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac province, north of the capital, is owned by the Cojuangco clan, the family of Aquino's late mother, President Cory Aquino.

“We will respect the decision,” Antonio Ligon, a spokesman for Hacienda Luisita said in a television interview. “We are not against the land distribution ruling.”

Aquino's spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, told a news briefing the president had divested his interests in the sugar estate.

Farmers' groups, activists and some of Aquino's political allies praised the ruling and urged him to implement land distribution without delay.

“The president and the Cojuangco-Aquino clan must respect and comply with the high court's decision,” Rafael Mariano, a left-wing member of the lower house of Congress representing farmers' group, told reporters, saying the distribution of the sugar estate was long overdue.

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