EO on land conversion moratorium out soon
(Second of three parts)
The executive order that would put a stop to new applications for the conversion of farmlands into nonagricultural uses may be out soon, Malacañang said on Wednesday.
The draft order to impose a two-year moratorium on land conversion was still under study, five months after the idea was discussed at the first meeting of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) in 10 years.
But presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said the order “should come out soon.”
Abella said the offices of Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and of Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco earlier met to work on the draft of the executive order.
The fourth version was already with Medialdea and was being studied, Abella said.
Agrarian Reform Secretary Rafael Mariano proposed last September a two-year moratorium on the conversion of agricultural lands into nonagricultural uses, such as the development of subdivisions and industrial parks, in order to ensure food security.
Between 1988 and the first half of 2016, the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) approved 97,592.5 hectares of land earlier awarded to agrarian reform beneficiaries for conversion into nonagricultural purposes.
Mariano, who hopes to protect agricultural lands awarded to agrarian reform beneficiaries, said last year that an executive order would be issued.
But the country’s economic managers objected to the proposal, saying a moratorium could have an adverse impact on agriculture sector revitalization, housing backlog, infrastructure development and other economic activities that are in expansionary mode.
Calling the ban “antithetical to economic growth, job generation and poverty reduction” in a position paper, Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno and Vice President Leni Robredo urged Mariano to instead press for the passage of a national land use plan.
President Duterte convened the PARC anew on Tuesday, where he was asked to certify the genuine agrarian reform bill urgent. (Enacted in 1988, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program was extended twice, lapsing in 2014.)
The request to certify the genuine agrarian reform bill urgent was discussed, but would still have to be studied, Abella said.
The objections to Mariano’s proposal to freeze land conversion highlighted the different pressures exerted on land as a resource and the lack of mechanisms for its equitable allocation.
When she was still housing czar as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), Robredo expressed concern that the conversion freeze might hurt the homeless.
The HUDCC noted that the country was facing a housing backlog of at least 5.6 million units due to factors like rapid population growth, urbanization and migration to urban areas.
Developers like the Chamber of Real Estate Builders Association (Creba) and the Organization of Socialized Housing Developers of the Philippines (OSHDP) shared HUDCC’s concerns, saying the ban would reduce the country’s housing production and exacerbate the housing backlog.
To clear the backlog, the private and public sectors should provide 926,077 housing units yearly, said OSHDP president Christopher Ryan Tan. Assuming a minimum lot area of 64 square meters for socialized housing, developers would need a total of 5,927 ha.
Resettlement for poor
“The private sector could only deliver an average of about 216,000 units every year (based on licenses to sell issued from 2013 to 2015) while the government’s housing support could assist only an average of 168,535 households annually,” Tan said.
Among those in need of shelter are more than 1.5 million informal-settler families and 1.8 million families that lost their homes to natural disasters between 2009 and 2014, according to the OSHDP president.
Zamboanga City is one of the local governments that need to resettle displaced families. It has a land area of 148,338 ha consisting of watersheds (22.6 percent), inland protected areas (14.4 percent) and agricultural land (19.3 percent).
Zamboanga City hosts some 50,000 refugees displaced by the 2013 siege of the city by Moro National Liberation Front members loyal to the group’s founding chair Nur Misuari and by natural calamities.
‘Pigs have better shelter’
City council member Kim Elago said the refugees had taken shelter in the mangrove areas. A ban on land conversion, Elago said, would greatly impede the city’s efforts
to provide housing to the refugees.
It is the poor who suffer most when opportunities for socialized housing are not available, according to Creba president Charlie Gorayeb.
“Pigs have better shelter than Filipinos because they are provided with water and food. But Filipinos [are] living in subhuman conditions [and they] are not given any of these benefits which they desire,” Gorayeb said.
Interestingly, the real estate sector posted surpluses of 220,000 to 250,000 units for medium- and high-cost housing, yet the demand for 1.14 million socialized housing units greatly exceeded the 480,000 units that were constructed.
Economic housing met only 22 percent of the demand for 2.5 million units, while socialized housing met 42 percent of the demand, according to 2011 data from the Department of Trade and Industry.
“The question is, [when] you say we need houses, what are you addressing? Is it really the needs of the poor or is it the needs of the wealthy?” asked Ifugao Rep. Teodoro Baguilat, a proponent of a national land use plan.
Industrialization in countryside
But several business organizations said affordable housing for the poor was tied to industrialization in the countryside.
A ban on land conversion, they said, would run counter to Mr. Duterte’s economic thrust of more investments in rural areas.
Calixto Chikiamco, president of the Foundation for Economic Freedom, said a freeze would create uncertainty among investors, as they would find it difficult to
get approval for conversion of idle and nonproductive agricultural lands into special economic zones and residential housing.
“We should free the market rather than force the lands to be agricultural. After all, industrial [lands] have higher productivity than agricultural [lands], so why prevent that?” Chikiamco said.
Agriculture’s contribution to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) went down drastically over the decades to a mere 8.8 percent last year. Industry’s share, meanwhile, went up over the last decade, contributing 33.8 percent to the GDP by 2016.
Food security, Chikiamco said, could be attained not by devoting all lands to agriculture but by maximizing productivity.
He said Singapore became the world’s third most food-secure country, based on the Global Food Security Index, despite having little agricultural land, thanks to its aggressive thrust to maximize land productivity with high investments in agricultural development.
In contrast, Filipino farmers suffer from a lack of infrastructure support like farm-to-market roads and cold storage, as well as outdated technical knowledge, said Peter Perfecto, chair of the Makati Business Club.
However, Agrarian Undersecretary for Legal Affairs Luis Pañgulayan said the ban was in line with the Duterte administration’s initiatives.
“It will ensure that investments from other countries coming in will be placed in [the] proper areas,” Pañgulayan said.
Besides, land conversions for government projects for energy, socialized housing, economic zones, tourism and
economic development and those needed to deal with calamities are allowed, according to Pañgulayan.
Amid the conflicting land use policies, even those on opposing ends of the debate find themselves lobbying for a National Land Use Act that would harmonize all policies on the use of the country’s land based on long-term needs.
“It’s not a conflict of shelter and food. What we are saying is it can be all accommodated, but you need to have judicious planning,” Baguilat said. —WITH REPORTS FROM CHARLES BUBAN AND INQUIRER RESEARCH