Land laws need to be harmonized
(Last of a series)
Out of control. This is how Elmer Mercado, a former environment undersecretary, describes the state of land use planning in the country.
Food security and housing are two main issues in the tug-of-war over land use and, more recently, in the arguments for or against the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) proposal to ban for two years the conversion of farms into nonagricultural uses.
But food and housing are just two pieces in the mosaic of overlapping land uses and “conflicting” laws on natural resources.
“[Land use] is not only an agrarian issue. It’s an environmental issue. It’s a human rights issue. And it’s a good governance issue,” said Ifugao Rep. Teodoro Baguilat, former chair of the House committee on agrarian reform.
Conflict issues, too
The image that usually comes to mind when debating on land use is that of farmers confronting bulldozers. But land use, according to Mercado, is also about the conflict between miners and indigenous peoples in their ancestral domain.
It’s about schools being built on fault lines and houses on critical watersheds.
Poor land use is also at the root of the severe traffic congestion in Metro Manila.
Conflicts inevitably arise because laws, such as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) of 1988, CARP with extension in 2009, Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992, Mining Act of 1995, Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act of 1997, Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998 and Biofuels Act of 2006 were passed separately.
“The [conflicting laws] have resulted in the irrational and uncoordinated use of land. Rice lands are reclassifed for residential or agro-industrial use. Food production areas in the lowlands and ancestral lands are declared mining sites. Sugar lands and other irrigable lands are converted into biofuel areas,” wrote Gemma Rita R. Marin of the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social issues.
Housing in danger zones
Marin added that social housing projects were sometimes located in danger zones. “Such developments have not only threatened the food security of the nation, but have also claimed lives and destroyed properties, especially the poor and vulnerable groups.”
Proponents of the judicious use of land are pushing for legislation that can address all these issues in one blow: the proposed national land use act (NLUA). Yet, the bill has languished in Congress for over two decades and sans the benefit of public clamor, shelved repeatedly.
The measure seeks to “ensure ecological integrity, energy supply and food security.” If passed, it may pave the way for a common ground among stakeholders, like farmers, fishermen, developers, environmentalists, miners and indigenous peoples.
It would serve as supreme judge “to harmonize and reconcile conflicting claims on the land,” said Dinagat Rep. Kaka Bag-ao, who championed House Bill No. 6545, or the proposed National Land Use and Management Act in the 15th Congress.
Through the establishment of a National Land Use Planning Commission, a National Physical Framework Plan (NPFP) will be crafted to provide “broad spatial directions and policy guidelines for land use planning.” It is meant to serve as a guide for the management of the country’s land and physical resources for the next 30 years.
Its most important feature is the identification and delineation of the country’s land into four distinct categories: protection, production, settlement and infrastructure.
Bag-ao stressed the importance of regulating lands in a rational and holistic way to ensure that they were used appropriately.
For example, wetlands and forests should be classified as protected areas to maintain ecological balance and minimize the country’s vulnerabilities to climate change. Prime agricultural lands, meanwhile, should be categorized for production to ensure food security.
A national land use law would serve as a guide to local government units (LGUs), which adopt their respective comprehensive land use plans (CLUP). In line with the NPFP, a set of policies and maps of the terrain would serve as the principal basis for future land use in the city or municipality.
Threats to farmlands
Several land-use policy proponents, including Mariano, pointed to Section 20 of the Local Government Code of 1991 as one of the biggest threats to conserving agricultural lands.
Under the Local Government Code, LGUs have the authority to reclassify agricultural lands based on their CLUPs, which are enacted through zoning ordinances, into residential, commercial or industrial purposes.
But this setup breeds a culture in which land use is tackled differently from town to town, rather than from a national perspective, said Mercado, also a land-use planning expert.
In San Mateo, Rizal province, an agricultural basin and rice, poultry and piggery hot spot, the municipal council recently declared its territory nonagricultural, opening up prime agricultural lands for reclassification and conversion. San Mateo is contiguous to Quezon City and Marikina.
Other LGUs have taken similar actions, something a NLUA would fix by pinpointing priority lands that cannot be converted into nonagricultural uses.
Leaving land laws up to the discretion of LGUs has also provided local officials more temptations to commit corruption.
“They (real estate developers) want absolute control of the local government units in terms of the regulation on land conversion because they can deal with LGUs,” Baguilat said.
NLUA aims to ensure that land classification will remain consistent rather than change with each new administration, the lawmaker added.
Although the heads of the finance, budget and management, and trade and industry departments, as well as of the National Economic and Development Authority, and the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council opposed the DAR-initiated moratorium, they were united in their push for a NLUA as a long-term solution.
But despite a strong support for a NLUA among government agencies, the bill has failed to pass over the past nine congresses.
Bag-ao said the real estate and business sectors were strongly against the bill, thanks to a provision that protects prime agricultural lands from conversion.
What makes prime agricultural lands attractive—productive with roads and water supply—are also what makes them prime candidates for residential, commercial and industrial development, according to Mercado.
“Everybody wants a piece of the pie,” he said.
But according to some NLUA advocates, the fairest outcome for the law may not be everyone getting an equal share.
Claire Demaisip, a lawyer of Campaign for Land Use Policy Now (CLUP Now), recognized the importance of a law beneficial to all stakeholders but acknowledged that certain needs were more important to society for both present and future generations.
Mercado concurred with this view, saying that balance does not always mean half and half. “Balance has to be based on a common perception of priorities. Something has to give,” he said.
During the Aquino administration, the bill passed on third reading in the House of Representatives but got as far as second reading in the Senate before being shelved yet again due to lack of time.
Demaisip said senators would not publicly oppose the law but resorted to delaying tactics to block its passage. This was confirmed by Mercado, Baguilat and Bag-ao.
These delaying tactics include not signing committee reports and putting off deliberations. Most decisively, the Senate in both the 15th and 16th Congress did not put the bill to a vote despite having the numbers that would have ensured an easy passage.
Baguilat said this was because of the primacy of reaching a consensus in the Senate. “If you don’t build consensus with those opposing it, you might as well vote on it. But they’re always laying it on the table,” he said, referring to senators who said they still needed to study the law days before the session adjourned.
“Each senator is a republic,” Demaisip said.
Mercado and Demaisip recounted the bill’s fateful end in the 15th Congress: It was almost at the finish line with all deliberations and technical sessions on the NLUA done. But in the final three days, two senators expressed reservations and said they would hand in their amendments.
They didn’t, and the bill was sent back to the drawing board. One of those senators, Cynthia Villar, herself from a prominent family of developers, is now chair of the committee in charge of the proposed NLUA in the 17th Congress. The other was former Sen. Bongbong Marcos.
But despite the Duterte administration’s alignment with the political left, Terry Ridon, chair of the Presidential Commission for the Urban Poor, expected a “greater battle” yet to come.
“I’m quite sure it’s not going to be an easy passage even in the 17th Congress,” he said.
But the NLUA advocates are soldiering on.
“Hope springs eternal,” Baguilat said. “We’ve long understood the issue, but many of our countrymen don’t understand it. We have to bring the land use issues to our people.”