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Heritage declaration is not expropriation!

/ 07:03 AM March 01, 2012

My attention was called by a municipal government officer of a southwestern Cebu town that the chancel and altar of their heritage church were recently altered by their local parish priest. This happened despite the advice of a team from the Cebu Archdiocesan Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church not to do so. The advice,  in fact, came barely a few days before the priest proceeded anyway with what he wanted.

Now I hear that the same parish priest even used the pulpit to lambast the provincial government and its heritage program. This priest urged the parishioners not to allow their residences to be declared as heritage places or structures because, accordingly, the privacy of the owners will be lost, that government will come in to take over their residences.

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Baloney! We are not under Japanese Occupation anymore. Does he really think the Constitution, which upholds the right to private property, can be altered so easily?

As one who has been helping shepherd the heritage programs of the province with Gov. Gwendolyn F. Garcia at the helm, I am incensed at this misinformation. If indeed true, then this man of the cloth is sadly terribly off-tangent, unlike so many other priests who are well aware about heritage. All one has to do is ask for a copy of the Cebu Provincial Board Resolution No. 3396-2008 (The Cebu Provincial Heritage Ordinance).  I can even e-mail anyone who is interested in this legal instrument.  Nowhere does it state that one loses private property rights or that government will take over one’s private property on the pretext of declaring it a heritage site.

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In fact, the governor is keenly interested in helping heritage churches that are at risk due to natural calamities or the uninformed tinkering of their structures but she cannot do so without the proper legal framework, even if there exists a Memorandum of Understanding between the Archdiocese of Cebu and the Province of Cebu to work and cooperate in the protection and conservation of these structures.

There exists an instrument for donation of properties that has already been entered into in at least one instance, that of the Melgar House now owned by Victor Tan. This is but one of so many houses owned by the Melgars, cofounders of the town of Dumanjug. But this one holds the singular distinction of being the oldest standing house in town, built in the 1850s, even way ahead of its own church. The owner, whom I interviewed the other day for an upcoming “Kabilin” episode on ancestral houses in Cebu, was even very keen that the house be preserved by the provincial government. May there be more Victor Tans in this world.

Heritage conservation knows no greed. It is not motivated by selfish reasons; it exists because of the human longing for the past, of the feeling of nostalgia and the awareness that perhaps something of a bygone era is still left for the future to ponder upon and be awed. For one can never bring back the past, only its tangible and intangible reminders.

That is the cornerstone of the heritage movement and its corresponding advocacy.  That is why the province, as it has rapidly progressed into the number 1 destination for business or pleasure in the country is also carrying out not just an inventory of its heritage resources—both cultural and natural—but also finding ways to conserve these as more and more people want new things, modern glass-and-steel edifices and state-of-the-art technology so devoid of the graciousness and warmth of times now dissipating.

But as Gov. Gwen pursues this heritage agenda for the first time in this province’s long history marked by a total absence of concern for heritage, there is a legal framework she has carefully crafted, together with the provincial board. And that legal framework respects and upholds private property.

Heritage declaration is voluntary, it is not tantamount to expropriating private property or losing one’s privacy.  It is in fact a recognition that one’s property deserves notice either because it is significant to history, or it represents craftsmanship of a specific period, or is one that helps to educate the present about a specific period in the past or because it is the last of its kind in the locality.

And once declared, you continue to own your house or property but that you should be careful to ensure that it is protected and preserved. You cannot chop it off like many ancestral houses that lose part of their integrity. If you have no funds to do so, then that is where R.A. 10066, the National Heritage Law of 2009, might help. Under the proposed implementing rules and regulations of this law, the State is bound to help you restore or preserve you property provided you have it declared and registered and then open it for specific periods of the year to visitors—not every day, just specific times of the year and at your own decision when to do so. This is only done as your counterpart should financial assistance be given.

So the next time someone tells you not to have your house declared because you will lose your privacy, tell them this: baloney!

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TAGS: Cebu City, Church, Heritage Sites
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