On top of the socio-economic reform demands being pushed by the National Democratic Front, collectively dubbed as the comprehensive agreement on socio-economic reforms (CASER), is the free distribution of land for the country’s landless rural poor. During the ill-fated peace talks in Amsterdam in July, the question was raised: where will the government get the land to distribute for free to would-be agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs)? One of the answers: public lands.
The truth is that the government has been identifying and distributing public lands under the comprehensive agrarian reform program (CARP). When former DAR Secretary Gil de los Reyes was accused by farmer unions and civil society agrarian reform advocates for being slow and indecisive in the implementation of CARP. He explained that past DAR administrators had an easier task distributing easy-to-distribute lands. Thus, from 1972 to 2012, “more than three-fourths of distributed lands (76%) are either government-owned lands (GOL/KKK lands and settlements) or lands distributed through voluntary modes of acquisition (voluntary land transfers or voluntary offer to sell).”
In contrast, de los Reyes complained that he was left with land distribution targets that are “more difficult, more tedious and more contentious.” As of December 2013, DAR reported that a total of 8,250 hectares had been distributed by both DAR and DENR. The “difficult” lands, mostly given by de los Reyes with simple “notices of coverage” (NOCs), totaled around one million hectares and were bequeathed by de los Reyes to DAR Secretary Paeng Mariano for full completion.
CARP implementation in public lands are indeed relatively easy because these are in the hands of the government. In fact, majority of the lands distributed in the first two decades of CARP were public lands such as the 1.5 million-hectare lands set aside for the Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran (KKK) program during the Marcos period, the landed estates developed by the government in the 1960s, and the various land settlement projects organized by DAR in the past. Also included are the forestry lands under the Integrated Social Forestry (ISF) and the Community-Based Forest Development (CBFD) programs of the DENR.
However, CARP in public lands also raises some vexing questions. First, there are no published details on the magnitude of the different public lands that were or are made available for CARP distribution. How developed are these lands? Who were/are the occupants of these lands – informal settlers, indigenous peoples and corporations? Who were identified as beneficiaries and how were they documented as beneficiaries?Information related to these questions is extremely scanty. There are no published details on how the alienation process was or is being done. As it is, reports on the achievements in public land distribution are statistics, aggregated statistics, which do not tell much.
Mary Ann Manahan (2013) of Focus on the Global South reported that many of the public lands had occupants even before CARP and some of those who control and exploit the public lands were landed families like the political families in Bondoc Peninsula. With CARP, it was easy for these families to award the lands to the members of their own families or political wards, while the poor informal settlers and indigenous peoples (IPs), uninformed about CARP, were not included in the CARP process because they were not aware of their rights under the law.
It should be pointed out that through the decades, poverty and joblessness have forced many landless rural poor to invade public lands and engage in slash-and-burn farming, small tree logging and charcoal making. They are often blamed for the denudation of the forests. In reality, they enter forest areas only after these forests had been cleared and dirt roads were built by the big logging companies. Again, are these informal settlers monitored and given lands? This is not clear in various DAR and DENR reports.
But the public land invaders are not only the landless rural poor. They include the rich – resort developers, poultry and piggery corporations, “land bankers” and land speculators, managers of fighting cock farms, operators of shooting ranges and rest house owners who have no titles or even permits to occupy public or forest lands.
Another area that DENR has not explained or clarified is the status of the big pasture lands that were leased to big ranchers in the past and the idle mining concession areas that have been abandoned or left undeveloped by mining companies. How many pasture lands have remained pasture lands? How many mining areas have remained mining areas? How many pasture and mining lands have been converted into private lands and who occupy them? Have these lands been covered by CARP? Again, there are no clear DAR and DENR reports on these.
Finally, a problematic area in public land management and CARP implementation is securing the ancestral domain rights of the IPs. There are more than a hundred IP groups listed by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP). These IPs claim around 2.5 million hectares as part of their ancestral domain. Under the Indigenous People’s Reform Act (IPRA) of 1997, these IPs are entitled to security over their lands, with the government issuing Certificates of Ancestral Domain Titles (CADT). There are conflicts in the implementation of CARP and IPRA, primarily because of the weak delineation of IP areas, alienable public lands, claims of non-IP beneficiaries and, yes, the claims too of mining companies. Some conflicts naturally turn violent when IP lands are awarded to non-IP beneficiaries or when IPs are displaced by mining companies. It also takes years, sometimes five years, to process IP application for the CADTs.
All the foregoing show the importance of having a comprehensive and reliable survey and inventory of public lands. The Revised Forestry Code, issued originally as Presidential Decree No. 705 in 1975, provides for the following under Section 52:
“A complete census of kaingineros, squatters, cultural minorities and other occupants and residents in forest lands with or without authority or permits from the government, showing the extent of their respective occupation and the resulting damage, or impairment of forest resources, shall be conducted.”
So far, we have not seen any DENR census or comprehensive report on the various occupants of public lands. Thus, before any decision on the distribution or re-distribution of public lands is made, it is incumbent upon both DAR and DENR to find out what is really the situation on the ground in supposedly public lands. Reform in public land occupancy is clearly in order.
Paging DENR Secretary Roy Cimatu and DAR Secretary Paeng Mariano.