The government as land-grabber
Land-grabbing has become rampant in the Philippines, not only by squatters and certain Torreses but also, in the unkindest cut, by the government itself, which is supposed to protect private property. You have heard of the Quezon City government trying to grab the land of the Manila Seedling Bank Foundation on Quezon Avenue and Agham Road. There are many other cases of the QC government grabbing private properties and selling them at public auction to land-grabbing syndicates. But what takes the cake is that the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), which is supposed to distribute agricultural lands to landless tenants, is the one grabbing land from their owners and qualified beneficiaries.
That is so in the case of the 280-hectare Polo Coconut Plantation in Tanjay, Negros Oriental. This was originally a pastureland for cattle and fishponds; coconut trees were planted later to provide shade for the cattle. It has no tenants, only workers paid on a weekly basis.
In the latter part of the 1990s the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (Peza) approved the plantation’s conversion into a Special Economic Zone. And in 1999, the municipal (later city) council of Tanjay, by virtue of Section 20 of the Local Government Code, approved the conversion of the plantation and adjoining agricultural lands totaling 625 hectares into a mixed residential, commercial, and industrial area.
Everything seemed in order for the development of “Polo Ecocity-Special Economic Zone” when suddenly the DAR threw a monkey wrench into the project. On Dec. 8, 2003, Provincial Agrarian Reform Officer Stephen Leonidas sent a letter to Polo Coconut Plantation Co. Inc. (PCPI) that the DAR was subjecting 394.9 hectares of the property to immediate acquisition and coverage under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).
“Thereafter, events transpired so swiftly,” in the words of the Court of Appeals (CA). “On Jan. 13, 2004 … Stephen Leonidas made an endorsement to Arnold Arrieta, [regional agrarian reform adjudicator] in Region 7, requesting the latter to conduct summary administrative proceedings to determine the just compensation due to PCPI for its land being subjected to CARP coverage. On Jan. 27, 2004, Stephen Leonidas sent a written request to the Register of Deeds of Negros Oriental for the cancellation of PCPI’s certificate of title [over the property] and issuing a new certificate of title to the Republic of the Philippines for the said land.”
On Jan. 30, 2004, the Register of Deeds issued new certificates of title in the names of 144 so-called “beneficiaries.” On March 11, 2004, Arnold Arrieta issued an order considering as submitted to him the matter of determining the just compensation due PCPI. On Aug. 4, 2004, PCPI received a letter from Leonidas informing it that the DAR would conduct a relocation survey of the land.
Note that it took the Register of Deeds only two days (Jan. 27 to Jan. 29) to cancel PCPI’s title and issue a new one to the Republic of the Philippines and only one day (Jan. 30) thereafter to issue new titles to 144 alleged beneficiaries.
PCPI went to the appellate court on Oct. 19, 2004, assailing the DAR’s acts and claiming that the beneficiaries are outsiders, not being tenants, tillers, or farm workers, and not coming from the same locality.
In its decision, the CA said the land is not subject to CARP coverage, it being no longer agricultural but industrial, commercial, and residential.
The municipality (now city) of Tanjay reclassified the property on Nov. 3, 1999. Thus, when the DAR notified PCPI on Dec. 8, 2003, that it is putting the property under CARP coverage, “the property was no longer an agricultural land and cannot therefore be the proper subject of CARP coverage…” the CA said.
It added: “Besides, a number of other factors … also militate against subjecting [the property] to CARP. For one, the said land was originally used and devoted exclusively for raising and pasturing cattle. Some portions were utilized as fishponds. For another, there were no tenants on the said land. There were only farm workers who were paid on a weekly basis. Still for another, the Peza … had declared 280 hectares as a special economic zone… Still another thing to consider is that the coverage of PCPI’s landholding under the CARP seems to be no longer with the authority of law now. If ever the said landholding is supposed to be subject to CARP coverage, the implementation … should have commenced and been completed between June 1988 [and] June 1992 as provided in the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law.”
The CA also declared that the 144 supposed beneficiaries to whom certificates of land ownership and land titles were issued “are not really qualified beneficiaries of the intended land distribution.”
The Constitution limits the qualified beneficiaries to those “who till the lands subject to coverage of the CARP. Other farm workers are not such qualified beneficiaries as they are only entitled to receive a just share of the fruits of the said land,” the CA said.
The DAR acted with grave abuse of discretion, the CA declared. “Their acts were illegal and wrongful.” The CA declared the acts of the DAR null and void, ordered the Register of Deeds to reinstate PCPI’s title, and ordered the alleged “beneficiaries” to vacate the land.
It is a good decision but the Supreme Court, in a ruling penned by then Associate Justice Renato Corona, reversed it by citing technicalities—that PCPI did not exhaust administrative remedies before going to court.