Urgent need for land use law
That was a revealing exchange between Sen. Cynthia Villar and farmer leader Elvie Baladad at the hearing of the Commission on Appointments’ committee on agrarian reform last week.
Baladad is an advocate of the proposed National Land Use Act, a bill that seeks to update and streamline the government’s system for classifying, allocating and managing land resources. She was at the hearing to oppose the appointment of Department of Agrarian Reform Secretary John Rualo Castriciones, who she said should not be given the portfolio given his earlier statement that he would allow land conversions to continue during his term.
As an example of such land conversions from agricultural to commercial concerns, Baladad cited the flattening and forest clearing of a mountainous area in Boracay that was the subject of reports some weeks ago. Did the DAR approve that action, and was there a conversion order or clearance? she asked. If there wasn’t, would Castriciones sue Vista Land, the alleged developer behind the leveling of the Boracay mountain, for what would be a case of illegal land conversion?
This was when Villar, whose family owns Vista Land, objected to Baladad’s mention of their property firm. “Bakit ba lahat ng projects ng Vista Land (Why all the projects of Vista Land)?” she asked. She pointed out that there are many other homebuilders and commercial developers in the Philippines, so why mention only Vista Land? “Galit ka ba sa akin (Are you mad at me)?”
Villar’s objection that her family firm was being singled out is misplaced. Baladad was raising a larger point about the challenges and complexities that confront the rational use of the country’s land resources. Unfortunately, part of that complexity, in the context of Philippine politics, is the question of conflict of interest.
For instance, Vista Land is one of the biggest property developers in the country; its activities and business operations have major impact on land use, property ownership, the environment, etc. But Villar, as it happens, also currently chairs the Senate committees on agriculture and food, and on environment and natural resources.
Baladad raised another valid point. While Vista Land had denied it was behind the leveling of the mountain, Rowen Aguirre, executive assistant on Boracay affairs of Malay municipality, confirmed not only the firm’s ownership of the project, but also that it lacked the required permits. If the firm did violate the law, would Castriciones hale it to court knowing that the very owner of the company was among those about to vote on his appointment?
Villar’s committee, Baladad pointed out, has been sitting on the proposed National Land Use Act, which, over two Congresses now, has not moved in the Senate. There’s another seeming conflict of interest: Why is the owner of one of the country’s largest property developers even involved in crafting a law that would have direct implications on her family business?
But over and beyond these issues exposed by the Villar-Baladad exchange is the more fundamental matter about the need for a proper and transparent government system to manage the competing requirements of various interests for scarce land resources.
President Duterte, well into the second month of his administration’s closure of Boracay ostensibly for rehabilitation and cleanup purposes, recently declared the whole island an agrarian reform area. Were the island’s residents consulted about this declaration, given the local consensus that there is hardly arable land in Boracay?
Perhaps a national land use law would have been useful as a baseline framework in clarifying the matter. But that such a proposed law remains in limbo at this point only contributes to the overall confusion—and the kind of needless exchange seen at the Senate.
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