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FLEA MARKET OF IDEAS

‘How can you own that which outlives you?’

Those words were uttered by Macli-ing Dulag, the Kalinga chieftain who fought a government that tried to grab the tribal lands of his people. He was martyred during the Marcos dictatorship and he is honored as a hero of our country in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani.

I remembered Macli-ing’s words when I recently read that President Duterte has issued Executive Order No. 75 directing the fast-track distribution, for free, of government-owned lands suitable to agriculture to farmers. To be fair, this is a policy that has been implemented continuously by all administrations.

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Macli-ing’s words resonated with me because they questioned the very wisdom of allowing, not only the conversion of public land into private ownership, but the very concept of private ownership of land itself. How can man consider himself the owner of a piece of the earth, when land predates and will postdate humankind?

Private land ownership with the right to pass it on to a succession of heirs or buyers, became the widespread rule in our country because of the land titling system introduced by Spanish and American colonizers.

A Torrens title, a piece of paper describing the boundaries of a parcel of land, gives a person exclusive dominion over a piece of land even if he does not physically dwell on it, cultivate it, or possess it.

Our government is also empowered to strip public lands of their communal nature by releasing them for private ownership. Free patents are given to individuals who cultivate public lands, but after five years of ownership, they can freely sell the realty.

Our country has blindly followed this tradition of releasing public land for private ownership, without giving much thought to whether in the long run, it will benefit the grantees in particular and the country in general.

Our country never had the chance to ponder and think of the alternative system of state ownership of land and the grant of long-term lease, instead of sale, to private citizens as the general rule. This alternative system conjures fears of communism to many, because state ownership of land is a common feature in communist countries.

But many do not realize that countries which are bastions of capitalism have their citizens merely having leasehold rights over land they use for shelter or business. The cradle of capitalism, the United Kingdom, has citizens occupying lots on long-term lease of 99 years. In Singapore, the most capitalist country in Asia, the government has gradually acquired 90 percent of the country’s land which it leases to its citizens for 30, 60, or 99 years. The State of Israel has also acquired more than 90 percent of the nation’s land which it leases to citizens for a period of 49 or 98 years.

An abrupt and total shift from private ownership to state ownership of land in our country is unrealistic. But it’s timely to examine our continuing practice of releasing public land for private ownership instead of giving them away on long-term lease of, say 99 years.

It’s true that the immediate beneficiaries of privatized public lands are landless farmers. But if anecdotal stories are confirmed, these original public lands are eventually ending up in the hands of the wealthy, the solution may not be to sell but to distribute them on long-term lease. At each lease period’s end, the government will have a renewed chance to recalibrate their distribution.

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Land, air, and water are vital for human existence. Land is the most limited of these resources. Our population grows yearly, but land is finite. Yet we allow land to be amassed by a minority as an instrument of parked wealth. Picture the rich amassing air and water at the expense of the rest
of the community. Community welfare should play the biggest role in defining the use of our lands.

Man never actually owns land. He merely uses it in his brief stay on earth. Macli-ing Dulag articulated the wisdom of our forefathers when he said: “Such arrogance to say that you own the land, when you are owned by it! How can you own that which outlives you?”

The book of Ecclesiastes has an even better way of deflating man’s illusion of dominion over land — from dust we come, to dust we shall return.

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TAGS: Flea Market of Ideas, Joel Ruiz Butuyan, land ownership, land reform, Macli-ing Dulag, Rodrigo Duterte
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