Source: The Manila Times
Published: 29 June 2022
A recent report published by the Land Matrix Initiative has shed some light on the extent of so-called large-scale land acquisitions (LSLA) in the Philippines, and the news is not encouraging. The Philippines is among the top five countries in all of Asia in terms of the number of land acquisition deals made in the past 20 years. Even more alarming, as of 2021, there are potentially 3.6 million hectares — about 58 percent of all the arable land in the Philippines — that are under negotiation for potential deals.
And this may only be the tip of the iceberg; the Land Matrix Initiative report stresses that information about as many as one-third of LSLAs in the Philippines, whether completed or planned, is simply not available. The lack of transparency raises concern that lands are being converted from their proper use at a rapid rate. A tool exists to correct this — a National Land Use Code — but successive Congresses for nearly 30 years have been unwilling to pass it. This must change in the upcoming 20th Congress.
The need for a national land use code has been recognized since at least 1987, and a vast number of bills to create one have been introduced in the legislature every year since at least 1994. As of last year, there were 18 different land use bills pending in the House of Representatives, and four in the Senate. As in every other Congress preceding the recently departed 19th Congress, these bills were quietly shelved, advancing no further than the committee level. The reasons why our elected representatives have been so steadfast in avoiding passing a land use bill for so long are certainly open to speculation.
While there have obviously been differences in details of the many bills that have been proposed, the basic function of a land use code is to provide a comprehensive set of definitions for all land in the Philippines, and then govern the management and execution of a land use system and physical planning mechanisms. Parameters would be established for sustainable land use at all levels of government in terms of land protection, different types of production, infrastructure use, and settlement uses. The fundamental objective of a land use code is to ensure that all the land in the Philippines is put to its most beneficial use, whether that is agriculture, mining, or industry, residential or commercial use, or preservation.
Lack of consistency
It is not that there is a complete lack of land use regulation in the Philippines now, but rather that there is a lack of consistency in land designation and the application and enforcement of such rules as do exist. Land use guidelines and regulations are sectoral-based; for example, definitions used by the Department of Agrarian Reform are different in some ways from those used by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Compounding the problem are differing rules — and levels of sincerity in enforcing them — at the level of local governments.
Not having a comprehensive land use code has resulted in what anyone can easily see in the Philippines now. Agriculture land is converted, sometimes illegally, for industrial or commercial use, or residential real estate development. Forest lands that ought to be preserved are instead stripped bare for agriculture or mining. Human settlements are planted and grow in geologically or environmentally hazardous areas, with the unfortunate consequence that lives and property are harmed in the country's frequent natural disasters. Our urban areas have become densely overbuilt, raising safety and health risks for those who live in them.
The incoming Marcos administration, just as the administrations before it, has well-intentioned plans to support growth and prosperity of the nation. We certainly wish the new government all the best in its efforts, and will support them. It is difficult to see, however, how the anticipated results can be achieved in anything more than an unsatisfactorily partial fashion unless the National Land Use Code is finally created and implemented. The new government, and particularly those legislators who have pledged to work with and support the president's programs, should make it their first order of business.
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