Local governments’ power to re-classify agricultural lands for commercial and residential use has aided big landowners in saving their properties from agrarian reform.
BY DABET CASTAÑEDA
Vol. VIII, No. 9, April 6-12, 2008
“I’m not a saint,” a councilor in a municipality in Cavite said in Tagalog, “I must admit we often receive something for the boys.”
The three-term councilor, who doesn’t want to be identified, heads the committee on land use of the Sangguniang Bayan (SB), which approves the applications of landowners and developers to reclassify agricultural lands to commercial or residential use.
The bribe causes less guilt in the councilor because it would only come after the application for reclassification has been approved. It’s therefore just an act of gratitude, the local official said, because the local legislators expedited the approval of the developers’ applications.
It will be difficult to justify taking this the land reclassification powers lightly if one would look at the numbers. In Dasmariñas, almost 90 percent of applications for land reclassification in the municipality are approved, according to Moises Menguito, zoning officer of the Municipal Planning and Development Coordination (MPDC). This has left Dasmariñas, originally an agricultural town, with only 30 percent of its lands classified as agricultural.
The reclassification will pave the way for land conversion.
Going by Dasmariñas’s experience, the area of land that has been taken away from potential farmer-beneficiaries could be enough to make the government’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) a failure.
The province of Cavite, where Dasmariñas is located, has the second largest total area of land that has been converted from agricultural use or completely exempted from agrarian reform. The province with the largest land area taken away from CARP coverage is Laguna.
Cavite and Laguna are in Region 4-A, which is second only to Central Luzon in the expanse of land that was excused from agrarian reform.
The Local Government Code of 1991, in Section 20, gives local government units (LGUs) the power to reclassify lands in their jurisdiction. This paved the way for the urbanization of agricultural communities and, as a consequence, has driven farmers away from their land and their main source of livelihood.
Under Republic Act 6657 or the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), farmers have the right to oppose the conversion of the lands they till. Experience has shown, however, that local and higher courts, even the Supreme Court, usually uphold the reclassification orders given by LGUs. Farmers have no option but to leave the lands they till in exchange for “disturbance compensation.”
Menguito of Dasmariñas said in an interview that the reclassification process starts with a land use plan prepared by the MPDC and the committee on land use of the Sangguniang Bayan. This will be presented to the SB, which, in turn, will pass a zoning ordinance covering a given period.
Once the zoning ordinance is approved in the municipality level, it will be elevated to the Sangguniang Panlalawigan (SP), which will approve the land use plan with finality. Only after the approval of the provincial board can the landowners or developers apply for reclassification of their agricultural land.
The application is approved by the mayor and SB, which is chaired by the vice mayor.
The reclassified land will then be applied for conversion to other uses, or for exemption from agrarian reform. The application should be filed with the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR).
All lands reclassified before June 15, 1988—the effectivity of CARP—shall apply for exemption.
The process of conversion was made easier by Justice Secretary Franklin Drilon during President Corazon Aquino’s time. In 1990, Drilon issued Department of Justice (DOJ) Opinion No. 44 that says “all lands reclassified before the effectivity of CARP shall be exempted from coverage.” On the other hand, all lands reclassified after the effectivity of CARP shall be applied for conversion. (Click here to read DOJ Opinion No. 44 Series of 1990)