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Long overdue ‘Lupa’

I took a much-needed respite from my daily routine and work last November. After two years of planning and saving up, I made a trip to New Zealand with a cousin and friend to visit a younger cousin who lives in Auckland. We went around the north side of New Zealand, then flew to the South to see some of the more familiar places like Queenstown, Christchurch and Dunedin.

In almost all destinations, we went to the peak or highest point of the city or town—the Sky Tower, Mt. Victoria and Mt. Eden to get an aerial view of Auckland City from different angles; the Skyline to enjoy Queenstown; and Bridle Path Road to take a glimpse of the whole of Christchurch. We traveled for hours by land from Queenstown to Christchurch and enjoyed the relaxing sights of the countryside. The vacation would not have been complete had we not taken the wildlife cruises of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound in Fiordland, far southwest of New Zealand, which are among the locations of the famous movie, “Lord of the Rings.”

Experiencing New Zealand spawned ambivalent feelings for me. On the one hand, I was overwhelmed by the greenery, calm lakes and mystifying mountains; on the other hand, I mused over our own tourist places like the Ifugao rice terraces, El Nido and Caramoan islands, Camiguin’s Katibawasan Falls and Batanes’ landscape and seascape, and I opined to friends, “Maganda pa rin ang Pilipinas (The Philippines is still far more beautiful).” While I enjoyed New Zealand’s wide and clear open spaces, I felt depressed thinking of the congested areas all over the Philippines. With a comparable land size of roughly 300,000 square kilometers, the Philippines is presently home to around 92 million Filipinos as against only 4.3 million Kiwis and Maoris in New Zealand. That there are more sheep than people in New Zealand is no fabricated tale. Everywhere we drove, especially in the countryside, we passed through vast areas of grassland grazed by countless sheep and some cattle.

It’s a different case in the Philippines. With the population running up to a hundred million, land has become an invaluable, limited resource that is often disputed between the rich and the poor, between the landowner and the tenant, or between the local or foreign capitalists and the natives or indigenous communities. The use of the land has even become a bone of contention among the basic sectors, comprising the farmers, fishers, indigenous peoples and the urban poor. For the past 20 years, laws have been created to protect the rights and promote the production and income potentials of these sectors, notably the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law in 1988, CARP with extension and reforms or Carper in 2009, Urban Development and Housing Act of 1992, Mining Act of 1995, Indigenous People’s Rights Act of 1997, Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act of 1997, the Philippine Fisheries Code of 1998, and the Biofuels Act in 2006. But the passage of these laws was independently done without discerning consideration of the consequences that these might bring to fellow indigent sectors, the urban and rural poor communities. The fragmented manner of law-making has resulted in the irrational and uncoordinated use of land. Rice lands are re-classified for residential or agro-industrial use. Food production areas in the lowlands and ancestral lands are declared as mining sites. Sugar lands and other irrigable lands are converted into biofuel production areas. Social housing projects are sometimes located in danger zones. Such developments have not only threatened the food security of the nation, but have also claimed lives and destroyed properties, especially of the poor and vulnerable groups.

A national land use policy that can harmonize and rationalize the currently conflicting claims caused by the above-mentioned laws is necessary. This was already recognized since the ninth Philippine Congress but after almost 20 years or six Congresses, a land use law has yet to be enacted. The closest that a land use policy ever got into being passed into law was during the 12th Congress when the bill was set for approval on third reading. However, the Senate decided not to act on it on account of other priority bills. Only committee hearings were held during the 13th Congress, while then Rep. Eduardo Zialcita of the first district of Parañaque proposed controversial provisions on land conversion. Nothing came out during the 14th Congress as all efforts were focused on passing Carper.

This 15th Congress, legislation on land use appears to be one of the more sought-after bills for passage into law. President Aquino’s one liner of passing a land use act during his State of the Nation Address last July was enough to motivate some five legislators to file their own bills. Two of those who immediately sponsored a bill on land use titled “Land Use Policy Act” (Lupa) were Akbayan Representatives Kaka Bag-ao and Walden Bello. Prof. Ernesto Serote of the University of the Philippines’ School of Urban and Regional Planning particularly commended this version as more appropriately crafted since the task of zoning as a prerequisite to the preparation of comprehensive land use plans at the local level is given due importance.

Fortunately compared to the reproductive health bill, a policy on land use is not being met with vehement opposing views and controversies. In fact, all stakeholders from the executive and legislative branches of government to civil society groups, non-government organizations, the academe, private business, multi-lateral agencies and the basic sectors unanimously agree on the need to come up with an overarching framework to guide land use for environmental protection, food production and secure settlement. The only pressing thing to do now is for everyone to get their act together—education of the public by technical experts and the academe regarding the complex land issues and how these can be resolved to benefit the majority; rallying of support by the basic sectors, NGOs, champions from the Church and the private sector; continuing assistance for advocacy from multilateral agencies and, most importantly, from the legislators who are enjoined to take the first crucial step by finally getting the bill passed.