Chamber of Real Estate & Builders' Associations, Inc.

A Home for Every Filipino

An equitable national land use law: the prime requisites

In its present form, the proposed NLUA – contrary to what it is supposed to achieve – will deny society the land resources indispensable for other basic needs such as shelter, clothing, employment, health, education and the fulfillment of other legitimate human aspirations.

Everyone shares the aspiration that a rational, holistic land allocation framework – instituted by law – would serve to lift the country out of its perennial state of underdevelopment, poverty and ecological degradation.

There is so much hope that the proposed National Land Use Act (NLUA) will enable the proper and equitable “allocation of scarce land resources to meet the requirements of a growing population not just for food, but also for housing, employment, and the need to protect the environment.”

Over the years, CREBA has made it clear that in the interest of food security it supports the protection and preservation of prime agricultural lands, just as in the interest of maintaining ecological balance it supports the protection and preservation of the country’s inalienable lands and natural resources.

This Chamber has no issue with the NLUA provisions concerning forest lands, other natural resources and environmentally critical areas. These provisions would make for a truly good law worthy of support by all sectors.

With respect to the provisions concerning agricultural lands, however, a major overhaul is essential.

Close scrutiny of these provisions would reveal the sectoral biases that permeate the recently ratified Lower House Bill, as well as the pending Senate counterpart Bills – such as to severely restrict the allocation or use of “agricultural” lands for various vital, non-agricultural or non-agrarian development purposes.

The country’s land pie

Philippine Land Statistics
Land statistics derived from digital NAMRIA Land Cover Maps produced from high-resolution satellite imagery and remote sensing.
Philippine Land Statistics
Land Count - changes in the Philippine landscape within a 10-year period, Processed from NAMRIA Digital Land Cover Maps.

Proponents of the economically-stunting restrictions have been claiming that the indiscriminate conversion of agricultural lands threatens food security and has been causing the rash of food shortages. Private land developers have been pictured as the devil in this regard.

In truth, however, the land development sector has never been the culprit. The law itself allows agrarian reform beneficiaries to apply for conversion of their awarded lands; conversion of agricultural lands is not possible without the DAR’s approval; development projects cannot possibly commence without permits and clearances from some twenty-three other government offices.

The undeniable truth also – as shown by the government’s own maps – is that despite population growth and non-agricultural land development activity during the past century, as of year 2020 total built-up area is only 3.51%  of the country’s total land area.

On the other hand, the land area actually devoted to agriculture is 43.19% of total country area.

Agricultural lands – the major bone of contention

As emphasized in various CREBA papers in the last 30 years, “agricultural land” is just a generic term used by the Constitution to distinguish those lands that are alienable, from those that are inalienable (i.e. forest or timber, mineral lands and national parks).

In other words, under the Constitution, “agricultural lands” are the only lands that may be subject of private titling. It is from this land classification that we carve out smaller areas needed for industrial, residential, commercial, infrastructure or other economic endeavors.

The proposed NLUA, however, is in effect saying that “agricultural lands” shall be used ONLY for purely agricultural and agrarian reform purposes – unless the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) says otherwise.

Surely, an enlightened population would consider this unwise.. It begs the question: without the DAR’s say so, where then shall we build our homes, factories, offices, hospitals, etc.?

CREBA’s stand – highlights

Properly define "agricultural" and “prime agricultural" land

The term must be defined clearly and properly such as to ensure proper identification and spatial delineation.

In 2014, the Senate Economic Planning Office (SEPO) came up with a Policy Brief, which notes that the proposed NLUA unsystematically defines prime agricultural lands.

That Brief states that the definition of prime agricultural lands “sets the parameters for agricultural land protection or non-conversion” and, “if not defined properly, nothing will be left for residential, commercial, institutional and other non-agricultural development.”

It recommends that identification should be based on not only the agronomic, environmental and non-physical factors, but also the socioeconomic factors.

To quote the SEPO: “not all agricultural lands are strategic; not all are prime; not all warrant protection.”

Affirm local autonomy with respect to agricultural land reclassification

The governing provision of law – Section 20 of RA 7160 – should be amended to abrogate the percentage limitations on agricultural land reclassification by LGUs, and reform the restrictions imposed under executive or administrative issuances.

CREBA’s development planning experts have determined these limitations and restrictions to be largely unscientific, unsystematic and unresponsive to developmental trends and needs.

Furthermore, contrary to Supreme Court decisions in several cases, some of the pending Bills even provide that reclassification of lands by LGUs shall be subject to the requirements and procedures for conversion – by the DAR.

For decades, the inequities have been a constant source of conflict and controversy. Out of exigency, many LGUs have been forced to largely ignore the law and rules, or otherwise devise extra-legal means – for instance, spot zoning – to release the lands needed for the locality’s developmental needs, often with little regard for long-term impact.

This Chamber holds the view that while local autonomy should be upheld, however, oversight by a single high-level, sectorally agnostic or non-partisan body is essential – to ensure harmonization of local acts with the overall national goals.

That high-level body should NOT be the DAR – which is, after all an agency whose mandate is just agrarian reform, and whose direct stakeholders are only those in the agrarian sector.

Dispense with a legislated ban on agricultural land conversion

Instead, the law should authorize the high-level oversight body to determine which specific areas would be eligible or non-eligible for conversion.

Integral to that enabling provision should be a requirement to use scientifically prepared maps as basis, wherein the geographic boundaries of prime agricultural lands have been properly delimited on the ground – for instance, the soil fertility maps of the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM).

In other words, only those prime agricultural lands which have already been pre-identified and mapped – based on the factors espoused by the SEPO – should be non-eligible for conversion or reclassification, for as long as they remain prime.

Without a prerequisite boundary delineation or mapping of fertile areas, application of the protective measures – i.e. conversion and reclassification ban or restrictions – will remain susceptible to arbitrariness, anomalies, partisan considerations, battle for turf and political whim.

Furthermore, a land’s CARP status should play no part in determining the land’s eligibility for protection. For, if protection is indeed meant to enhance food security and ecological balance, why should conversion be banned prior to award of the land to CARP beneficiaries, but allowed after the award?

Provide clear, concrete, specific parameters and conditions

Particularly when scarce, valuable land resources are concerned, it is CREBA’s view that administrative discretion should be limited to the bare minimum to prevent abuse, anomalies and extension of the coverage of the authority beyond the limits set by law.

The proposed NLUA is replete with provisions that, taken together, would effectively allow the DAR to assume almost unlimited dominion over all agricultural lands, via its conversion authority.

Insulate implementation against political intervention or interference

As this country has seen over the years, loopholes in the laws have been exploited by administrations and implementing agencies to come up with politically expedient or inequitable policies and rules from which the entire economy has suffered.

Particularly concerning is a governing policy statement in the NLUA Bills to accord “highest priority to the completion of the CARP.” Other provisions with apparently similar intent are innocuously scattered throughout the proposed legislation.

Such statements could be invoked by the executive branch and its implementing agencies as the “legal basis” for all sorts of issuances favoring the agrarian sector at the expense of the rest of the economy.