|Benedicto P. Panigbatan|
'Land to the landless!' is a popular battle cry in the Philippines where agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. Accordingly, the Philippines has long embarked on what is known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP) to distribute land to landless farmers. CARP found impetus when Republic Act No. 6657 (R.A. 6657) was enacted and, subsequently, when Republic Act No. 9700 (R.A. 9700) amended it to extend the timeline for land acquisition and distribution.
The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) is responsible for implementing CARP. DAR can issue what is known as a Notice of Coverage to formally bring a parcel of land within the coverage of CARP. DAR is also empowered to convert agricultural land into land for non-agricultural use. A primary condition for projects involving land such as the development of apartments, infrastructure, and mining, is that the land is non-agricultural.
However, since the land acquisition and distribution component of CARP expired on June 30 2014, the question is whether DAR's land conversion power still exists with respect to agricultural lands that were not the subject of a Notice of Coverage on or before June 30 2014 (Non-Covered Lands).
One view is that DAR's land conversion power is closely intertwined with land acquisition and distribution, and since this has already expired, the rationale for DAR's power to convert with respect to Non-Covered Lands no longer exists. This is based on the legal maxims cessante ratione legis, cessat et ipsa lex (the reason for the law ceasing, the law itself also ceases) and ratio legis est anima (the reason of the law is its soul). The Department of Justice opinion No. 44, series of 1990, explains that DAR's land conversion power aims to prevent landowners from evading the land acquisition programme by having their lands reclassified as non-agricultural without DAR's approval. Since Non-Covered Lands can no longer be subjected to compulsory land acquisition because of the expiration of the land acquisition and distribution aspect of CARP, there is nothing to evade and, thus, the rationale for DAR's land conversion power should cease to exist.
Another view is that DAR's land conversion power is independent from land distribution and should subsist in pursuit of DAR's other mandates such as to conserve prime lands for agricultural purposes, and preserve national food security.
Undoubtedly, a new law or a clear judicial decision is needed to properly guide all stakeholders.
Benedicto P. Panigbatan
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