War is a wellspring of unintended consequence, mostly grim. Since the two world wars to the modern-day campaign against extremist ideology, human civilization continues to experience unforeseen outcomes of conflict. Traditionally, when democracies are threatened by so-called enemies of the state they reflexively spew out the panoply of law enforcement and criminal justice mechanisms to bring instigators of conflict to justice. If progress is slow, national governments oftentimes resort to off the shelf scorched-earth policy – reminiscent of Vietnam war era – to show who is in control, further alienating communities with long history of militarization. This resonates well in critical areas of Mindanao that for decades the failure of national government to confront head-on the metastasizing influence of conflict contributes to division of communities. The “liberation” of Marawi City from ISIS-influenced extremists may have ended actual hostilities, but the crisis has also set off potential threat to communal life: land ownership.
Days leading to liberation of Marawi, media published a letter of former vice president and chairman of Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDC), Jejomar Binay, addressed to the Armed Forces of the Philippines urging the government to distribute lots inside the city’s military reservation to present occupants as part of government’s rehabilitation plan. The news caused panic to displaced residents; others sought legal assistance on how to protect their proprietary rights. The military downplayed the news and assured residents of peaceful resettlement once war was over. That may have appeased some but not everyone. If residents have ownership over realty they have been occupying on – except during less than five months of siege – for ages, why worry the existence of military reservation? Do occupants of public land have protected rights? These are some of the pressing questions that Marawi residents have to address as they return to their communities and help the government in its rehabilitation efforts. Historically, land ownership is a serious concern in critical areas of Mindanao; it is even the primary driver of “Rido” or clan conflict in Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao/Cotabato region. In Marawi, the issue of land ownership and its unique disposition is nothing new; it has been there since the city shed its former name “Dansalan” in 1956.
Heavily influenced by M’ranao culture and the incoherent polices of national government desperate to end secessionist movement in Mindanao, land issue in Marawi rarely hit the headlines of major dailies, until the siege. The absence of land use policy or plan – a requirement of 1991 Local Government Code to fully maximize the potential of land use for socio-economic stability- in Marawi City and its component province Lanao del Sur makes people wonder whether local leadership contributes to land issue conundrum. According to data prior to siege, Marawi had a land area of 8,755.00 hectares or 87,550,000.00 square meters, made up of 96 barangays with 200,000 population more or less. Through Presidential Proclamation 453 (PP 453) in 1953, land area of 66,671 square meters or 6,667.16 hectares had been taken from public domain occupied by Camp Keithley, renamed Camp Amai Pakpak, in Dansalan for military reservation. Subsequent presidential fiats significantly reduced Camp Keithley’s: (a) Presidential Proclamation No. 375 (PP 375) in 1956 designated an area of 1,714,514 square meters or 171 hectares for the use of “provincial capitol, civic center, hospital, and high school sites;”(b) Presidential Proclamation No. 806 (PP 806) in 1961, appropriated a portion of 9,993,560 square meters or 999 hectares for Mindanao State University (MSU); (c) Presidential Proclamation 1354 (PP 1354) in 1974 carved out from operation of PP 453 portion of land with an area of 8,031,440 square meters or 803 hectares intended for hydroelectric project of the defunct National Power Corporation.
If one has to combine the size of public land appropriated by PPs 453, 375, 806 and 1354, the present land area occupied or reserved for Marawi’s government structures and buildings including the city’s 24-hectare sacred national park – a protected area- what is left of private ownership is very negligible. Acmad Rizaldy Moti, Pag-IBIG Fund CEO, hit the point when he said that half of the city’s land area sits on reservation land designated to MSU and the military, and large number of residents occupy on government land (www.businessmirror.com.ph). It is a principle in law that all lands of the public domain belong to the state, and citizens can acquire land from government either by purchase or grant. Failure to take this legal route, it is entirely possible that a person may possess or occupy a land not as an owner (Republic of the Philippines vs Anatalia Actub. G.R. No. 157306. November 25, 2005). The 1987 Constitution classifies lands of public domain into: agricultural, forest or timber, mineral lands, and national parks. Only agricultural land is subject to private ownership; its reclassification as alienable and disposable (A&D) is done either by presidential decree or proclamation or approval of Department of the Environment & Natural Resources (DENR) secretary, as alter ego of the President.
To allay fears of land dispossession, Marawi residents need to produce proof of ownership: a genuine copy of either the Original Certificate of Title or Transfer Certificate of Title (OCT/TCT). If unregistered, claimants may resort to presenting copies of realty’s tax declaration and evidence of actual occupation. Absent the above requirements, it is presumed that occupants do not have protected right to realty. Over the years, the Philippine Supreme Court has developed some guidance in the acquisition of public land for private ownership. The Court in Natividad Sta. Ana Victoria vs. Republic of the Philippines, G.R. No. 179673, has prescribed the following: (a) the land is A & D; (b) the applicants by themselves or through their predecessors-in-interest have been in open, continuous, exclusive and notorious possession and occupation; and (c) that such possession is under a bona fide claim of ownership since June 12, 1945 or earlier. Some occupants of land with no proof of ownership interpret their continued possession as equivalent to ownership. In this situation, the Court in Pio Modesto and Cirila Rivera-Modesto vs. Carlos Urbina, et.al, G.R. No. 189859 ruled that, “Unless a public land is shown to have been reclassified as alienable or actually alienated by the State to a private person, that piece of land remains part of the public domain, and its occupation in the concept of owner, no matter how long, cannot confer ownership or possessory rights.”
It is ironic that with so much untapped natural resources in Mindanao, land dispute is one of the drivers of decades-old conflict in the region. Some say that land in the region is more of a scourge than a blessing. Across critical areas in Mindanao, unsettled land ownership contributes to low-level conflict: between elite families or strongmen asserting land ownership by virtue of occupation and hereditary succession. Two known big clans in central Mindanao associated with secessionist groups are at loggerheads for decades over boundary dispute, causing unnecessary displacement to hundreds of families. For most Filipino families, land is a source of pride and honor; the same source that defines M’ranao culture. For rehabilitation efforts to succeed in Marawi, national government must ensure that boundaries of land, either privately-owned or part of the public domain, be identified, documented, and registered. Some international donors, as reported, have already expressed skepticism to contribute to rebuilding Marawi due to land ownership issue. To prevent another untold human suffering, people in Mindanao should look at Marawi crisis as a lesson to embrace tightly the rule of law in all spheres of human interaction, including ownership of realty.