Land conversion freeze not seen affecting economy -- DAR

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The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) said that the two-year halt on the conversion of agricultural land will have "no grave impact" on the economy, contrary to some of the fears expressed by business.

“The moratorium, we believe, will not have any grave impact on socialized housing or the need to develop sites for renewable energy. We leave it up to the Office of the President to decide on whether or not such urgent concerns can be used as grounds for exemption,” according to Lawyer Luis M.C. Pañgulayan, undersecretary of DAR’s legal affairs division.

The purpose of the moratorium, Mr. Pañgulayan said, is to give time for the regulator to review whether the entities granted these lands comply with the terms for the development of the land.

If found non-compliant, these lands will be brought back to the purview of the DAR to be allocated to agrarian reform beneficiaries.

Based on DAR’s initial data, some 222,000 hectares of agricultural land were converted to residential, commercial, and industrial use from 1988 to June 2016.

According to DAR Secretary Rafael M. Mariano, citing data from the National Irrigation Administration, as of 2015, more than 50,000 hectares of irrigable sites have been converted to other uses than agriculture and placed to a “non-restorable” status.

Mr. Mariano also sought support from other government entities such as HLURB, and the Departments of Agriculture and Environment and Natural Resources, among others, to establish a framework that will record a comprehensive land use particularly before and after the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program was implemented.

Mr. Mariano said the intention was to seek out land that was not being developed for industrial, commercial and residential purposes and bolster food production.

Some lands that may be transferred to the agency and thus utilized for agricultural use may boost agricultural hectare, thereby increasing farm output which lines up with the Duterte administration’s push towards self-sufficiency in food, according to Mr. Mariano.

“The president has already agreed in principle… the draft has been submitted and it will go ahead,” Mr. Pañgulayan added, stressing that the moratorium will only cover applications that will be filed before the agency after the executive order takes effect.

Under the draft executive order for the moratorium, the order shall cover and apply only to all awarded lands under Republic Act No. 6657 as amended, Presidential Decree No. 27 and other agrarian reform laws, agricultural lands with Notices of Coverage issued by the DAR, irrigated and irrigable lands, prime agricultural lands, retention areas of the land owners which are tenanted, and agricultural lands with presence of agricultural activities or being cultivated by the farmers individually or collectively.

The agency has so far distributed 4.7 million hectares benefiting 2.2 million agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs).

The Philippines has a land area of 29.82 million hectares. Of the total, 9.67 million hectares are classified as agricultural, consisting of an estimated 4.94 million hectares of arable land, of which 3.2 million hectares are irrigable land.

In its first 100 days in office, the DAR has distributed certificates of land ownership awards (CLOAs) to 175 beneficiaries in Mamburao, Occidental Mindoro, and 300 beneficiaries in Bukidnon and Lanao del Norte.

Meanwhile, Mr. Mariano once more promised to resolve issues surrounding the audit of the P1.3 billion in proceeds for agrarian reform beneficiaries and land distribution of 4,115 hectares in Hacienda Luisita, one of the secretary’s declared priorities.

The agency threatened to file with the country’s top court a motion for contempt against Hacienda Luisita Inc.(HLI) if it maintains its “delaying tactics” to keep from releasing the P1.3 billion sale proceeds to the farmer-worker-beneficiaries who worked the plantation owned bythe family of former President Benigno S. Aquino III.

Mr. Pañgulayan said that the agency has laid out the timeline for the audit with three accounting firms, as ordered by the Supreme Court with all the costs to be shouldered by HLI. The audit covers the books of HLI and its subsidiary, Centenary Holdings Inc., to determine whether the P1.3 billion proceeds were utilized for legitimate purposes.

“We are waiting now for the start of day 1 of the audit. Everything is there. The ball is in the court of HLI. If they will further delay this then we will be forced to file the necessary motions before the Supreme Court,” the undersecretary added.

In 2011, the top court nullified the stock distribution option of HLI which resulted in the distribution of CLOAs to at least 6,296 agrarian beneficiaries. So far, 98% of the has been distributed leaving some 70 hectares yet to be distributed. --Janina C. Lim